Persistent economic problems have hurt American workers, but not fatally

by Jennifer Robison

As many as 14.6 million Americans are unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That means 14.6 million people have been dealing with the losses that come with unemployment: the loss of financial stability, of identity, and of their normal daily routine.

Emily Wright dealt with these losses for a whole year. She lost her management job in consumer marketing in September 2008 and didn’t find another one for exactly a year. “It was scary,” Wright says. “Some of the others who were laid off didn’t know how they were going to be paying the mortgage that month.” Fortunately, Wright had six months’ worth of living expenses saved, and she received unemployment benefits. But her income and savings barely covered her scaled-down cost of living.The Three Types of Employees

“I joked, kind of, that I was a drain on society because I was taking government money,” says Wright. “I never thought it would take this long to get a job. I finally reached a point of wondering how many months I could get by if I sold my car, if I sold my house. By August 2009, I knew that if I didn’t get hired soon, I’d be taking a job at the mall.”

Effects of stress

Wright’s experience is typical for the recently unemployed. But stress about work is not an unusual reaction for people with jobs either. In 2007, the American Psychological Association reported that 74% of Americans said that work is their main source of stress, up from 59% the year before.

There are many ways managers and executives can help employees manage their stress: frequent, honest, and informative communication; involving the workforce in understanding new strategies and explaining how they’re essential to the new plans; an emphasis on recognition for good work; and a focus on hope. “Everything we’ve seen suggests that trust, compassion, stability, and hope are what people need from leaders in times of trouble,” says Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing and coauthor of 12: The Elements of Great Managing.

A Gallup study found that while those tactics work, they’re most effective with an engaged workforce. Workplace engagement is the core of the unwritten social contract between employers and employees. It begins at a local level, usually in the relationship between a manager and his or her employees. Engagement results from the fulfillment of 12 universal human needs. And when those needs are met, workers are engaged. (See graphics “The Three Types of Employees” and “The 12 Elements of Great Managing.”)

A recent Gallup study examined the attitudes of U.S. workers as the country moved through the recession. Gallup asked respondents about their wellbeing, whether they had experienced changes in their job status, and whether their company had experienced downsizing or layoffs. Respondents were also asked Gallup’s 12-item employee engagement assessment, the Q12, which determines an individual’s level of engagement with his or her workplace.

Engagement remained relatively stable as the recession picked up steam. In July 2008, Gallup found that 31% of employees were engaged, 51% were not engaged, and 17% were actively disengaged. Those numbers changed only slightly in March 2009: 30% were engaged, 52% were not engaged, and 18% were actively disengaged. Although overall engagement levels dropped only slightly, Gallup’s research revealed lower scores on specific elements of engagement.

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