Sunday, October 11, 2009

“Fear and Loathing” in the American Workplace

By Susan Older

Fear of being fired or laid off in this harsh economy is creating an environment that has all the trappings of what I would call, borrowing a phrase from the late Hunter S. Thompson, "fear and loathing" in the American workplace.

I just gave up my livelihood rather than work in a climate of fear and degradation. I feel for my co-workers who don’t have the financial means to do the same.

I wonder: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the rising unemployment rate in the United States? Most likely, it’s the sad plight of workers who’ve lost their incomes, health insurance, retirement accounts and, most likely, a big chunk of self-esteem.

And, there is no question about the fact that the unemployed grapple with these losses on a daily basis. Many rise early to jump on job boards, write cover letters, and perfect their resumes, only to be met with rejection. Many of them are anxious, depressed and suffering increasingly from related physical illness.

But what about the ranks of the still-employed who live in fear of being tapped for the next layoff or becoming the target of managers who can fire them – in most cases – at will?

A study at the University of Michigan shows that people who constantly worry about losing their jobs report poorer physical health and more symptoms of depression than those who have actually been laid off.

Researchers analyzed nationally representative samples of surveys from more than 1,700 adults over age 25 who were asked about their physical and mental health, as well as their feelings about the security of their job.

"The negative effect of being persistently insecure was more significant than the unemployment itself," said study author Sarah Burgard, a research assistant professor at the school's Institute for Social Research.

People are working overtime without being paid for the extra work. They’re putting up with lower or no increases in compensation as a reward for excellence. They’re scared to speak up to or against management. They’re undercutting one another in the belief that it’s better to see a former workmate fired than to be fired oneself.

"By no means am I trying to belittle the stress of job loss," Burgard said. "But the negative anticipation of an event can be more stressful than the event itself. People feel they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head, but they can't exert any control over the situation."

And it’s not just the slackers who are worried. It’s been my observation that the most productive employees, those who show the most talent, are often targeted by managers whose own insecurity drives them to harass or oust top performers, people who could challenge them for positions in management – possibly for lower salaries, saving the company money.

It’s not just a battle between employees and their superiors. This rampant fear creates hostility between equals at all levels: manager on manager, worker on worker.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this climate of fear and hostility is that this is precisely the time when people at all levels in the workplace could be finding solace in a mutual dedication to survival of the best.

They could be banding together to ensure that the hard working among them will weather the economic storm. Instead, it’s every man for himself.


  1. Hi, Susan,

    Found your blogs. Interesting. Cheers... all best

  2. I can't help but like any fan of the late, great Dr. HS Thompson.

    Aside from that, you have addressed an issue that I feel has been slowly fermenting below the happy-face surface of our economy for quite a few years. I have often listened in amazement to the braggadocio of young Turks so proud of how much they earned in a month, and equally telling, how very much they spent on their mortgage and lease of luxury cars. They lived beyond their means, and were proud of it, never considering that they were one or two paychecks shy of financial meltdown.

    And then the deflation began. Two-martini lunches and expense-account junkets became history. Lap dances became a nonexpensible luxury for middle managers. Downsizing and outsourcing entered our vocabulary. Mergers and acquisitions no longer threatened the benign humiliation of a lateral obelisk, but soon escalated to the dreaded writing of the résumé. The bubble burst and the slippery slope got steeper.

    The recession instilled fear in the collective psyche of white collar and working class alike. The over-extended spendaholics were first to fall, but then the moderates of the middle class—hardworking professionals merely trying to raise a family, pursue a career, and enjoy a modest life—began to fail. The underclasses, as usual, were underemployed, but then found themselves competing with pensioners and PhDs for minimum-wage jobs that once were their exclusive domain.

    I agree, it's sad to see this climate of fear and hostility deteriorate our post-union-era solidarity into a classic Skinner model of stress behavior, where otherwise fine human beings lash out at one another in self-centered yet self-defeating competition for the finite supply of food and water.

    Perhaps we could all benefit by remembering the report cards we brought home from kindergarten. Particularly that part that says "Works and Plays Well With Others." I think we could all benefit by a little Improvement.