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Strategies for coping with workplace depression.

IS THE MORALE IN YOUR OFFICE LOW? ARE you having trouble getting to work on time? Do you spend your day just going through the motions, and no longer enjoy what you do? Are you a survivor of a recent corporate downsizing? If you answer "yes" to most of these questions, you may be suffering from "workplace depression." Corporate psychologists coined this phrase to characterize the feelings of suppressed anger and anxiety that are widespread in today's workplace. The symptoms run from a general lack of enthusiasm and low productivity to high absenteeism coupled with a low rate of voluntary employee turnover.

The causes, like the symptoms, are myriad. While everyone experiences some stress in the workplace, the reasons vary, explains clinical psychologist Juanita Doss, Ph.D. Today many people feel the pressure of being overworked and underpaid; others have conflicts with co-workers or supervisors. Some people can't tolerate working in a situation over which they have little control. And it's normal for workers to become angry and disillusioned when they reach the "glass ceiling" and realize their career advancement is blocked, says Doss.

But don't despair--workplace depression can be overcome and managed. The first step is recognizing the job-related forces that foster anger and anxiety at work, and understanding how those feelings can affect your performance. The second step is to take measures to counteract the negative effects by, among other things, confronting and adapting to change, focusing on networking and professional development and making your emotional, physical and psychological well-being top priorities. The key: Learning to rely on yourself--not your company--for job security.

More Work, Less Workers

Psychologists agree that the recent wave of corporate layoffs has taken its psychological toll on the nation's workforce. About 28% of those who were unemployed in 1992 were white-collar workers. And, many more professionals worry that their jobs are in jeopardy. It's no wonder that an overall feeling of anxiety and malaise pervades the workplace.

When companies eliminate large numbers of workers, those who remain experience anxiety, says Therman Evans, M.D., president and CEO of Whole Life Associates, a stress-management firm based in Elkins Park, Pa.

"As companies downsize, responsibilities shift to those who remain; this can result in frustration, irritability, fatigue and ultimately burnout," adds Michael D. Cox, Ph.D., a psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

While many companies offer assistance programs for their laid-off former employees, little is done for the survivors of the shakeout, Evans points out. These employees may suffer from Survivor's Syndrome. "The anxiety surrounding who's going next saps the energy, creativity and productivity out of the employees left behind. Some feel guilty, wondering 'Why am I still here?' This is especially true when a friend referred them to the company," says Evans, who was formerly vice president and corporate medical director at Cigna Cos. in Philadelphia.

Money is the No. 1 worry of those let go, says Price M. Cobbs, M.D., management consultant and president of Pacific Management Systems in San Francisco. Financial concerns eat away at many people who suddenly find themselves out of work.

But job loss affects our self-esteem as well as our wallets. "Our jobs are linked to our self-image," says Cox. When faced with a layoff, we experience feelings of inadequacy and failure.

In recent years, many companies that had no-layoff policies have been forced to let workers go. "Employees feel betrayed by the organization. They have put too much faith in the workplace to provide security, rather than in themselves," says LaVere E. Burdette, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and partner in the Detroit-based training and consulting firm, Burdette & Doss Associates.

As authors and human resource consultants Kenneth N. Wexley and Stanley B. Silverman point out in their book, Working Scared: Achieving Success in Trying Times, organizations that downsize violate two fundamental factors that motivate workers: the need for security and the desire for justice. Not only do surviving employees distrust the company, they also become more cautious. As a result, innovation and creativity are stifled.

It is out of this atmosphere of mistrust that the rumor mill is created. "People will fill the information vacuum with the worst-case scenario," says Evans. But psychologists say that rumors serve a useful purpose, helping to alleviate fears by providing information--accurate or not.

People worry about the unknown, and need time to prepare for its, says Cox. "They don't like to be given bad news abruptly; they don't want to feel out of control. Companies must improve the flow of communication to employees, which in turn will help relieve their anxiety," he adds.

Workplace Stress Is Different For Blacks

African-Americans are disproportionately affected by corporate downsizing because they are often the last hired, and believe they'll be the first fired, says corporate psychiatrist Cobbs, co-author of Black Rage and The Jesus Bag. "This generation of African-Americans came into the corporate workplace too naive about racism," he notes. Younger black professionals believe in meritocracies and are not sensitive enough to the issue of race, he says. "The blanket of racism is more convert and subtle today. Therefore, it is harder to get a handle on and develop strategies to combat it," he adds.

The stress is exacerbated when others jump to the conclusion that race--not competence--was the deciding factor in retaining a black employee. "It's that 'you're only here because you're black' that makes it harder for African-Americans," says Evans. "It is a dig at their self-esteem, self-worth and sense of achievement." Some outplacement counselors even claim that it's easier to find jobs for laid-off black professionals because they're black. "But, that's not true. It's a major challenge for black executives to find high-level positions once they're fired," Evans says.

