Long After Recession’s End, Deep Layoff Scars May Remain

In this June, 2010, photo, Frank Wallace, who has been unemployed since May of 2009, is seen during a rally organized by the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(Matt Rourke/AP)

I went back to visit my old parking lot at The Boston Globe this week. For more than six years, I commuted to the Globe along the crawling traffic of the Southeast Expressway, travel mug in hand. But what I remember most about that parking lot is crying in it.

It was 2009. The Globe was in a major financial crisis, like much of the country. Brian McGrory, then the Metro editor, had just called me in to his office to warn me that I was almost certainly about to lose my job.

I held it together in his office, but then when I came out into the parking lot to call my best friend, I felt a wave of shame and insult engulf me. I knew better, but for just that moment, I felt — worthless.

Carey Goldberg stops back at The Boston Globe, where she was laid off in 2009. (George Hicks/WBUR)

Carey Goldberg stops back at The Boston Globe, where she was laid off in 2009. (George Hicks/WBUR)

Well, that’s no surprise, right? Everybody knows it hurts to lose your job. But what has caught me by surprise is that even though my family didn’t suffer much financially from my layoff, and even though I tend to be pretty upbeat and resilient, and even though I’ve landed well, it still hurts. More than four years later, I’m still not fully over it.

At work, I feel hypervigilant – as if nothing I do is ever enough, or good enough, to feel safe. At home, making life plans fills me with anxiety.

Which makes me wonder: Are these feelings normal? And if so, what does that mean for the roughly one-quarter of American workers who were laid off at some point during the recent recession?

These days, the Dow is hitting record highs. Housing is hot again in many spots. More and more, the Great Recession of 2009 is becoming just a bad memory. Except that, like other bad experiences, for many of us it may have left emotional scars that last.

So are we going to end up something like the forever frugal survivors of the Great Depression?

“One of the things you find about depression babies, as we call them — that is, people who came of age in the great depression — is that they retained a characteristic skepticism about good times. They never believed them,” said Prof. Bruce Schulman, an American historian who is chair of the Boston University history department.

“They were the people like my grandparents who always reused teabags. Even when they went out to a restaurant at a prosperous time, to celebrate a great occasion, [they] would take the teabag and drain it out and wrap it up and put it in their purse.” It is a generation, Schulman said, that tries always to be prepared for crisis.

Of course, the depression was far worse than the recent recession. But extensive research shows that whether one-third of the population is out of work or only one-tenth, layoffs at any time can have deep and long-lasting effects.

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher says that though virtually everyone faces tough experiences, layoffs can be an unusually damaging kind of life event.

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher. (Courtesy)

“It approaches my financial health, in the sense of what my income is,” she said. “It approaches and is disruptive to my physical health; it can disrupt my mental health and my sense of self; and I think for so many of us, work is a central part of our identity, and so when that is disrupted, that is actually something that layers on top of all these known effects.”

Let’s begin with the financial impact of a layoff, which Sucher says can persist indefinitely.

“One study of workers displaced in a 1981 recession found that they experienced a 30 percent decline in their income at the time of the layoff,” she said. “Twenty years later, they were still earning 20 percent less than employees who were not laid off.”

Now for health. The stress of a layoff shoots up your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Your risk of depression doubles; your risk of alcoholism quadruples; your risk of committing violence or suicide also rises.

“So these are profound effects,” Sucher said. “They don’t, obviously, affect all the people and many of us know people who’ve been laid off and don’t suffer. But the increase in the probability of these effects is enormous.”

And the trouble may not end when you find a new job. The research suggests you might be so driven to produce that the quality of your work suffers. You may play office politics more. Or you might have given up believing that you have any control over whether you keep or lose your job.

So there’s the answer to my wonderings about whether my post-layoff scars are normal: Unfortunately, it seems that I’m in a lot of good company.

What, then, is to be done?

I spoke with Erik Gregory, director of organizational and leadership psychology at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.

Prof. Erik Gregory (courtesy)

Prof. Erik Gregory (Photo: Lynda Schlosberg)

His demeanor is so gentle and therapeutic that I found myself telling him that every time I hear the name Brian McGrory — which is fairly often, because he’s now the editor-in-chief of the Globe — I flash back to his warning in 2009, and crying in the parking lot.

Gregory explained that McGrory’s name acts for me like a trigger, “and the trigger brought back some symptoms of the trauma that you experienced.”

I questioned whether what I’d been through was bad enough to be called a trauma. Gregory says a layoff may not be as damaging as war or violence, “but it still has an impact on us as human beings, and it gets encoded in the way we manage the world.”

