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Quiet cubicles often await workers who remain after layoffs. Experts say those left behind face stresses that are different, but nearly as dramatic, as those who lose their jobs.
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 12/15/2008 8:19:25 AM ET 2008-12-15T13:19:25

For nearly a year, Suzanne Beckstrom watched warily as employee after employee was laid off in her office at a small Southern California housing development. One by one, she said goodbye to construction workers, sales staff, administrative help — even the marketing manager who oversaw Beckstrom’s work.

Each time, the 60-year-old Carlsbad, Calif., real estate agent and housing options coordinator expected to be next. And each time, she got a reprieve, leaving her with mixed emotions of relief, uncertainty — and guilt.

“You felt like you were lucky to be one of the people who remained, but so sad for the people who left,” said Beckstrom. “And it was extremely stressful wondering what was going to happen next.”

Across the United States, layoffs have stripped jobs from more than 2 million workers this year, including some 533,000 who lost jobs in November alone, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cuts have had devastating effects on the suddenly unemployed, but they’ve also had a powerful impact on a less obvious population: the co-workers left behind.

Typically ignored in the drama of downsizing, layoff refugees get to keep their jobs, only to face rising workloads, sinking morale, ongoing anxiety — and the uncomfortable feeling that they ought to be grateful for it all.

“If I hear ‘At least you have a job’ one more time, I’m going to physically injure someone,” said a 45-year-old software engineer at a Northern California firm who didn't want to be named for fear of further jeopardizing her job. “Yes, you still have a paycheck coming in, but sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the stress.”

‘Layoff survivor syndrome’
Organizational psychologists call it “layoff survivor syndrome,” the collection of emotional, psychological and physical reactions long documented in workers who remain on the job. Being left behind, they say, can sometimes be as distressing as being let go.

“In fact, the survivors are also victims,” said Harold G. Kaufman, a professor of management and director of the organizational behavior program at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

Like people who escape harm when others are hurt in a natural disaster or terrible accident, employees who keep their jobs in downturn often feel guilty, said Mitchell Marks, an associate professor of management at the San Francisco State University College of business.

“It’s exactly as when you lose a good friend or a sibling,” he said. “You feel responsible in some way.”

That feeling is exacerbated by the typically random nature of layoffs, he said. If an employee is fired for cause, another worker can rationalize that he or she deserved it. But when a layoff of an equally qualified peer occurs, it sends the person left behind reeling.

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“That’s psychologically troubling,” said Marks “You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. You feel like you can’t control your fate.”

At the same time, the lingering uncertainty leaves many workers feeling anxious, depressed, angry — and physically ill, according to experts who have monitored previous downturns.

“You’ll get a lot of people that clearly identify that they’re having more physical symptoms: stomach aches, colds, more illness. Their immune system is down,” said Jodi Prohofsky, senior vice president for CIGNA Health Solutions, which provides employee assistance programs for more than 1,000 national firms.

Since September, when layoffs accelerated among many of the agency’s corporate clients, calls to EAP programs have spiked by 60 percent and more firms have sought assistance to help their employees cope.

“It’s a daily conversation,” Prohofsky said.

The California software worker — one of two employees left in what was once an 11-person department — said she’s had more sinus infections and other illnesses in the six weeks since the layoffs were announced at an emergency meeting. She can’t sleep at night and she’s tense and irritable with her husband and two teenage children.

“I just generally feel like crap a lot more than I used to,” she said.

‘We worked together for a very long time.’
As the top performer in her division, she was spared the axe. But after 20 years of a passionate career, she said she now dreads going to work to face the empty desks of colleagues who felt like family.

“We worked together for a very long time. In some cases, we had worked together for 10 years,” she said. “I could tell you the names of their wives and all that fun stuff.”

Even as they miss the social aspects of the workplace — jokes and breaks and lunches — employees left behind often are angry at being left to shoulder the remaining work, said Kaufman, the organizational behavior expert.

“The person who worked to the right of you and to the left of you are now gone and you’ve got to pick up their load,” he said.

No one to commiserate with
Worse, there’s no place to complain about long hours and extra duties. Supervisors don’t want to hear it and laid-off co-workers certainly won’t be sympathetic. Even family and friends may urge workers to count their blessings.

“The reality is, for some people, it’s going to be more work for a while,” said Deborah Dale Brackney, vice president of the Mountain States Employers Council in Denver, which serves 3,000 clients in the Rocky Mountain region. “There may be more sucking it up.”

That can be demoralizing to people already suspicious of management actions. A flurry of research after the economic downturn of the 1990s found that layoff survivors reported high levels of distrust and lower levels of motivation and engagement. Absenteeism went up, productivity went down.

Some employees who survive workplace cuts say they feel compelled to work harder than ever. When Wachovia Corp. rumored layoffs last summer, before the troubled firm was rescued by Wells Fargo & Co., one 33-year-old worker watched in shock as 50 colleagues were tapped to go.

“You’re anxious yourself. You never feel very secure in what you are doing,” said the Charlotte, N.C., worker who hopes to keep her job during an expected round of cuts. “You have to keep proving yourself over and over again. You have to prove your existence.”

‘The last penguin on the ice floe’
The magnitude of the current crisis, which has swept nearly every sector of the economy, has left workers remaining in certain industries particularly grateful. As television and media critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Eric Deggans has reported regularly about increasing layoffs in the industry.

While his own publication offered buyouts but avoided layoffs this year, the nearby Tampa Tribune cut its editorial staff by 18 this fall, adding to the thousands lost in newspapers overall. That includes media critics at many papers, noted Deggans, 43, who acknowledged he feels fortunate to have his position.

“Anybody who has a significant job in journalism feels that way,” he said. “I sort of feel like the last penguin on the ice floe.”

That isolation translates to other industries, where layoff survivors know their employment status can change on a whim. Every day for months, real estate agent Beckstrom wondered when the end would come — and crossed her fingers that it wouldn’t.

Just before Thanksgiving, it did. Bank officials foreclosed on the ailing housing project and Beckstrom and a few final employees lost their jobs.

“People from our home office came and packed up all our stuff,” she said. “It was very, very emotional.”

Now she’s working with headhunters, trying to figure out how to keep her home — and to explain to herself why she stayed so long.

“With all your heart, you just cling to that hope that something will happen,” Beckstrom said. “I was really clinging to that hope.”

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