Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are Bad Times Actually Good For Us?

An article in the Oct 28 Business Week reports on a ten-year (1996-2006) study which found that, among other things, workers laid off from Boeing were happier than those still working there.

Say what???

The article reports that four researchers embedded themselves into Boeing during a decade of great upheaval when Airbus was giving the company a run for its money and when one-third of its workforce was shed.

According to Business Week:

With each round of layoffs, the survivors hustled to reinvent themselves. They re-proved, re-auditioned, and repositioned, only to watch yet another new manager — pushing the fad du jour — parade through the door. Employees who had once seen themselves in every plane that flew overhead were now trading in gallows humor. As in, "Dead worker walking."

Human resources specialist Frank Zemek was the researchers' main contact. In an interview, he recalled "the survivor's guilt of the people who were left, who were waiting and not knowing if the hatchet was going to fall on them. They experienced the worst stress."


Average depression scores were nearly twice as great for those who stayed with Boeing vs. those who left. The laid-off were less likely to binge drink, often slept better, and had fewer chronic health problems.

Earlier this year, I attended a conference where Stephen Bezrucha MD of the University of Washington knocked us over with a feather with the observation that mortality rates in the general population actually go down during economic hard times. One reason, he said, may have to do with people having more time to connect with their friends and families.

As if to back up the speaker, the Sept PNAS published a University of Michigan study showing that during the Great Depression rates of death went down while life expectancy went up. Suicides, however, did increase.

According to a Medical News Today account of the study, during expansions firms are very busy and demand a lot of effort from employees. This can create stress, reduce sleep, and change health-related behaviors. Also, more time on the job may translate into greater social isolation and less social support.

In contrast, during recessions, people slow down because there is less work to do. There is more time for sleep, and they cut back on alcohol and tobacco.

No doubt, this comes as cold comfort to those of you who have been laid off or are in fear of losing your jobs. But, as Business Week notes:

Thanks to the unceasing uncertainty inside Boeing, those who left felt as though they had escaped a bad marriage. At the time one Boeing employee told researchers: "You feel better when someone takes their foot off your neck."

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