Psychologists call this “post-dismissal traumatic stress disorder,” he said — and that trauma can be reduced if companies lay off workers more carefully, giving them more control and support in the process

“We need to have sense of options,” he said, “and when we feel like we have no options, that’s when we move into anxiety and depression, and what psychologists call learned helplessness and learned hopelessness.”

“It absolutely has to do with the way organizations let people go,” he said, “and there’s a good way, and there’s a way that’s not so good.”

For a positive example, he offered the Canadian government’s tactics when it was faced with cut-backs recently: It offered workers respectful choices, including how they wanted to pack up their desks and whether they wanted to use their pension benefits to pay their salaries and keep working for a while.

Layoff trauma can affect whole companies, too. Harvard Business School’s Sandra Sucher says that when workers are laid off, their colleagues can grow fearful and demoralized, disrupting their ability to innovate.

So, she says, it’s both more humane — and smart — to explore alternatives to layoffs, such as salary cuts, furloughs, and buy-outs.

She foresees a movement away from layoffs: “I could imagine, and this is not a fantasy,” she said, “that people who have had experiences like this, just like our parents who came from depression environments, basically say, ‘Never again.’”

One of her next research projects is to look at employers who avoided layoffs, how they did it and why.

For workers who’ve already been laid off, Sucher says there are many ways they can help themselves heal.

Don’t blame yourself or doubt your abilities.

“First is just to maintain a positive relationship with your company and co-workers because you will likely need them as a reference for your next job. A second is not to blame yourself or doubt your abilities. So many layoffs are done as a percentage of head count, and also, quite honestly it doesn’t help you be in a good frame of mind to go after and look for a next job. People have [also] talked about how important it is to look at the layoff as an opportunity to explore alternative career paths.”

Gregory suggested that various forms of therapy can also help, including cognitive-behavioral therapy to help “reframe” how you think about your layoff. (Yes, I’m considering it. Okay, okay, I’ll try it.)

I have to say, I kept putting off working on this report because I didn’t really want to delve into this hard emotional stuff — but writing this has helped me, too.

It helps to know that I’m far from alone, not just in being laid off, but in how I feel about it. And it helps that it brought me back to the Globe parking lot. I realized that I don’t miss being there.

Life moves on.

Readers? Feelings to share, questions to ask, about being laid off or seeing it happen to others? Please post them in the comments below.

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  • Michael Goldberg PhD

    Ironically, i heard Mass School of Professional Psychology had signicant layoffs yesterday

  • sjw81

    i work for a large company that has a no lay off philosphy and has never had one in 40years. it is possible to do. we have cut wages , from ceo to bottom, and cut back on benefit, expenses etc as we are all in the same boat and succeed or fail together. we employ over 100k. instead of laying off workers, who then file for unemplloyement from the state govt, which has to raise taxes to pay out, if every company did the same as us, there would never be a receccesion or depression. but in america today, we live in a 1 percent controlled oligarchy…

  • Sandy Machson

    I also applaud Carey for “going public.” Though most people will not talk about it (due to humiliation, dredging up painful feelings, misunderstanding by future employers, etc, etc), the big secret is that most people at some point in their careers are laid off or fired. I know this from experience, mine and my clients.

    I’m a career coach with a clinical and HR background, and I work with many people whose self-esteem has been injured, or traumatized, by an employer’s actions. I tell them it’s a type of PTSD (I like the term Post-Dismissal Traumatic Stress that Erik Gregory from MSPP talks about). The trauma sneaks back to haunt us long after the event, and can even be triggered at a new job. Relief from it comes with healing one’s self-esteem, understanding of the dynamics of the original situation (and the self-doubt that accompanies it), and being able to reality check the triggers and their effects in the current job.

    It pains me to know the effect employers can have on smart, capable, creative, promising and accomplished employees by actions meant to help the company, but are insensitive to the humans it’s affecting. My advice: please don’t suffer this alone! Get support – from mentors, teachers, career coaches, or therapists. But know there is support out there so the effects of the event don’t derail you in future jobs.

  • Sara

    Once again Carey Goldberg’s combines her gutsy honesty and openness w smart reporting and incisive interviewing to connect to listeners/readers w a great story that touches on a universal truth. Plus, I love her voice! I could listen to Carey all day long. The Globe’s unfortunate loss is Radio Boston/Commonhealth’s gain.

  • davidyamada

    Thank you for having the courage to share your experience as a segue to the rest of your piece. I’m sure it is validating to readers who have gone through the same thing, and helped to make the information from experts you interviewed more relevant to understanding their own situations.

