Layoff survivors work longer, smarter

Those still on the job find that maintaining a positive attitude goes a long way after co-workers are let go

William Smith has survived three rounds of company layoffs.

For Mr. Smith, a customer-service specialist with Compaq/HP in Atlanta, that's been both good news and bad.

The obvious upside is that Smith still has a paycheck. The bad news is that his department's staff was cut by 75 percent in the past two years, so he and his few remaining co-workers are now burdened with three times more work.

A trend toward increased work hours actually began in 1979, notes The Economic Policy Institute in its State of Working America report for 2002-2003. But this increase has been exacerbated by America's more than decade-long cycle of downsizings. For American workers in 2000, the report says, that meant working an average of 1,877 hours per year, more than any other wealthy industrialized nation.

Some 2 million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2001, according to the US Department of Labor. Factor in that number and it's easy to understand the more-work-less-time environment in which William Smith and millions of other layoff survivors now toil.

Confronting chaos

With burdensome work hours and the daily stress of wondering if their names might be on the next layoff list, it's no wonder that "chaos" is how many survivors describe their work lives.

Confronting the chaos, experts say, can help workers get past worry and stay focused on their work.

A key first adjustment is to be realistic about the possibility that you may be laid off, and not let that concern affect your commitment to your work, says Bettina Seidman, a career-management coach in New York who works with individuals and corporations.

"Even top performers end up on the layoff list," Ms. Seidman says. "You have to accept that possibility for yourself, get past the fear of it, and do the work anyway."

That can mean making small, practical adjustments.

Smith and his colleagues steal minutes from discretionary time to create more work hours. A previous stop for a hallway chat is reduced to a hand wave and a hello. Going out for lunch becomes a quick sandwich at the desk.

Attitude is Smith's life preserver. "I'm happy I'm still here, but unhappy the others are gone," he says. "I know I could be on the next list, but I'm learning new skills by doing the work of my terminated co-workers. I'm more marketable in case that happens. I try to focus on that positive."

A 'new normal'

Few industries have experienced more turbulence in recent years than the airline industry and those who support it. Because of the huge reduction in air travel since Sept. 11, 2001, orders for large airplanes have plummeted, causing massive layoffs.

The Boeing Co., in Seattle, has tried to stabilize revenue by doing more maintenance and updating instead of building new planes, a move that has sharply altered the pace of jobs.

"The day's work doesn't get done," says Dan, a six-year employee with the firm who prefers not to use his full name or describe his position.

"What's left unfinished moves to the next day, which moves part of that day's work to the next, and so on," he says. "Eventually, having more work and not completing it on time becomes your 'new normal.' It's frustrating. But we have to accept it and not beat ourselves up about not accomplishing what we'd like to."

Shorter meetings

To avoid 14-hour days or unfinished work, Erin, a team manager at a Seattle software firm who asked not to be further identified, tries to work smarter.

"We question previous practices, like meetings that were called just because someone thought it was time to have one," she says. "If a meeting is called now, team members ask what will be discussed and if there's another way to communicate the information other than congregating."

If the meeting goes ahead, an agenda is expected.

In addition, the 10 minutes of kibitzing that used to start a gathering are a thing of the past, and everyone tries to stay on topic. "We're in, we do the business, and we're out," she says.

Some workers left behind after layoffs may also face a kind of survivors' guilt, some experts suggest.

"[After] the first round of layoffs you feel that way," says Dan, the Boeing employee. "By the second round you accept that it's just a business decision."

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