Buddy, Can You Spare a Shrink?

Article excerpt

In the United States an economic downturn usually means that many workers will lose their jobs. Once a company lets employees go, in most cases, all ties are severed-the company takes no responsibility for their future.

Whether they've been with the firm for 10 months or 10 years, essentially they are on their own to cope with the realities of joblessness and to find new work.

Their families and the larger society also are left floundering, snagged by a problem that we refuse to address-often until it is too late.

Does business have a responsibility to its employees? Perhaps it is an issue we are uncomfortable facing because we don't want to imagine that involuntary unemployment could ever happen to us. But the official U.S. unemployment rate, as of December 1990, reached 6.1 percent, and most experts expect to see that figure continue to grow.

The effects of unemployment are felt far beyond the pocketbook: Me unemployed often suffer physical and mental deterioration, the family and community fabric tears, even the national well-being is abraded. A look at the following statistics from a 1982 study illustrates some of the more shocking effects of unemployment:

* When unemployment increases by 1 percent, suicide increases by 4.1 percent, and murder increases by 5.7 percent.

* Arthritis, headaches, skin disorders, and gastro-intestinal problems increase with a 1 percent increase in unemployment; the state prison population increases by 4 percent; and first-time admissions at mental hospitals rise by 4.3 percent for males and 2.3 percent for females, all regardless of age and race.

* Deaths from stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease, hypertension and cirrhosis of the liver, are notably higher among the unemployed, as are uric acid and cholesterol levels.

* A 1 percent increase in unemployment costs the Social Security fund $3.4 billion, at a time when it is already in trouble. Furthermore, early retirement as an alternative to unemployment only increases the drain on the fund by causing more dollars to come out earlier and fewer to go in.

The reason for this tremendous impact of unemployment, especially for the individual, is rooted in the American culture: Work is deeply entwined with the social, psychological and economical aspects of people's lives. Not only is work a source of income, it is an instrument workers use to learn to structure time and manifest creativity. Work can provide a purpose, a sense of mastery, and even a sense of identity and status. The workplace also offers employees the opportunity to share experiences with others outside their families and links their personal and family goals to larger goals and purposes.

Naturally, then, the sudden deprivation of work-through job loss or even retirement-can have more than economic effects, since it strips away all the value the workplace gives to the employed. Abraham Maslow, in his 1954 study Motivation and Personality, developed a five-stage hierarchical model that describes the relation between one's needs and motivations and explains the mechanics of deprivation suffered by the unemployed.

At the lowest level he defined (1) physiological needs, above these (2) the need for security, then (3) the need for love and belonging, followed by (4) self-esteem, and finally, at the highest level of human need, (5) the need for self-actualization.

Maslow's thesis is simple: An unfulfilled need is motivational, but when a need is fulfilled, it no longer gives rise to motivation. That is, a hungry person is motivated to seek food, but one who has eaten enough pushes away from the dinner table. Furthermore, one whose lower needs are unsatisfied will not look to any higher need: A starving person cares very little about self-actualization or self-esteem.

Applied to the world of work, the lowest need level is that of salary and fringe benefits, followed by job security, social interaction, recognition for achievement and personal growth. …