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Laid Low by Layoffs

Laid Low by Layoffs | Human Resource Executive Online An in-depth study of line managers finds that many who are involved with layoffs can become "calloused" or "emotionally numb." They report increases in ulcers, headaches and heart trouble. Can HR prescribe a cure?

Friday, April 24, 2009
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If the thought of having to announce layoffs makes your stomach turn, you're not alone.

According to the results of a 10-year academic study of more than 400 line managers working for an airplane manufacturer, the long-term effects of laying off workers include sleep problems, emotional exhaustion and dizziness for those charged with bearing such bad news to their workers.

The study, Managing in Tough Times: The Impact of Layoffs on Front-Line Managers, was conducted by Sarah Moore, a professor of psychology at the University of Puget Sound; Leon Grunberg, a professor from the university's comparative psychology department; and Edward Greenberg, a political science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Yale University Press will publish it as a book entitled Turbulence: Living through Workplace Change in 2010.

The study states that "focusing on this neglected group of what some researchers have graphically called 'executioners,' who may soon number in the tens of thousands, can also help organizations take steps to mitigate the considerable amount of distress some may experience as they live through a very painful process."

"It seems to me," says Leon Grunberg, co-author of the report, "that a lot of [managers in the study] dealt with [their mental and physical conditions] on their own. It sounds trite, but everyone assumes it's the people laid off that get a lot of [support], but the survivors need help, too. No one really thought of managers as people who might be affected emotionally."

He says managers need to feel "some sensitivity to what they're going through" from their own managers, in addition to having access to counseling.

In interviews, several of the "layoff agents," as they are called in the study, said they had become "calloused" or "emotionally numb" and said they did not want to get "close to people until things stabilized" and wanted to "tune out and shut down."

Similar feelings of emotional and physical distancing were reported by "downsizing agents" as well, according to the study that examines the effects of restructurings on managers and workers at Boeing's manufacturing plants in Washington since 1996.

The study found that managers who implemented layoffs were more likely than other managers to report sleep problems as well as "various symptoms of poor health, such as ulcers, headaches and heart trouble." Those managers were also more likely than the others to seek treatment from health professionals for these problems.

The researchers also found that managers who issued warning notices or layoffs reported significantly higher levels of job stress, lower levels of job security, higher levels of depression and higher levels of emotional exhaustion.

The research "demonstrated quite clearly that implementing layoffs produced deleterious consequences on job attitudes and well-being measures both in the short term, and, to a lesser degree, the long term," according to the report.

Grunberg says the depth to which managers felt the effects of layoffs was unexpected.

"I was surprised by the qualitative interviews and what people told us in terms of how powerful the impact was," he says. "They used words like 'devastating,' 'gut-wrenching.' "

He also was surprised to "find such negative results -- given that [Boeing] goes to such lengths" to ensure a transparent and fair process for layoffs.

A call to Boeing about the study's findings was not immediately returned.

Grunberg says that in any layoff situation, it helps when the company makes it "a collective decision. That takes a lot of the individual responsibility away. It helps dilute that sense of guilt" a manager may feel when making a layoff.

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But, at the same time, the process needs to be personalized. Efforts to de-personalize the layoff process (i.e., using e-mails or sending out letters regarding layoffs) can have negative effects on both the manager and the employee being laid off, the authors write.

"We believe this is an unwise option because although it might spare managers some discomfort, it dehumanizes those to be laid off and is likely to engender antagonistic responses from victims and survivors," they state.

Grunberg says support groups might help in that managers making layoffs would be able to share their feelings with each other.

"In terms of emotional impact, it certainly helps to talk about it and know you're not the only one experiencing it," he says.

Marina London, a spokesperson for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, based in Arlington, Va., says she is "absolutely not" surprised by the study's findings.

"Often the front-line managers are the most stressed folks in the equation in the kinds of layoffs and crises in the workplace," she says. "They're often put in the position of laying people off, while being given very little training to do it."

She advises HR executives to enlighten managers about the company's employee-assistance program, if there is one -- before layoffs -- in order to better equip them with the tools they'll need to cope with the trauma.

"It's really important to get support in to the managers prior to the layoffs. That's ideal," she says. "Most EAPs provide training and support to managers, so in an ideal universe, if a company knows they have to lay off folks, they should get the EAP into the workplace to train the managers and offer support," she says.

"The more proactive HR managers can be, in terms of approaching [layoffs] as a partnership with the EAP program, the better it's going to be for everyone involved," she says.

The study describes layoff activity as "handing out both [warning] and layoff notices, and, for people supervising white-collar workers, participation in the selection of those to be laid off."

In a previous paper by the researchers that examined the responses of 410 middle and front-line managers at Boeing in 2003, the researchers found evidence that those who implemented layoffs were "more likely to report increased distancing behavior" than those who had not been directly involved in layoffs.

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