    To take your piece one step along the timeline: Long periods of unemployment often add to the impact of mid-career layoffs, and this appears to be implicating — at the most severe end — the rising suicide rates among Boomers, as reported by the CDC.

    Recently I wrote up a blog post that examined the Boomer suicide rates and also touted an excellent documentary, “Set for Life,” that portrays the emotional and financial challenges confronted by those faced with job loss in midlife:

    http://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/suicide-and-the-great-recession-will-we-heed-the-tragic-warnings/

    Thanks again for not dodging the tough stuff. So many blogs, so little time, but this one is worth our attention.

    David Yamada
    Suffolk University Law School

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joseph-Rice/100000693874282 Joseph Rice

    I have been through a few waves of layoffs in my time, and by that I mean not simply an individual firm going under where you move somewhere else, but when entire industry sectors, or in our most recent debacle, all industries retrench. During the first major layoff, I did what everyone suggests, focusing on job hunt, etc., which I realize in retrospect was futile effort; no one was being hired. The next time it happened, I looked at the realities, and saw that not only was the situation similar, but made even worse by 9/11, and the ensuing financial crises. So, my focus was on things I had already been doing as avocation and sidelines, and feel that it was at least mentally, if not financially rewarding. Now, with the economy supposedly improving, and a new grad degree, it will be interesting to test the job market once more. While I am, sorry to say, not optimistic, I at least feel I have some different perspectives and skills since the last time around.

  • Yvonne Wilson

    This story is timely, as I was laid off on Wednesday. As Prof. Gregory said, a better way to lay off employees is to give them options. I have 30 days to find another position within the company before I’m officially laid off. It doesn’t lessen the sting of losing my job, but it is better than being escorted out the door, box of belongings in hand.

    • dust truck

      I don’t get it. How can they offer you another position in the company if they’re downsizing?

      • Barbara D Holtzman

        If you are a vice president, they will let you work as a secretary or a clerk, for a fifth of the pay. They are getting rid of those who make more money than they want to pay, not getting rid of everyone, and not going out of business.

        It’s done by many companies to increase dividends to shareholders, so that they will vote to increase the salaries of the executive management. People at the bottom can keep their job, if they take a huge pay cut -and by the way, they will often be doing the exact same job with a lesser title and much lower pay – while people at the top make even more money.

        • dust truck

          yikes.

      • Yvonne Wilson

        IBM has many brands and divisions. One brand downsizes. Another brand or newly acquired company may be hiring. Right now, it’s slim pickings as the company flattens the organization and sends jobs overseas.

    • Doubting_Thomas12

      I’m sorry to hear about that- at least it sounds like your company actually did think you did a good job, just they don’t need your prior role. Good luck whatever ends up happening!

  • Sean McElroy

    Thank you for sharing your story, very important and also far more common than is credited.

    I would just add that perhaps stress is nature’s way of informing an individual about reality. Just as a heart attack is nature’s way of informing an individual that he/she is living an unhealthy lifestyle, so the stress of job loss is nature’s way of informing an individual that employers aren’t reliable at serving the human needs of employees. The primary goals of an employer are to generate products, services, profits, etc. Serving the human needs of employees is so far down the goal list that if it didn’t test one’s sense of realism, surely it would minimally test one’s sense of humor.

    A healthy dose of skepticism about employment is as valuable as is any healthy understanding of any other threat to one’s well being. After all, stress is why they call it “work” not “play.” Sure if an individual derives some pleasure from an employment situation, heck, maybe it’s just the money, then “yay,” that individual has found a winning strategy for coping with the stress of employment. If on the other hand an individual finds that the coping strategies required by the stress of employment are impeding the pleasurable aspects of life, that individual would be well advised to either reconsider those strategies or avoid the employment situation in general.

    Lastly, it’s worth noting how easily individuals avoid the reality of the stress of an employment situation and worth investigating what role the employer might play in this. Maybe there’s another column here somewhere.

  • Reasonable?

    IGreat story. heard the radio story on the this piece this morning.

    Losing a job can be traumatic.

    It can asol be an opportunity for personal growth.
    The challenge is to be the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes of our economic ashes..
    Does our recovered economy allow anyone who willing to put in the effort to be that phoenix or is even that opportunity restricted?
    I think that is one of the big questions for our time.

    • Barbara D Holtzman

      By 2020, 40% of the workforce will be freelance – no health insurance or coverage, no vacations, no paid time off. I wouldn’t call it progress.