Why would I write a piece about workplace PTSD in November? After all, I’m one month late for Healthy Workplace Month in Canada. I’m six months late for Mental Health Month in America. And the month of June, when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) awareness is highlighted for both countries, has long passed. Well, I’m writing this because of the current economic conditions where I live. Recent layoffs, and threats of more to come, are a prime trigger for PTSD. It’s a conversation we all need to have, to help each other through these times. In fact, I think “Workplace PTSD Awareness” deserves its own special week of recognition.
How Shareholder Primacy Compounds Workplace PTSD
The Oxford dictionary defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock.” Most of us imagine soldiers and first responders when we think about people who may suffer from PTSD. The truth is, this condition is far more common in corporate workplaces than many would like to admit. I believe shareholder primacy not only compounds it; it is one of the primary causes of it.
…The idea that businesses exist primarily to benefit shareholders — also known as shareholder primacy — took hold in corporate America in the 1980s. In 1997, the Business Roundtable embraced the idea in a document outlining governance principles.
The concept has been criticized for leading to a fixation on short-term results and helping fuel the rapid increase in executive pay. (Bloomberg, August 2019)
My parents’ generation had more job security than my generation (and younger ones) have ever known. Long gone are the days when anyone got a job out of school and grew with one company through to retirement. I graduated from high school in 1989 and business college in 1993. I’ve only worked under this shareholder primacy ideology; it’s all I’ve ever known. For 25+ years, I’ve experienced the constant stress and uncertainty caused by corporate buyouts, restructuring, and the inevitable resulting lay offs at pretty much every company I’ve worked for. Everyone I know has experienced the same. It’s commonplace now. But that doesn’t make it any easier on the human psyche.
Workplace PTSD and the Constant Fight-or-Flight Response
I got my start in newspaper advertising years ago after Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. took ownership of all the daily newspapers across Canada. I can still recall hearing about the day he arranged for Saskatoon StarPhoenix staff members to meet at a nearby hotel. They were divided into three groups and herded like cattle into different conference rooms, so the story goes. One of those groups (approximately 80 people) lost their jobs that day and were forbidden from re-entering the business premises again; their personal belongings would be couriered to them. The others were told that 80 of their friends had lost their jobs that day. Then they were sent back to work. Conrad Black ripped the proverbial Band-Aid off, decisively cut costs, then brought in fresh (e.g., younger, cheaper) labour like me two months later.
That sounds like a cruel and insensitive form of shareholder primacy, doesn’t it? Maybe. I’ve experienced the opposite extreme where, one by one, over a period of several months, my colleagues received The Call from Human Resources. Some companies preferred to do that on Wednesdays; others did it on Fridays. If our phones rang on those particular days, all our hearts would skip a beat. We all lived in constant fight-or-flight response which is both mentally and physically exhausting: “Who’s next? When will it happen?” Personally, I prefer Conrad’s “rip the Band-Aid off” form of psychological shock.
I’ve been the person walked out that door. And I’ve also been the one called into the meeting room and told my friend was just walked out that door. As a matter of fact, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve experienced this kind of trauma during my career. I’m somewhat desensitized by it all now. I suppose that’s a survival mechanism.
Here’s the Good News
The world seems to be shifting now. I see our collective priorities changing in so many ways, and I think this is a good thing. I was thrilled to read the following article earlier this year, and I sincerely hope it comes to pass:
Jamie Dimon and dozens of other leaders at some of the world’s largest companies—including United CEO Oscar Munoz, Abbott CEO Miles White and Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg—said they plan to abandon the long-held view that shareholders’ interests should come first.
The purpose of a corporation is to serve all of its constituents, including employees, customers, investors and society at large, the Business Roundtable said Monday in a statement. (Bloomberg, August 2019)
Husky Oil laid off hundreds of people this past month. Encana is moving its head office from Calgary to Denver which will, no doubt, result in more layoffs there. Our premiere, Jason Kenney, unveiled Alberta’s new budget which will result in “the elimination of more than 2,000 public-sector jobs” over the next four years. The list goes on, and I feel for every single person who is affected by these latest cuts. I honestly feel your pain, because I’ve been in your position before.
I hope you nurture your mental health at this difficult time and never take what is happening around you personally. In reality, it has nothing to do with you. Our world is in flux, trying to redefine its priorities and figure out how exactly to “serve all of its constituents, including employees, customers, investors and society at large.” It’s one thing to say this change should happen, but an entirely different thing to actually do it.
Hang in there. Have hope that it will someday happen.
On Failure and Faith
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