Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Control Freak

An article in this week’s Time magazine suggests that being laid off from a company is psychologically easier than being among those left behind.
On March 6, researchers at a conference at the University of Cambridge heard data suggesting … compared with people who are straight-up laid off, those who keep their job but are under a constant threat of losing it suffer a greater decline in mental well-being.

Brendan Burchell, a Cambridge sociologist, presented his analysis based on various surveys conducted across Europe. The data suggest that employed people who feel insecure in their job display similar levels of anxiety and depression as those who are unemployed. But whereas a newly jobless person's mental health may "bottom out" after about six months, and then even begin to improve, the mental state of people who are perpetually worried about losing their job "just continues to deteriorate, getting worse and worse," Burchell says.
Of course, a study about job loss in Europe might not carry over to Americans; with Europe’s welfare safety net, “I’ll be homeless, without health insurance and living on the street” doesn’t usually make the “consequences of unemployment” list. The article itself addresses this point later. Nonetheless, the study provides an interesting corollary to the old idea that dreading the worst is often worse than the worst itself.

Four of my friends in three different industries lost jobs these past two weeks. It’s nasty out there and getting nastier. Among my friends, and I suspect among those stressed-out workers in Europe, the main problem is the lack of any feeling of control.

Several years ago, a slightly sadistic researcher conducted an experiment on a pair of lab rats. The rats were kept in separate cages sharing an electrified floor and, from time to time, the researcher switched on the current, subjecting both rats to painful electric shocks.

The first rat had a bar in his cage, and could press it to turn off the current. The second rat suffered no worse shock than the first, but had no control over the situation. And after a very short time, the experiment found the first rat in excellent health, while the second rat got skinny and sickly. The two rats felt identical levels of pain, but the pain itself didn’t cause any problems; lack of control over the pain did.

In today’s economy most people these days have zero control over the parts that affect them. Even a stellar employee who does excellent work can lose his job – not because he’s fired, but because the job no longer exists. And there’s no bar in our cages we can press to make the shocks stop coming.


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