Can Being Laid Off Really Make You Better Off?

Researchers found axed Boeing workers healthier than those left behind

By Michelle Conlin

layoffsAs the Great Recession continues to devour jobs at an alarming rate, tales are legion about the millions of unemployed struggling to right their lives and recover their self-esteem. But what happens to those left behind?

Would it surprise you to learn that survivors can suffer just as much, if not more, than colleagues who get laid off? It certainly surprised a team of academic researchers who embedded themselves at Boeing from 1996 to 2006, a tumultuous decade during which the company laid off tens of thousands. The results of the study will appear next year in a Yale University Press book called "Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers."

"How much better off the laid-off were was stunning and shocking to us," says Sarah Moore, a University of Puget Sound industrial psychology professor who is one of the book's four authors. "So much of the literature talks about how dreadful unemployment is."

By early 1996 the researchers were busy interviewing and testing 3,500 Boeing employees - from line workers to senior executives. The timing was propitious. Struggling to adapt to new technology and competition from Europe's Airbus, Boeing in 1997 merged with McDonnell Douglas. Over the next six years, Boeing's workforce of 234,850 shrunk 33 percent, to 157,441.

With each round of layoffs, the survivors hustled to reinvent themselves. They re-proved, re-auditioned, and repositioned, only to watch yet another new manager - pushing the fad du jour - parade through the door. Employees who had once seen themselves in every plane that flew overhead were now trading in gallows humor. As in, "Dead worker walking."

Human resources specialist Frank Zemek was the researchers' main contact. In an interview, he recalled "the survivor's guilt of the people who were left, who were waiting and not knowing if the hatchet was going to fall on them. They experienced the worst stress."

As more manufacturing was outsourced, workers said they no longer felt as if they were building planes. They were simply snapping them together. They obsessed about the loss of institutional knowledge. Managers who had fired people, meanwhile, confessed deep, pervasive grief - what researchers sometimes call "executioner's lament." Moore says they tended to become emotionally numb and disengaged.

In the greatest surprise of all, the researchers discovered that the people who had been laid off often were happier than those left behind. Many had new jobs, even if they didn't always pay as well. Over and over, Moore says, average depression scores were nearly twice as great for those who stayed with Boeing vs. those who left. The laid-off were less likely to binge drink, often slept better, and had fewer chronic health problems.

The researchers say that thanks to the unceasing uncertainty inside Boeing, those who left felt as though they had escaped a bad marriage. At the time one Boeing employee told researchers: "You feel better when someone takes their foot off your neck."

Today morale has improved at Boeing, Moore says. Yes, the company's new jet, the 787, is behind schedule. But the high-tech plane has helped revive Boeing's esprit de corp. Since W. James McNerney Jr. became CEO in 2005, engagement scores - which measure worker spirits - have steadily risen, the company says.

And what of the original 3,500 research subjects? Only 525 still work at Boeing. Moore reports that many never regained their equilibrium. When they see her, they say: "Yeah, I still work for Boeing ... this week."

Next: "We're Eliminating Your Position" >>

Find a Job

Search by Company | Search by Industry

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

They say the unemployement rate in America has gone down...really!! I don't think that's a true statement. Maybe a poll should be taken on how many Americans have used up all their unemployment benefits!! This country is going to HELL in a handbasket thanks those big companies bailed out by our so call administration. Let's put some of those high profile officials in the unemployement line or better yet lets offshore their jobs.

May 27 2011 at 9:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just about a year ago the company that I worked for since 1998 abruptly closed. I sent out over 250 resumes thinking it would be easy for me to find another job because my experience and references. I managed to get one interview and was offered a job that paid little more than minimum wage. I was making over $80K prior to that. We had two kids and a baby on the way. Out of desperation I started exploring home business opportunities because it is the only way you can open your own business for virtually no investment. I went past the stage of the multi level marketing scams and found that there are real internet based home businesses that follow real business models. I knew that more than a million people are making a full time income that way but I lacked the necessary skills. I found a program at this web site( ) that looked like it might be the way to learn those skills. It turned out to be a fairly simple way to learn what I needed to know to be successful. I remember how good it felt when I managed to start making $100 a day, then $200, and after $300 a day it was amazing. It took me a couple of months to get there but now I am financially independent and as a bonus I have much more time to enjoy my children.

November 09 2009 at 11:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Search Articles

Picks From the Web