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Underemployment: what EA professionals need to know: as the "jobless recovery" proceeds, underemployment is becoming a fixture in the workplace, and EAPs will need to help managers and employees cope.

Melinda, a 1998 graduate of a prestigious engineering school, lost her well-paying high-tech job a year and a half ago when the company folded. She has been unable to find work in her chosen field, even at a reduced salary, and reluctantly took a job as a sales associate with a national retail chain.

Brian, a software engineer in his mid-40s, was called into his manager's office one recent morning and told that his salary was being cut in half because the company could no longer shoulder that cost. With two teenagers on the way to college, he has decided he needs to find another job, but worries about losing his benefits if he quits or is let go before he has one in hand.

Charlie, a long-time manager with a consumer products manufacturer, counts himself lucky that his job has not been eliminated (yet), but resents the fact that after the company flattened its management structure, he now does the same work he did 15 years ago. He feels stuck, but does not believe he would find another job if he decided to leave.

The common thread running through these stories is "underemployment," a term used to define situations in which a worker is employed but not in his/her desired capacity, whether in terms of compensation, hours, or level of skill and experience. The federal government does not compile statistics on the number of Americans who are underemployed, citing the difficulty of developing an objective set of criteria, but ABC News, in a report broadcast in July, estimated it to be 4.6 million.

Recent studies by the Federal Reserve Board and economic research institutions indicate that while the economy may be recovering from the recession, employment is not rebounding as it did in previous recoveries. Many jobs have been lost permanently, especially in industries that have been restructuring to take advantage of large-scale investments in technology (mostly during the 1990s), the availability of cheaper labor overseas, and new approaches to management that encourage leaner staffing.

A study by Rutgers University economic researchers found that more than one-third (35 percent) of workers who regain employment after being laid off take jobs that pay less (sometimes substantially less) than their previous jobs. Seventy percent of those surveyed think now is a bad time to find a quality job, and younger workers are more pessimistic than older workers. According to research by Right Management Consultants of Philadelphia, it's taking nearly twice as long to find a job today than it did two years ago. For senior executives, the increase has been even more dramatic.


Underemployed workers may first surface in an employee assistance program with financial concerns. They may be prudent with money but now find themselves using savings to pay current expenses, or they may already have been "overextended" and their new job situation pushed them over the brink. Sometimes the problem may lie with a worker's spouse who is underemployed and putting pressure on your employee to bring home more money and benefits.

Anger and frustration can also land an employee in an EAP, though sometimes they express themselves in subtle ways, such as when an employee is moody or uncommunicative. Anger can go underground, as sabotage; the signs may be missing deadlines, uncooperative behavior in team settings, or conflicts with peers on the job. Negativity flourishes in these settings and can have a strong ripple effect on workplace morale and productivity.

"There's nothing clinically to diagnose in these cases," says Greg DeLapp, who heads the EAP at Carpenter Technology, Corp. in Reading, Pennsylvania. "They're just having a bad day--repeatedly"

Shame is another by-product of underemployment, particularly in a society where a person's identity is tied closely to his or her work. "We define ourselves so much by our jobs, we think we must be defective as a person" if a job is perceived as a step down, says Jan Boxer, principal of Strategic Partners, Inc., a Potomac, Maryland, consulting and executive coaching firm. People who are underemployed, she says, may live in self-imposed isolation, with a sense of shame at going "backwards."

Unrealistic and unfulfilled expectations can exacerbate these problems, "You can have a large phenomenon, like the tough economy, that we all understand, but there's a difference between intellectual understanding and emotionally 'getting it'," says Jeff Christie, manager of employee assistance for Halliburton Corp. in Houston.

Far worse is the impact that underemployment can have on substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression, the symptoms of which--fatigue, loss of energy, sleep disruption, and changes in eating habits, among others--EA professionals say they are noticing more often. "I see middle-aged men coming in scared, even crying," reports John Buck, an EA professional with DOR, a Minneapolis employee assistance and organizational development firm. "They need tools to deal with the anxiety"

Mental health experts say they expect to see some "spiking" in underemployed workers' use of medical and mental health benefits, which Halliburton's Christie calls a mixed blessing. "You're glad they're using these resources," he says, "but it's a real red flag."


EA professionals can respond to the symptoms and underlying problems of underemployment on two levels, the individual and the systemic. Working with individual employees, EAPs can help develop coping strategies and a plan to move forward that includes both short- and long-term elements. The goal, says Boxer, is to help the underemployed see their current lives from a bigger perspective. "Can they see this as a blip on the screen?" she asks. "If so, then you can manage it from there, as a helper."

Business is booming for networking and support groups to assist the unemployed and underemployed, and EAPs can make these resources available to employees. Stress management programs, especially those that promote exercise and movement, are a good option for many people, while personal financial management assistance can help families cope with one of the primary causes of anxiety for employees.

Professional development opportunities are another important way to engage the underemployed, providing people with valuable new skills and also making them feel appreciated, bolstering their self-confidence. Greg DeLapp goes over past performance appraisals with employees, trying to identify where they can go to build their strengths. He frequently asks them to write a performance objective to build specific experience that can be measured.

EA professionals can use this approach to help employees find in-house opportunities on cross-functional teams or volunteer work that will enhance their skills. You also can help people retool themselves by going back to school--not necessarily for another degree, but to get back into a learning situation or to take coursework in an area they're trying to enter.

Boxer, an experienced career counselor, says underemployed people may have more leverage than they think. Corporations are wary of hiring obviously overqualified workers, so if they do, they clearly have work that needs to be done. EA professionals can help broker a win-win arrangement whereby the employee agrees to stay for a specified period of time in return for something of value to him/her, such as training.


There are also some things EA professionals can do to address the underemployment issue across the board. First and foremost, educate managers and supervisors about underemployment, train them to recognize symptoms of potential problems, and inform them of helpful resources, including the EAP. Marie Franklin, director of Marriott's Associate Assistance Program, says that although experienced managers may well be aware of resources available to them, many younger ones aren't.

Next, consider working with your human resources and training partners to build the capabilities of managers to engage and inspire their employees. For example, encourage supervisors to use employee recognition techniques to help underemployed workers better tolerate their circumstances. Emphasize to recruiters and hiring authorities the importance of getting the best "fit" for an employee in the first place to help head off problems later.

You can also foster mentoring relationships, whether through an established program or on a one-off basis. While you may be referring individuals to career counselors and coaches, consider building your own expertise in these areas to partner more effectively with human resources and management.

The bottom line, all agree, is that organizations need to recommit themselves to building a loyal employee base. It's very costly to keep laying off workers and then rehiring when the business cycle is on the upswing.

EA professionals have an important message to share with today's employers: Think about the future, and communicate about it openly and often with your employees. Articulate what you want from your people and help them set reasonable expectations. Encourage them to position themselves for the times ahead, whether good or bad.

Beth Bloomfield is a certified executive coach and management consultant and is principal of Bloomfield Associates, LLC, in Annapolis, Maryland, She writes and speaks frequently about leadership and organizational life and is a faculty member of the Georgetown University Leadership Coaching program.
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Title Annotation:employee assistance professionals
Author:Bloomfield, Beth
Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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