About 3 million Americans have been laid off since the recession began 16 months ago, the government says. In every instance, someone decided the worker had to go, and someone delivered the bad news.
They won't get much sympathy from shell-shocked employees, whose reactions to job loss have been compared to the emotional upheaval of a divorce or death in the family. But it turns out that the executives who carry out layoffs also suffer from stress, poor sleep and even health problems, a decade-long study suggests.
Since the economy took a plunge, more than half of managers involved in layoffs have reported stress-linked symptoms such as disturbed sleep, says Richard Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based ComPsych, which runs the nation's largest employee-assistance mental health program.
Managers involved with layoffs at one large company were more prone than other executives to have sleep problems, ulcers, headaches and even heart trouble up to three years after the layoffs, says Leon Grunberg, a sociologist at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. They also had more job stress and depression. Grunberg led the only long-term study of how such bosses fare, following 410 managers over 10 years, until 2006.
In interviews, managers called the layoffs "gut-wrenching" and "devastating," Grunberg says.
In his study, the managers had mostly regained emotional health up to six years after the layoffs. But they still were more likely than other bosses to have stress-related health problems, such as ulcers and heart trouble, he says. "It seemed to change their image of the company dramatically. One said, 'It's almost a falling-out-of-love feeling.' "
Veterans on the front lines of job elimination say it gets a little easier with experience. Elaine Patterson, 54, laid off several dozen workers at Union Oil Co. of California during her 25 years there and coached hundreds of managers on how to tell people, in the least hurtful way, their job had been axed.
"The early times were worst because I was younger and more emotional," she says. "It's not that you ever lose the butterflies in your stomach or that sinking feeling, but you get better at handling it as something that is not personal." She emphasizes that it has nothing to do with the employee's behavior — it's the job that's being cut.
Her two biggest fears were that employees would get highly emotional or angry, but that rarely happened, Patterson says. "Many had anticipated it."
When workers have no advance notice that layoffs are coming, though, reactions can be raw. "It was hard to hear the crying and expressions of shock. Some just didn't believe it or there would be a long pause — they got very quiet," says M.T. Ray, 46, of Indianapolis. She helped decide on job cuts last fall that weren't announced in advance at an Indianapolis software company.
The hardest part was knowing who would be cut a few weeks before it happened.
"I'd walk down the hallway, see them and say 'Hi,' trying to act normal. But I felt for them and realized what was going to be coming. I didn't sleep well at all," she says.