April 27, 2009 -- 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."
Layoffs without warning
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.
Ray had hired some of them, which made it worse. "I'd sold them on the company, I'd promised them a great career. I kept it together at work, but when I'd get home at night, the stress of it hit me hard."
Of course, she adds, her hires never really blamed her — especially since she was told a few days before the layoffs that she was going, too. Her back went out for a while right afterward. "I'd never had a back problem before, and I think it was just all the stress," Ray says.
Alicia Sanera, 39, of San Antonio has laid off workers. "Some of these people I'd worked with for a very long time. I saw such pain in their faces, but felt I couldn't show my emotions to them, I had to stay strong. I cried a lot, though. As soon as I could, I'd leave for my office, close the door, draw the blinds and have a good sob," says Sanera, who has since started her own human resources consulting firm.
Each time she'd feel down and guilty for a few weeks. Then a few months later, laid-off workers often would call, frustrated and angry about insurance or other continuing benefits. "Some would be really irate, and we got a lot of the blame for the layoffs. That brought back all the painful feelings," Sanera says.
Thinking of layoffs as necessary to save other jobs has eased the burden a bit for Laura Rhoad, 42, human resources director at Sunshine Ace Hardware Stores in Bonita Springs, Fla. "Leading up to it was always the worst. There were times when I felt totally sick to my stomach and couldn't sleep the night before."
Having to terminate a few workers shortly after coming to Sunshine last year wasn't quite as hard as earlier because she barely knew the people. "Now it would be a lot harder because I know them, their spouses, I've heard all about their children."
Still, she says, "You've got to just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go on after layoffs. They can be really disruptive, but you go on."