Hidden Motives

A look at the hidden factors that really drive our social interactions

"There Is No Job Security"

And Not Many Jobs

That’s what a career counselor commented to The New York Times, in a story about rising fears of unemployment. “Job security is maintaining cutting-edge skills and establishing a far-reaching network.” In other words it is about continually preparing to be fired.

The new myth about the job market used to be that there is a new psychological contract between workers and employers, based on constantly changing demands of the market. Workers needed to be adaptive, or as The Times put it “the newest generation of workers, those in their 20s and 30s, [are] prepared to hop from job to job over their lifetime.”

“Data collected from 1997 to 2011 of nearly 4,000 employees in 40 organizations,” however, “does not back up [that] general belief. . . . Rather, it appears to be a significant stressor.” Says Tahira M. Probst, a professor of psychology at Washington State University.

And there are a lot of people in that position. A Gallup poll found that in August 2013 almost one-third of workers feared being laid off, compared with about half that number in August 2008.

“Job security,” said the counselor, “– it’s an oxymoron.”

Faced with this new reality, human resource experts are now advising more and better communication. On the company level, managers need to learn to communicate honestly, frequently and realistically, one professor said, and the communication needs to address the real worries of the workers.

In other words, “if there are changes, how will this affect my job?” she said. “They also need to say what is known and what is not known. When employees don’t trust management, rumors will start, and then it is very hard to convince people they are not true.” Firms should do this because it is better for workers, another professor said, but it also is better for the bottom line.

“From a business perspective,” he said. “Insecure workers are not happy workers and not productive workers.” (See, “Uncertainty About Jobs Has a Ripple Effect.”)

But communication skills do not address the underlying fact that the supply of jobs is shrinking. Faced with that decline, more and more workers are “choosing” to leave the job market.

The myth of the new psychological contract in the workplace was short-lived. And even in the days of its greater plausibility, it did not address the fact that it was always far more true for industries that required complex skills. Unskilled workers were far more vulnerable to economic downturns.

There are also more vulnerable to anxiety and, according to a professor of psychology at Washington State University, the risk of accidents. They “pay less attention to safety and subsequently experience more injuries and accidents at work.” Moreover, “employees who were more worried about losing their jobs or having their benefits or hours cut were also less likely to use any support programs than those who felt more secure.”

As one professor put it: “when a worker fears job loss, the last thing you want your supervisor to think is that you’re not putting in 150 percent. You want to seem indispensable.”

Ken Eisold is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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