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Study: 'Employability' affects attitudes after job losses

Research by Professor Mary Gowan suggests a new approach may be needed to retraining workers laid off from their positions.

Professor Mary Gowan on her research into job losses and employability: “Surviving a job loss isn’t just about having skills and knowledge. It’s also about having a plan and having resilience that can change how you get through that loss.”


As the American economy continues its slow rebound from its deepest recession in generations, the men and women laid off from their places of employment face more than a loss of income. They face a loss of identity.

But when it comes to rebounding from a job loss, both psychologically and financially, those with “employability” beyond basic knowledge and experience recover faster and report feeling better about their lives six years removed from that job loss, according to new research by Elon University Professor Mary Gowan.

“Employability, Well-being and Job Satisfaction Following a Job Loss,” published this fall in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, suggests that policy makers reexamine the way job placement and training programs are designed, with an eye on making it easier for laid-off workers to recover in less time.

“Employability is about a mindset. It’s about being flexible and adaptive and optimistic, and it’s about having good social networks and knowing how to use them,” Gowan said. “Surviving a job loss isn’t just about having skills and knowledge. It’s also about having a plan and having resilience that can change how you get through that loss.”

Gowan’s study examined well-being of individuals immediately after they lost their job due to a company closing, and she followed up with many of the same workers six years later. She measured life satisfaction, self-esteem and stress among the workers and, perhaps not surprisingly, found that individuals with jobs reported more positive well-being than the unemployed, even if the job was not exactly the type desired.

However, those who hadn’t recovered from the job loss and still viewed it as harmful reported higher levels of stress and lower levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem. The difference, Gowan found, had to do with having higher levels of education, but that wasn’t the main driver. The level of self-control employees felt they possessed over their lives had more influence on positive well-being.

“There’s been very little research that has shown the value of job training programs and what are the best designs,” Gowan said. “How do you help people with their career resilience and maintaining optimism?”

Many current programs simply assess skills and experience and match with particular needs, she said, and they spend money on retraining workers with specific tasks fit for those jobs without helping workers develop a stronger sense of control over their careers. Gowan notes that in the 21st century, when careers are more fluid and few people stay with one employer their whole life, workers who reported a stronger sense of attachment to their work fared worse than workers who felt they could easily move between jobs. Those who “embrace change” in their jobs were better off six years after being laid off.

Placement programs should also help laid off workers assess the balance they make between their careers and families. Those who place a greater emphasis on their families cope better with job loss.

“Programs can also help employees maintain their focus on areas outside their work life, recalibrating the importance of career in order to enhance well-being,” Gowan writes in her research. “This approach to outplacement has the potential to position the participant to have a better work/life balance when reemployed.”

Overall, the results of the study highlight the importance of education, gaining reemployment, and both reframing the experience and taking charge of what happens after the job loss.

Gowan served as dean of the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business at Elon from 2007-2011 and, before that, as associate dean for undergraduate programs at The George Washington University School of Business.

Before joining GWU, Gowan was associate professor at the University of Central Florida and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She has also served on the faculty at the University of Texas at El Paso and University College of Mercer University, and was a visiting professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Additionally, she has taught for the Helsinki School of Economics and Business in South Korea and in Finland.

Gowan has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, a master’s degree in counselor education from Appalachian State University and a doctorate in business administration with an emphasis in human resources management from the University of Georgia.

The Journal of Managerial Psychology focuses on the social impact of managerial psychology. Studies published are concerned with the wider aspects of human resource management that is a result of the application of psychology theory and practice.

Eric Townsend,
11/14/2012 11:02 AM