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The Relationship Perils of Job Loss

The handsome, articulate young man sitting across from me looked hollow and slightly hopeless as he recounted that four years ago, everything looked great for him and his young bride. He had a good job with a top financial organization and was working on a master’s degree when cutbacks left him unemployed. Now four year later and still jobless, he confided that he and his wife are near divorce, mental health issues have surfaced, and isolation especially from work and former work-colleagues had taken their toll.

He is one of millions out there: college grads unemployed or underemployed living with their parents, inner city fathers defined and deflated by their inability to support their families, single-parent moms stressed and alone in providing for their kids.

Sadly, his story reminds me of a senior manager I terminated a decade ago and found out several months later that he was getting up, getting dressed and going to the library each day and had not told his wife or teenage daughter of his job loss. Work is foundational to the relationships that undergird our well-being — economic, social and emotional.

Relationships are often the first major casualty for the unemployed or even the underemployed. We underestimate the value of work when we view it just in economic terms. Work is much more than the value customers receive or the pay workers collect for producing products and services. And, it is more than the shareholder value it creates. Work contributes to essential relationships that yield crucial psychic income. And as the structure of work changes, so do our relationships and our society. It is the magnitude of this change that now warrants our urgent attention.

Peter Cove, founder of America Works, the first for-profit, welfare-to-work company in America, says that work socializes people and instills a sense of personal responsibility in them, and connects behavior and consequences. It permits people to obtain the admiration and respect of their spouses and children.

The changing nature of our work has created the perfect storm. The lead work-story today is our high unemployment hovering near eight percent. The workforce participation rate — civilian working-age population that is either working or looking for work — was 63.6 percent in December of 2012 — the lowest in three decades and lowest on record for men. That reminds me of a description of European football: “22,000 people who desperately need exercise watching 22 people who desperately need rest.”

In addition to jobs lost due to recession, automation, outsourcing and off-shoring, there is a seismic shift in the relationships where we work — weakening the tie between company and employee. For example, physical separation grows as those working from home jumped 41 percent in the past decade. The use of contract labor has exploded in recent decades. Temp jobs have skyrocketed from 185,000 workers per day in the late 1970s to three million a day by the year 2000. This decline in relationship infrastructure follows a larger pattern: less marriage, more divorce, more single-parent families, greater numbers living alone, the demise of extended families, fewer close friends, weaker communities, shorter work tenures and less loyal customers.

It is hard to imagine how we will improve our lives and our society on the back of unemployed, underemployed and less committed workers.

The challenge of producing stable, meaningful work and work relationships is daunting given the structural change in a hyper-competitive global marketplace. The pressure to produce goods and services cheaper, aided by technology, means the continued hemorrhaging of jobs — particularly lower paying ones. No easy answers, but we start with rethinking how work and relationships function together to increase value.

First we must better understand the cost to society of “no work.” Work is costly; “no work” is prohibitive. The costs in unemployment benefits, marital and family discord, and physical and mental health of the habitually idle that are unable or unwilling to find work — eventually overwhelms. These costs will be paid by someone; the savings from lower labor costs in the marketplace have a way of showing up as higher taxes. Who can afford the fully-loaded cost – social, emotional, economic — of a growing population of unemployed or underemployed workers?

Second we need a clearer vision of the value of relationships in productive work. The research is compelling: strong teams are key to innovation. Strong employee engagement — emotional attachment to the job, colleagues and organization — are tied to better financial results enabled by improved customer service, more sales and greater productivity. Employers viewed as good-to-work-for outperform their counterparts. Most often, layoffs are the consequence of team failures in figuring out markets, serving customers and producing innovative or desired products.

Third, as a society we must re-envision and rebrand “the worker.” We must do everything in our power to remove obstacles and reward hiring. Unfortunately rising health care and related costs, make hiring workers punitive, lowering the numbers hired. Today for many employers, healthcare benefits are approaching 25 to 30 percent of labor costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accordingly, organizations have become masters of worker elimination — via technology, part-time or temp workers or just plain business contraction. Financially, workers are mostly viewed through the microscope of cost rather than the telescope of investment. Wall Street is notorious for applauding layoffs. If our business mindset and government policies including taxation were riveted on more hiring, surely we could rehabilitate “the worker.”

In addition, we must rebrand work. Sadly, we have become a culture that demeans manual labor like working at McDonald’s, lawn work, or construction — as “uncool” or even oppressive. If more Wall Street hotshots had frontline work experience, we might have a different ethos there. And, if more at the bottom saw manual labor as more valuable and a training ground for moving up, we might have higher and more productive employment.

In a society where much is overhyped, the dynamic team of work and relationships could use a PR makeover — because relationships are central to work and work is central to relationships.

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