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When Your Job Is in Limbo, Keep Your Feet on the Ground


When EToys management warned its staff in December that it wouldn't hit its sales goals, employees such as Malinee Kukkonen sensed the final blow was coming. Knowing that layoffs lurked ahead and that she could be among the ones to go, Kukkonen, a Web producer, found it hard to concentrate on her job.

"I did my best to keep up with the daily routine, but at the same time, my attention was focused on what I was going to do with my future," she said. "It was pretty depressing to hear that news. Everyone was sad. The morale was definitely low. The work environment had changed."

At companies throughout America, workers are experiencing anxieties similar to Kukkonen's. They sense layoffs may be coming and worry they'll be on the list.

But while they remain at their jobs, they're faced with the challenge of staying productive as they battle fears, anxieties and depression. Should they work harder and demonstrate loyalty when they might be earmarked for termination?

"I've found that anticipation of job loss is more stressful than the job loss itself," said Joseph Dadourian, a Los Angeles-based workplace psychologist.

If you're in limbo, you need not succumb to paralysis and despair. Experts offer the following tips to help you improve your mental and physical health, remain productive and regain control of your life during this difficult time.

Avoid the Denial Syndrome

A natural first reaction to a potential loss of livelihood is shock, said Ruth Luban, a Santa Monica-based counselor and author of "Are You a Corporate Refugee? A Survival Guide for Downsized, Disillusioned and Displaced Workers" (Penguin, 2001). It may be accompanied by fear, anxiety, anger and feelings of betrayal.

Those who have identified closely with their jobs may have the hardest time during this uncertain period, Luban said. Workaholics may try to work harder and longer. Some people may try to squelch their emotions with drinking, drugs, binge eating or overspending.

But psychologists such as Luban say it's best to vent emotions and not suppress them. This can be done through journal writing or in support groups, counseling or conversations with caring intimates.

Workers who try to bottle up their emotions may incur other problems: injuries, illnesses, sleeplessness, accidents and spats with family and friends, Luban said. After dealing with the shock of possible layoffs, even well-adjusted workers can fall into denial. They try to convince themselves they'll emerge unscathed during their firm's struggles.

"They say, 'It can't be me, because I had a stellar review' or 'I'm essential to this company,' " Luban said.

Those in denial turn away from signs that trouble may be escalating. While savvier colleagues are revising resumes and putting money away "just in case," these workers try to get assurances from their bosses that their jobs are not in jeopardy.

Supervisors, who are sometimes sworn to secrecy about upcoming layoffs, or who are kept as uninformed as their staff, aren't always helpful in these situations.

"Soliciting reassurance from your boss is a form of shoring up denial," Luban said. "It's instinctual to go to the people you've trusted and say, 'Is this real?' But they're not always allowed to tell you. If you're dependent upon that feedback, it makes the locus of control outside you. Instead, you should be asking yourself, 'How am I going to prepare for my future?' "

"Their struggle shouldn't be staying employed," Dadourian said. "Their goal should be being employable."

Young people tend to weather news of pending layoffs better than their older colleagues, Luban said.

"They never expected loyalty," Luban said. "They're like cowboys. They have their gangs of co-workers. They get their ducks in a row, start networking and sending out resumes. But then, they also don't have the overhead and obligations to worry about that older workers do."

Ignore the Rumor Mill

Rumors are often speculative worst-case scenarios. Though many workers crave grapevine chatter, it tends to exacerbate fears.

Instead of gossiping at the water cooler, educate yourself about your firm and its competitors, suppliers and industry, said Jordan Kaplan, professor of managerial science at Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y. If your company is publicly held, learn what analysts are saying about it.

"Sometimes companies will release information to the financial community before telling their employees about it," Kaplan said.

Keep in mind that your co-workers are on an emotional roller coaster too. Be discriminating about whom you trust. Create an in-house support group of peers with whom you can share concerns, networking tactics and encouragement. Some longtime associates may distance themselves from you or behave out of character during this time. Don't take it personally, experts say. They're probably reacting to stress.

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