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Downsizing and its links to depression

By Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor, Clinical and Educational Psychologist, Senior Lecturer, UTT.

In 2006, many of us had joined the University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) as educators, sharing the vision that this new local university would provide for the tertiary needs of an underserved population of persons with multiple intelligences, who were not accepted by the academic UWI institution.

I remember a sense of pride as I watched young people graduate years later with skills that were unique to the UTT, many of them first-generation holders of university degrees of their families.

In those early years, there was a filial bond amongst us colleagues, as we worked together, many long hours, to develop programmes that would be accredited by both external and local accreditation bodies. However, as political parties changed, so did the vision of the UTT, and relevance became irrelevant, service was translated into disservice, personal agendas ruled the day and organisational downsizing therefore, became a necessity in the present economic downturn of our country.

These are economically difficult times for many companies and decisions to downsize are often driven by the logic of business survival, competitiveness and an attempt to improve the overall efficiency of organisations. As usually happens, the adverse effects of downsizing on the mental health of workers are often not considered. This process is associated with a greater likelihood of depression among workers who have been displaced, replaced and laid off.

Depression (and its associative symptoms) is ranked as the leading cause of disability in the world and one of the most common contributors to emotional distress, declining health and mental illness of workers, especially when the manner in which terminations are done, seem to be more traumatic than the actual terminations themselves.

When dismissals lack transparency and clarity and there seems to be an inaccuracy of information that would have informed the decision-making process, employee perceptions of fairness and justice are affected.

We all know that in a downsizing economy, some layoffs are unavoidable, and even though early warning signs may have been given, these layoffs have to be done in a socially responsible way.

Perceptions of procedural justice of a socially responsible downsizing process can considerably lessen depression, especially if affected workers view this process as transparent and understandable, fair and unbiased, well-planned and democratic.

Research shows that ‘redeploying and supporting surplus employees through the career change process—rather than forcing them to become unemployed’, is important for the emotional health of workers and makes a difference as to whether they will suffer from depression.

In any organisation, when a restructuring takes place, workers want an opportunity to influence the process, to be treated as ‘assets to be developed rather than as costs to be terminated’. Instead, it has been heartbreaking to witness mild-mannered colleagues become fired-up, spitting forth fury over dismissals perceived as unclear and unfair.

For many, in the autumn of their lives, there would be difficulties of re-employment, decreased income and benefits, and poor financial security, all added factors which lead to an increased risk for poor mental and physical health and well-being.

And what of those workers left behind in the workplace? After employee dismissals, there are severe risks to those whose jobs may not be affected and the likelihood of depression also increases.

In my interaction with many of the ‘survivors’, they have reported decreased commitment and performance. This is known as the survivor syndrome. When workers see their colleagues dismissed, there is increased stress due to the higher workload for the remaining employees, mistrust in management, waning commitment, apathy, decreased levels of involvement and motivation, absenteeism, and lessened job satisfaction.

What are the health policies that support workers, those who are dismissed and those who remain, after a downsizing exercise? What can be done to mitigate the present chaotic environment where the morale of colleagues has descended into a seemingly bottomless pit of insecurities and vengeful ideation. Who next?

And how does one cease to be relevant after a dismissal, my colleague Rudy questioned, after giving years of dedicated service? Being relevant is the core of one’s social identity, derived from membership within the organisation and where ‘identity’ is fundamental to self-concept and self-esteem.

As I walk through my beloved campus and engage with staff and students, I am reminded of the words by Martin Luther King: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy’.

To all my colleagues, education is the movement from darkness to light. We sought to create this movement for our students. Let us continue to be unwavering in our commitment to this principle.