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Surviving a layoff

Getting retrenched could be an opportunity for positive change

Surviving a layoff

Given the often harsh reality facing many in today’s volatile economy, we have done a research on the impact that being made redundant has on individuals.

Does it irrevocably damage their self-esteem? What does it mean for their future careers?

And can being laid off actually improve a person’s overall health and well-being?

This last point may sound counter-intuitive, but do not underestimate the power of change.

It is easy to think of losing a job as overwhelmingly negative, but our research results indicate that the disruptive effect — the “jolt” — of job loss can also be a catalyst for positive change.

This type of jolt has the potential to shake people out of inertia, forcing them to discard the old and focus attention on the new.

For many, this jolt opens doors to opportunities to move in a direction of increased authenticity.

Effects of layoffs on employees

We asked professionals who had recently lost their jobs how it had affected them and how they were approaching the search for new employment.

Four key themes emerged, with three of them tied to a desire for increased authenticity. In other words, these people expressed new interest in knowing and living by their values:

* Lifestyle quality

One respondent noted quite simply: “Flexibility and quality of life are more important than salary and title.”

Thus, employment emerged as a means to maintaining a lifestyle, not as a goal in itself.

The desire to spend more time with family and friends and hopes for new, less demanding, roles reinforced this.

Salary mattered to a majority of respondents, but only in so far as it was necessary to support other lifestyle goals.

*  Meaningful work

People overwhelmingly wanted jobs that offer them meaning and align to personal values. A common reason for this was the need to contribute to society.

“I am concerned with, and have as a priority, finding work that doesn’t scar my soul,” someone said.

Career advancement and matching skills and abilities were equally emphasised.

“At first, I was thinking about taking any job, but now I want to stay focused on managing my career in a way that fits closest to my talents,” added the respondent.

*  Job security and happiness

Security and stability were given as important criteria for the next job, even if it meant accepting a lower salary or position.

“A positive work environment has become a huge priority. I will not attempt to survive a toxic work environment again,” said another professional.

*  Self-doubt and cynicism

This final theme is darker.

For the respondents who made more jaded comments, being laid off sparked two types of negative reaction — self-doubt, and general cynicism about their futures in an organisation.

Self-doubt, an obvious precursor to reduced confidence, can affect not only how people see themselves, but how others see them — thus making the process of finding a job that will help to restore their confidence even more difficult.

This theme is exemplified in the respondent who said: “It makes me feel inferior, like someone else who has a nice secure job is deciding whether or not I’m worth interviewing and effectively deciding my immediate working future. I want to scream, ‘I can do this! Just give me a chance’.”

Cynicism links to viewing a layoff as unjust, resulting in a negative feeling about any future jobs or workplace environments.

Respondents questioned business leaders who talk about values but rarely practise or demonstrate them.

Win-win solutions for organisations

Despite feelings of self-doubt and cynicism, the larger part of the feedback showed that being laid off is, at least at a very basic level, positively associated with individuals’ search for authenticity.

And this has implications for how organisations can handle layoffs differently.

First, organisations that must cut operating costs should consider being more strategic.

For example, they could offer increased unpaid vacation time or sabbaticals to offset potential slow demand.

This makes sense given that time with family and friends, and non-work pursuits, can be valued more highly than money.

Even a 10 per cent reduction in annual hours (and salary) could result in a win-win solution.

When layoffs are necessary, organisations could offer affected employees workshops that will help them to identify and prioritise their values rather than simply update their resumés.

These workshops could also include financial strategies for living on less money and increasing the quality of one’s personal time.

Once done, employees might feel the burden of living to work replaced by a more meaningful sense of working to live.

Finally, people who are currently on the job market need training in ways to remove self-doubt and develop self-confidence.

Companies could partner with local community organisations or consultants that run self-help or self-improvement programmes.

Although our research is exploratory, the pattern of responses we discovered was clear.

The respondents showed that during this time of global economic uncertainty, there is much potential for positive change.

As the Chinese have known since the inception of their written language, crises can not only disrupt an individual’s path but they can also offer the cathartic opportunity for positive and authentic change.

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