Race, sex, seniority and connections were important factors to Gail M. Atley, when she faced possible layoff from her job as program manager at Litton Guidance and Control Systems aerospace division in Woodland Hills, Calif. Due to cutbacks in government defense contracts, Litton was forced to shed 500 employees from its ranks. To consolidate its operations, the company decided to move Atley's division to Utah. At one time, Litton wouldn't have laid off women or minorities, but that is no longer true. "I was very anxious about being the only black woman and the youngest employee [among 14 program managers]," she recalls. Although Atley holds a degree in engineering and an MBA, "I didn't have seniority or an ol' boy network," she says.

Atley began putting her feelers out--networking at every event in Los Angeles and telling everyone she was looking for a job. "I mentioned to a couple of people in the company that I was earnestly looking at other places." In the end, Atley's skills were recognized. She has since been reassigned to Litton's marketing group, which will remain in California. "I'm glad I spoke to the right people. My intent was not to break camp," she says. Although her position is still tenuous, "I've been very lucky," Atley admits.

Improving Employee Morale

Since major companies like Litton anticipate future waves of layoffs over the coming years, psychologist LaVere Burdette recommends that employees change the way they think about work. "It's best to look to your skills for security, rather than putting faith in an organization." This also gives employees a greater sense of control, she says.

Add authors Wexley and Silverman: "Once you accept the fact that there is no job security, you will protect yourself by putting your career in your own hands."

Experts suggest downsizing survivors take these steps to regain control over their careers:

* Start by changing your mental focus. Begin to see the changes in your workplace as a catalyst for making changes in other areas of your life. Losing a job and losing a loved one evoke similar emotions. But, remember that "life goes on" -- and so must you.

"Downsizing is a great kick in the pants that forces you to reassess your career and your goals," says Gail Atley. Faced with the threat of job loss, Atley began taking stock not only of her skills, but of her industry and future career opportunities. "I like what I do and get paid a lot to do it. But I started thinking maybe it was time to move on, and began seeing myself doing other things."

* Stay focused on your job responsibilities and develop a plan for improving your skills, says Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D., psychologist and partner at The Frankel & Fox Group in Los Angeles. If downsizing has added additional responsibilities and assignments to your workload, look upon them as an opportunity to develop your position and skills. They may also provide greater autonomy and visibility, and make you more valuable to the company. If you need additional education or special training, get it.

* Keep rumors in perspective. Consider the source, and don't buy into everything you hear. Worrying is a waste of time and energy. It can also have adverse effects on your physical health, raising your blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate.

* Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Start or continue a regular exercise program. "When you exercise, your brain produces betaendorphins, natural opiates, that reduce stress," says Evans. Eat a blanced diet with emphasis on fruits and vegetables, and drink plenty of water.

* Learn to relax. "People under stress spin their wheels by constantly reminding themselves of what they need to do better and faster," says Baylor psychologist Michael Cox.

Psychologist Juanita Doss recommends spending 15 minutes a day on creative visualization techniques, focusing on deep breathing and pleasant images to reduce stress. Finally, assess your sleep habits. Not getting enough or getting too much sleep can be a sign you're under too much stress or are depressed.

* Keep your networks and relationships alive. "Mental health for African-Americans is finding people who share the same reality as you," says Cobbs. Stay in touch with family and friends. It's important to have someone to talk to. Maintain your associations with professional and social organizations. Group affiliations provide continuity and reassurance in your life and help you stay abreast of job opportunities, issues and trends. Remember: Networking requires following up with the contacts you make. But recognize that not every contact will result in a job opportunity.

* Keep a positive outlook. Emphasize the positive aspects of the company to your coworkers. This helps to de-emphasize the negatives of working there, which may improve their morale, and in turn will improve yours. If you've been downsized out of the company, don't view your layoff as a stigma or a sign of incompetence. Rather, think of it as an opportunity to work elsewhere or do something different.

* Protect yourself. You owe it to yourself to have a plan, just in case you're let go. If you are really dissatisfied with your job or work environment, perhaps it's time to make a change. The best time to look for another job is when you already have one. Update your resume. Like Gail Atley, begin to network seriously and let others know you're looking for a new position.

If you decide to stay on, assess why. Maybe you're a few years away from full retiremen, are taking courses at your company's expense or need the medical benefits your company offers. Whatever the reason, remember that the option to stay is yours, and not someone else's.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:helping employees deal with the impact of downsizing
Author:Whigham-Desir, Marjorie
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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