In the Labor Day (September 1, 2008) issue of The Hartford Courant (the nation’s oldest, continuously published newspaper), staff writer Eric Gershon explored some of the dynamics of today’s volatile job market, shaky economy, and job satisfaction. I was delighted to be quoted in the cover story and share the article below (the article can also be accessed through courant.com at http://www.courant.com/business/hc-labor0901. artsep01,0,2355849.story).
Workers Happy To Have Jobs,
But Unhappy In Them
By Eric Gershon, Courant Staff Writer
For 25 years, Jan Melnik, a career coach in Durham, has been helping people look for work, from salesmen to real estate brokers to fed-up physicians looking for different avenues of employment.
Some clients come to Melnik jobless. But most, 85 or 90 percent, she says, are fully employed — unhappily.
As employers have reacted to more than a year of economic turmoil by cutting staff, slashing budgets and expecting more from fewer workers, she finds an even larger number of people getting less pleasure from work.
"People just aren’t getting a sense of reward and personal accomplishment," said Melnik, founder of Absolute Advantage. "They’re being thwarted by circumstances totally outside of their control."
To the unemployed desperate for a paycheck, seeking personal fulfillment from a job may seem a luxury. In Connecticut and the United States as a whole, unemployment is rising — although it’s still below 6 percent — even as mass layoffs remain relatively rare.
The U.S. economy has shed more than 400,000 jobs since the start of 2008, and Connecticut job creation is flat, meaning the opportunities for workers to move around are limited.
But however plentiful or scarce, employment doesn’t necessarily bring satisfaction. And as the 114th Labor Day passes, there is evidence that Americans are feeling fretful and frustrated at work because of changing labor conditions and broad economic stress.
Surveys show a stable, and in some cases growing, level of overall job satisfaction. But that masks deeper problems, many experts say.
"A lot of people like their job because they like having a job," said Carl Van Horn of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, which on Thursday released a report called "The Anxious American Worker." "They don’t necessarily like the aspects of the job."
At some companies, layoffs, even a small number of them, have generated a pervasive fear that others will follow. Disappearing colleagues and hiring freezes leave remaining workers with more to do, often without pay increases, and less time for each task, breeding resentment.
Management changes and reorganization in the wake of layoffs and mergers often leave workers with new or uncertain responsibilities.
"All of those things lead to dissatisfaction, not only with work, but with life," said James O’Toole, author of "The New American Workplace" and a business professor at the University of Denver.
Among other things, the Rutgers study, based on a May survey of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. residents, found that 13 percent of respondents said they had been laid off since 2005, nearly 60 percent of them in the 12 months before the survey.
Of respondents who had survived a round of layoffs, 60 percent reported feeling that morale had decreased as a result, and nearly 50 percent said they began to fear being laid off, according to the study.
At the same time, salaried workers reported working longer hours, and hourly workers fewer and feeling hostage to employers’ demands. And pay has lagged inflation for many workers.
The result: The economic expansion of 2001 to 2007 was the first one ever in which median family income did not rise, according to "The State of Working America 2008-09," released this weekend by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
In Connecticut, the median hourly wage — the level at which half of all workers earn less and half earn more — stood at $18.51 in 2007, according to a new report, "The State of Working Connecticut," by Connecticut Voices for Children. That was down from $18.88 in 2001, adjusted for inflation. The decline happened even as worker output climbed steadily.
In those same years, the percentage of workers provided health insurance by their employers fell from 65 to 60, the report shows.
In a heady economy, unhappy workers might simply quit for a better job. That’s not easy now. Unable to find positions they like better, most workers keep the jobs they have, minimizing turnover.
Economic pressures combine with workplace conditions, contributing to workers’ stress. For example, falling home prices and inflation that’s outpacing wage growth serve to heighten anxiety about financial security.
Melnik, the Durham career counselor, says she’s working with salesmen who have found their territories expanded and requirements to travel more on weekends, and computer technicians who are being asked to take nine service calls in a day when six used to be the norm.
She’s also seeing doctors, not for her health, but their peace of mind. Fed up with the demands of insurance companies, she said, more private practice physicians seem to be thinking of other careers, such as working with medical device manufacturers.
"There are a lot of MDs that are miserable," she said. "It is something I never saw before the last two years."
Contact Eric Gershon at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant