By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
“You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13)
We believe that human life is sacred, created as we are in the image and likeness of the Creator. God alone is the custodian of life. Issues such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and suicide are the usual foci of this commandment. Since there are thousands of treatises on these topics, I have decided to take a different approach – the killing of the human spirit.
In an insightful article on the present economy, writer Jeffrey Pfeffer notes that an overreliance on downsizing and layoffs is killing workers, the economy, and even the bottom line.1 First, he reflects on the last two decades and points out that layoffs have become increasingly common in corporate life, in good times as well as bad. He acknowledges that there are circumstances in which a company has to downsize in order to survive. But he also draws on recent academic research that finds the costs of doing so when it is not a matter of company survival are often greater than the savings. There is the obvious toll on morale, the physical and health effects on employees, and the anxiety that infects remaining workers. In other words, there is a ‘killing of the spirit.’
Pfeffer writes: “Layoffs literally kill people. In the United States, when you lose your job, you lose your health insurance, unless you can afford to temporarily maintain it under the pricey COBRA provisions. Studies consistently show a connection between not having health insurance and individual mortality rates.” In addition, when people lose their jobs their sense of self-worth takes a serious ‘hit’. They get angry and depressed. Pfeffer notes that, people who are angry and depressed and who believe they have been treated unfairly can lose psychological control and exact vengeance on those they deem responsible. Research shows that even people who have no history of violent behavior are six times more likely to exhibit such after a layoff than similar people who remain employed.
Suicide rates also go up for those who have been dismissed, either fairly or unfairly. Such is the traumatic effect of losing one’s job. Pfeffer continues, “Anyone who’s suffered a layoff or watched a loved one lose a job can understand why downsizees exhibit increased rates of alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse, and depression.” Even in countries where there are strong social-welfare programs, losing one’s job is a traumatic experience.
Honoring the human spirit implies a caring attitude towards those who have to be laid off in order for a company to survive. Pfeffer describes some compassionate ways to minimize the psychological damage of layoffs: “Companies that behave humanely – by providing generous severance packages and allowing displaced employees to say goodbye to colleagues rather than marching them out the door – are likely to see a smaller hit to morale. Well-run companies also communicate clearly about why they’re eliminating jobs….” Respecting the dignity of each person is key to understanding this commandment.
Pfeffer concludes: “Despite all the research suggesting downsizing hurts companies (is harmful for the economy and devastating for employees), managers everywhere continue to do it.” High unemployment thus continues. The hope of finding another job, especially in the present economy, keeps dwindling. The spirit of those who are suffering the effects of ‘overzealous downsizing’ is seriously damaged if not destroyed.
Life is a precious gift entrusted to us by God. The fifth commandment includes respect for the physical, emotional, and mental health of the members of society. We each have a responsibility to make sure our institutions safeguard life in all its forms – from the ‘womb to the tomb.’ Thus, this commandment is not for individuals only to observe but the whole community, for the common good.
1. “Lay Off the Layoffs: Why Downsizing is Bad for Business,” by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Newsweek, February 15, 2010), pp. 32-37.
(February/March 2010 Newsletter)