2009-03-26 / Features

Want To Keep Your Job? Be Happy

Study shows that a bright disposition helps workers navigate darker times
By Becky Fleischauer CONTRIBUTOR TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

Does the recession with its rampant layoffs and cutbacks make your job look better all the time? Believe it or not, donning a pair of "recession goggles" can be good for your career and your mental health. Research shows that an attitude of gratitude in trying times can not only help you keep your job, but get you the job you want.

It's a counterintuitive concept, for sure. In today's economic maelstrom, the most common responses are panic, fear, anger, distrust, and even hostility. But a Harvard Business Review article "How to Protect Your Job in a Recession" studied the characteristics of recession survivors and found that those who avoided being cut were cheerful, likable, generous contributors, and not necessarily the most skilled and proficient.

"Just don't be the guy who's always in a bad mood, reminding colleagues how vulnerable everyone is. Who wants to be in the trenches with him?" caution authors Janet Banks and Diane Coutu.

Workplace relationship expert Courtney Anderson agrees, and observes that tolerance for bad actors - particularly those higher up the food chain - is shrinking.

"The handwriting is on the wall for them in a lot of organizations," says Anderson, founder of Courtney Anderson & Associates, a human resources firm in Austin, Texas. "When times are good, companies will tolerate a lot. But in this economy, every single decision is double- and triple-checked. It will be tough for the really poor managers to make it through,"

This could explain why the ax is falling higher up the management chain.

Companies are looking to save more money, and bigger salaries yield larger savings. Today's unemployment rate for college-educated workers, 4.1 percent, is the highest it's been since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the data in 1992. It is more than twice its prerecession level, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, putting the risk of being unemployed proportionately higher for college-educated workers than for less-educated ones.

When productivity is in decline, Anderson says, other factors gain more value in the decisionmaking process about who stays and who goes.

"I used to go to organizations," Anderson says, "and they would describe a horrible situation: 'Felicia curses people out, she yells and is mean, but she delivers.' They would want me to figure out how to keep the person and be flexible because the person delivered. Now, with the current macroeconomic picture, they won't put up with it. There is a financial opportunity to get rid of the people who create problems."

Anderson says corporate leaders are now placing more value on workers who add positive energy to the atmosphere beyond increasing sales and visibility. She says that includes placing those who are grouchy and unpleasant on the layoff list, but also the person who never says anything, the colleague who is invisible and flies under the radar.

"All variations of not contributing and making it a positive, efficient workplace are being considered," Anderson says.

If striking a cheerful pose in tough times doesn't come naturally, consider that it does require conscious effort. And even the act of trying to be happy can make a difference.

"If you stay positive, you'll have more influence on how things play out," advise Banks and Coutu.

Banks is a veteran of at least a dozen corporate downsizings, and Coutu has studied resilience in many settings. They say survivors and those who leverage layoffs to their advantage focus on anticipating the needs of customers and those above and below them inside the office.

During periods of numerous layoffs, vacuums occur at all levels, leaving many opportunities to help your boss and the company get more accomplished.

"Prove your value to the firm by showing your relevance to the work at hand," Banks and Coutu note, "which may have shifted since the economy softened."

The key to donning recession goggles is to make decisions you won't regret when the recession fades and more prosperous times return.

"We should affirm to ourselves each day why we are doing what we do," Anderson says. "If you are truly, truly miserable, even in a bad economy, you may be better off doing something else: taking a break, going back to school, or working part time. It's valid to ask ourselves: 'Do I enjoy this? Why am I here?' Reevaluate."

She reminds us that if you find you are in a job exclusively for the paycheck - that is, uh, OK. It is a superb reason to go to work and be satisfied in this economy.

"You can still go to work and have a good day," Anderson says. Especially pay day. "Bad times remind us all of the basics.... We shouldn't take things for granted."

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