The shoddy economy is leaving many workers feeling overworked, underpaid — and yet relieved to be employed at all.
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“Fewer workers are doing more and more,” said Brett Good, a district president with staffing firm Robert Half, which has surveyed workers on this topic. “You’ve got a lot of people that are working harder, making less money — and you’re getting to a point of frustration.”
Employers have cut millions of jobs since the recession began in December 2007, driven by a drop in business and a desire to shore up costs and boost profits. Although the cost-cutting has helped propel a spate of strong earnings in recent weeks, pleasing Wall Street, it has left those who are still employed struggling to pick up the slack.
Fifty-six percent of Americans have taken on extra duties at work over the past two years because of staff cuts, according to insurer MetLife’s Study of the American Dream, which was conducted in April and released last week.
Employees also are cramming more work into each day. Labor productivity has moved steadily higher over the past two years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While many employees have been happy to assume extra duties in exchange for having a job at all, there are signs of growing frustration, or weariness.
More than one-third of college-educated professionals surveyed by Robert Half do not believe they have been fairly compensated for the extra work they have had to take on because of the weak economy.
That may be one reason up to 50 percent of workers say they plan to look for a new job once the economy improves, up from 25 to 35 percent in more prosperous times, said Good.
“Look around your office,” Good said. “About half of those people are passive jobseekers.”
Of course, some people may be eager to switch jobs for other reasons, such as because they were forced to take a pay cut or a position beneath their qualifications because of the weak job market.
Still, the fact that people say they want to find a new job doesn’t mean they will actually do it, Good said.
For one thing, with the unemployment rate at a high 9.5 percent, there still aren’t that many jobs out there. As of May there were about 4.7 jobseekers for every job opening, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Also, with the economic situation still fairly uncertain, many people may feel it is too risky to move to another company, where the situation could be even worse or they could end up being first in line for a layoff, Good said.
Building skills, fearing change
Robert Burgett, 39, is one of those who has been working harder for less money during the recession. Over the past several years the San Francisco-based graphic designer has been asked to take on more responsibilities, including coming up with marketing ideas and writing copy. Meanwhile, he’s had a 20 percent pay cut, seen his health care costs rise and watched as about half of his colleagues have been let go.
In better economic times, that might have prompted him to look around for other opportunities. But in this economy, he worries that a new job would end up being even less secure than the one he has now. And after watching his partner and roommates all go through job losses this year, he doesn’t feel like it would be worth risking what he has now.
Instead, Burgett has tried to see the recession as an opportunity for reinvention. By taking on more responsibilities, he believes he has a much broader wealth of expertise, which could help if he does get laid off.
“I’m looking at it like I’m getting more skills, so I’m more able to market myself,” he said.
‘Happy to have a job’
Most people who are enduring harder days at the office probably are relieved just to be working, said David Bowles, a consultant and co-author of the book “Employee Morale: Driving Performance in Challenging Times."
“The average worker is probably quite happy to have a job,” Bowles said. “The overriding feeling is (that) whatever’s happening to them, they are not on the other side of that fence.”
Still, that doesn’t mean employee morale is high. In fact it is likely to have fallen sharply at companies that have gone through multiple rounds of layoffs or where bosses have been secretive about their company’s financial situation.
On the other hand, if a company has been open about its financial troubles and made clear that everyone is sharing the pain in areas such as pay or benefit cuts, employees might grow more loyal.
“If you’ve been treated OK through this recession, you’re going to remember it and you’re going to want to pay that back,” Bowles said.
Guy Norbury, 55, said he appreciated the way the managers at the large travel company where he works scheduled conference calls to explain what was happening once the economic downturn started, and to reassure employees that they were working hard to keep as many jobs as possible.
The company did end up cutting some people in Norbury’s department, and his workload increased to make up for the lost workers. But Norbury, who telecommutes from his home in New York's Catskills Mountains, said he didn't mind picking up the extra work, especially because of the way his bosses handled the situation.
“They won me over. I was impressed,” he said.
Recently, the company has added back a couple workers, and last week his bosses even surprised him with a 3 percent raise. He said he has no plans to look elsewhere once the economy improves.
“I trust this company completely now,” he said.
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