Just and socially responsible’ layoffs can mitigate depression among workers

M. Harvey Brenner, PhD

An international research team led by a UNT Health Science Center epidemiologist found that a just and socially responsible layoff process is important for the emotional health of workers – a study that occurred during the most severe recession since the Great Depression.

The findings could inform how downsizing companies approach layoffs, emphasizing processes that are transparent, understandable, fair and well planned, said M. Harvey Brenner, PhD, Professor of Behavioral and Community Health.

"Depression is one of the most common health conditions in the workforce," said Dr. Brenner, lead author of the study, which appears in the journal PLOS One. "This appears to be the first study showing that different approaches to downsizing and retention make an enormous difference in the subsequent mental health of workers."

Global unemployment increased by almost 34 million workers between 2007 and 2009. Through telephone surveys beginning near the end of the recession, investigators questioned 758 workers in France, Hungary, Sweden and Great Britain who were affected by layoffs affecting at least 10 percent of their companies’ workforces.

Respondents evaluated their symptoms across six core areas of depression: feeling blue, lack of interest in things, reduced energy, excessive worrying, self-accusation (blaming yourself for events) and feeling that "everything is an effort." Among the key findings:

  • Depressive symptoms are associated with both unemployment and surviving layoffs.
  • A layoff process perceived as socially responsible, well organized and fair reduced the odds of depressive symptoms, but a chaotic process increased them.
  • Downsized workers who were retrained for other jobs inside or outside their companies had little increase in depressive symptoms.

"The optimal management of downsizing should involve workers in the process of organizational change, open and honest communication, clear and fair criteria for terminations and assistance to departing employees," Dr. Brenner said.

The study was supported by the European Community Program for Employment and Social Solidarity and included Dr. Brenner’s colleagues in Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Great Britain and France.

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