Articles > It will take time to heal recession's wounds

It will take time to heal recession's wounds
Globe & Mail, January 13, 2010

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

A client recently moved into a new senior human-resources job. She loves it, she says - but feels too guilty to admit that to friends and former co-workers who are all miserable in their jobs, if they're even lucky enough to still have a job.

Another client also got a new offer but turned it down. Though it was the job of her dreams, it was in a much less secure industry. In these times, she just wasn't willing to take the risk.

These two incidents capture just how emotions and attitudes have changed in the wake of the recession.

In 2010, there will be continuing reverberations from the grinding siege mentality of the last 16 months that has eaten into not only career prospects and pocketbooks, but also into psyches.

How will the next year shape up? From the comments of about 60 respondents to an online survey of senior managers and professionals that I conducted, along with what I've seen and heard from HR clients, here are some top trends that will dominate the workplaces of 2010.

LINGERING MALAISE

The wounds associated with prolonged employment anxiety have crushed spirits.

Many workers, especially the very introverted or those with high security needs, will continue to feel anxious about their livelihoods, regardless of their industry's fortunes. It will take time well beyond the economic recovery for them to regain optimism about their career prospects.

More hard-boiled workers will more quickly rebound. But we are unlikely to see unbridled optimism return in most workers over the next 12 months. Nor will many workers have great expectations for their careers, even those young professionals who, before the recession, were criticized for their cockiness.

Those who have felt stymied in their career or resent what the last year and a half has wrought on their company's culture will begin to make moves to explore options outside their current employer. But the jitters will remain: For the next several months at least, it will be more of a gradual reawakening than a mass exodus.

EXHAUSTION, RESENTMENT

Long work hours, bigger workloads, pared staff and career disappointments have left workers feeling depleted and cynical - and it will affect how they relate at work.

Workers who feel deprived will aggressively hoard resources. This will add more fuel to Darwinian organizational climates.

In such atmospheres, people are quicker to lose their tempers and be more defensive. The result - a continuing decline in workplace camaraderie and civility.

BOREDOM RISES

The recession created two classes of workers: those who, having lost resources and co-workers, found themselves with too much to do, and those who, with projects shelved and business down, found themselves with too little to do.

Either way, cuts to projects, lack of internal career opportunities and the reluctance of employers to assign tasks to anyone who can't hit the ground running have left many workers feeling bored.

That means many talented people are at jobs they can do with their eyes shut; in essence, they are being punished for being able to do their work. The employer ends up with a competent worker but one likely not giving his or her best.

SECURITY OVER PASSION

Before the recession, work in tune with values or offering meaning was at the top of most people's career wish lists. Now many, like my client, have put the importance of a steady paycheque over the excitement of a great job.

It will take time - and healing - before people's sense of personal security and confidence returns, and desires for work they can feel passionate about are put on the front burner again.

GENERATIONS SCREWED

Every generation is feeling its members are most bearing the brunt of the recession's effects. They see the generation above them blocking their progress and the generation below as competition for plum jobs.

This has created resentment that their work life has not unfolded the way they thought it would - whether they're older workers who can't afford to retire or Gen Xers eyeing executive jobs not about to be vacated.

Many worry most about the effects on young workers. Some of these twenty-somethings will simply give up, vulnerable to drifting into depression as they play video games all day.

Others will see it as a temporary setback, and will adapt by taking whatever short-term work they can find, often in fields below their training.

But, long-term, this pluckiness will serve them well: It will stimulate the self-reliance that characterized Gen Xers who experienced similar career challenges in the nineties.

Still, young workers will miss out on the critical early experiences that set the foundation for progressing into leadership positions. This development phase is when they learn, for example, how to deal with co-workers' personalities, how organizations work and how to negotiate office politics.

AVERSION TO RISK

This will continue to express itself in many ways, from gathering huge amounts of data to support every business decision to over-collaboration - decisions being made by committee regardless of how individual members can add value.

Also a product of risk aversion is a paint-by-numbers approach to staffing. Employers will favour those who look, act, and dress like everyone else in their organization.

This homogenization permeates the culture. A number of HR clients have told me that "outliers" - people who don't conform to organizational behaviour codes - are the first to be fired, put on performance alerts or marginalized.

That's not a good recipe for diversity.

UNKINDER EMPLOYERS

Most survey respondents complained about their employers' extreme tightfistedness, not only regarding money but also kindness.
This comment from a banking HR vice-president captured the sentiment: "You have to beg for every penny to do your job at the minimum and then they act like they are doing you a favour or you are somehow overly needy."

The result of employers' mean-spiritedness is low staff engagement. In part, this is because so many workers are simultaneously bored and overworked. As well, overcollaboration dilutes an individual's sense of ownership of an idea or work, leading to an attitude of "why bother since I won't get any recognition or personal satisfaction."

Finally, while some employers have communicated harsh corporate realities sensitively and with compassion, many have been brutal. Staffers think: "Why should I kill myself? They could care less about me."

The result is employees do their work joylessly, communicating their dissatisfaction to colleagues toiling with similar feelings. But employees do have long memories and will eventually act on them.

REACH FOR THE STARS

Toward year-end, expect to see recovering organizations start to worry again about retention, and rekindle their development, coaching and career-planning initiatives.

But it won't be for all. Many will pay particular attention to their star performers. And that will increasingly breed a two-tiered approach: rich development activities and other goodies lavished on young high performers, while everyone else is ignored.

But special treatment for stars may have a paradoxical effect on morale. Some, especially those in more collegial jobs or with lower needs for recognition, will feel uncomfortable being singled out and not enjoy the limelight.

COMMITMENT-PHOBIC HIRING

Job seekers will continue to complain about how brutal the market is and the rudeness and rigid expectations of recruiters and employers. The trend of having many interviews spread over a long time period will continue.

Another continuing trend is hiring temporary contractors instead of permanent full-time workers. This staffing strategy will spread into senior ranks, so that even executive jobs will be filled temporarily. This will provide employers the flexibility of having the right skills when needed, without incurring long-term costs if and when those skills are no longer required.

But employers will lose out when they start to rebuild. These senior temps will leave for permanent work and decimate the leadership ranks.

Equally important: The loss of these leaders will further undermine employees' sense of belonging and belief in their future in that organization.


How to restore optimism

Leaders:


Communicate what is going well and share positive plans.

Act like there are things to look forward to.

Replace grim and harried countenance with a smile.

Realize that one-off gestures like on-site massages will not be enough. Indeed, such gestures without other genuine displays of goodwill might actually back fire and foster greater employee cynicism.

Workers:

Instead of griping and spreading the dissatisfaction virus, be aware of how your grumpiness affects others. Think about what is going well in your job and what you are accomplishing despite depleted resources, instead of how awful everything is and what you are failing to get done.

Take comfort in what is going well and what you enjoy, whether it is colleagues or new things learned.

When feeling down, remember that whatever is happening on the job is not a permanent state of affairs. Give yourself a deserved pat on the back.