For federal workers, these intervening weeks between the end of the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history and the looming Feb. 15 deadline for funding the government might seem like a temporary reprieve. They’re at work, their paychecks are back on track and they’re busy catching up on work that went unfinished during the 35-day furlough.
But research by management experts shows that the threat of imminent uncertainty at work — such as a furlough, a layoff or other stressful workplace event — can be just as fraught to workers as the event itself.
“Psychologically, they’re exactly the same thing — the threat of the event happening and the actual event happening,” said Anthony Wheeler, a management professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania who has studied workers who have undergone the traumas of furloughs as well as the threat of a layoff.
“The more an organization announces something is going to happen, the more that gets ‘decoupled’ from the event itself,” he explains.
In other words, the barrage of media coverage, tweets from President Trump, communication from their bosses and chatter about the pending deadline surrounding the State of the Union address can make the threat feel just as real. In Trump’s speech Tuesday night, it came up again: “Congress has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our government, protect our homeland, and secure our very dangerous southern border.”
Said Wheeler: “The announcements become shocks themselves."
Research, he said, has found similarities between furloughs and layoffs, even if layoffs mean a more permanent loss of income and job security, while a furlough is temporary.
“The psychological underpinnings are the same because as an individual, it’s causing you to think you have something to lose,” Wheeler said.
“We as humans have this bucket of resources,” he said, such as our levels of optimism or feeling of control. “So whether it’s a merger or a furlough, it’s called the threat of loss. People are fearful of losing their resources.”
It can also prompt an organization’s best people to leave. In studies of state workers before and after a furlough, and nurses before and after a hospital system merger (which brought with it a threat of layoffs), the announcement of the event had as strong of an impact on the best-performing employees’ intention to leave — or their actual departures — as the event itself, Wheeler said.
“What we found is high performers who perceive they have job options are going to leave, and they are going to leave quickly,” he said.
Other studies show that now, after less than two weeks back in the workplace, federal workers are still suffering from the side effects of the last shutdown. Lisa Baranik, a management professor at the University at Albany in New York, studied what happened after the 16-day shutdown in 2013. For up to five weeks after it ended, the effects lingered among employees.
“Furloughs are about much more than financial stress,” Baranik said in an interview. “Employees gain a lot of intangible benefits from the workplace like talking to friends, engaging in interesting projects and getting support from their supervisors."
When that’s taken away, they also lose a lot of the positive effects of work, such as optimism or a sense of achievement, and those take time to build back. And that five-week recovery timeline happened in a shutdown that was less than half the length of the one that just ended, suggesting this one could take longer.
Some argue that differences in motivation among federal workers to work in public service make it trickier to compare it to private-sector layoffs. The government workforce, said Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, “is unique in that the value proposition for federal employees is in the mission.”
And others say that historically, federal employees have been somewhat accustomed to shutdowns. Jonathon Halbesleben, a management professor at the University of Alabama, said in an email that as he’s talked to people about new research possibilities, that’s what he’s heard, and that comparing them to layoffs in the past would not be equal.
But that may not be the case in the last shutdown.
“I think most would agree that this past shutdown and the threat of the upcoming shutdown is a very different psychological experience,” he said. “I imagine the current shutdown experience for federal workers is a lot closer to layoffs in the private sector than has been the case in the past."
Either way, there is still stress — and plenty of it. David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the American Psychological Association, said long-standing research has shown that unpredictability and instability that increases stress levels on the job — whether it be a furlough, a layoff or mere scheduling irregularities — spill over into a worker’s home life, affecting both personal well-being and performance on the job.
“The common thread there is those things increase work stress,” Ballard said. “We have to realize that just because people came back to work, the stress is not over. You can’t be fully on at work because that’s weighing on you.”