Connie Schultz | White Collars Are Feeling the Blue-Collar Woes

When Youngstown, Ohio, factory workers started losing their jobs in the 1980s, labor researcher and advocate John Russo invited local doctors to meet with a stress expert to prepare them for the onslaught of medical problems sure to come.

“None of the doctors was interested,” said Russo, who is co-director with Sherry Linkon of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. “Nobody wanted to acknowledge that losing your job could hurt your health, even after it was clear that it was happening. Heart disease, strokes, depression, diabetes — it can take up to five years for these to manifest after losing a job, but we were definitely seeing it.

“We even saw an increase in teenage suicides because the kids were internalizing what was happening to their parents and blaming themselves.”

As Russo and Linkon always are quick to point out, it didn’t help that most of the laid-off employees who were hurting were from the working class. Their plight didn’t spark a lot of studies or media coverage.

“Back then,” Russo said, “nobody cared. Even those on the political left tended to blame the victims, saying the blue-collar workers were suffering because of their ‘lifestyles’ — their drinking and smoking and eating unhealthy foods and not going to spas. There were definite class issues at play.”

Three decades later, our country has seen the most job loss in 25 years. This time, it’s not just factory workers getting laid off or suffering the health consequences. Americans who never imagined themselves vulnerable — including the journalists who didn’t cover those hurting factory workers — are losing their jobs at unprecedented rates. Often, laid-off professionals are losing their health care, too.

As Russo and Linkon frequently explain, Youngstown’s story in the 1980s is America’s story today.

Now everyone cares.

Last week, The New York Times ran a Page One story about how job loss can impair our health dramatically and even shorten our lives. It mentioned numerous studies showing the negative health impact of layoffs. Researchers at Yale University, for example, found the risk of heart attack and stroke increased among older workers. A study at the State University of New York at Albany found an 83 percent increase in stress-related health problems — including diabetes, arthritis and psychiatric issues.

Some studies indicate that even the constant fear of losing a job can diminish a person’s health dramatically. It’s especially hard for those who lost a job and found a new one, Linkon said, because they fear that what happened once can happen again.

“You retain a sense of vulnerability,” she said. “You’re in a constant state of anxiety.”

Michael McKee, a health psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, has been studying the impact of stress on physical and emotional health for decades. He said most people lose far more than just a paycheck when they’re laid off, and it’s the stress of those residual losses that can take a toll on their health.

“The result of a job loss is a whole string of losses,” he said. “They lose the structure of their days, the relationships at work, their sense of accomplishment and purpose. They often lose their health care. They lose their self-respect and identity, and that’s increasingly true for women as well as men. Over time, they start thinking they’ve lost the respect of others, too, even if it isn’t true.”

Ultimately, McKee said, they lose hope. And that’s a hard thing to regain.

Unemployment is at record highs, and the ranks of the uninsured continue to swell. Many white-collar jobs are gone for good. In so many ways, laid-off professionals are suffering the same consequences, including stress-related illnesses, that started unraveling the lives of blue-collar workers three decades ago.

The gap is narrowing between the employee who bathes first thing in the morning and the worker who showers after the whistle blows.

Perhaps in that narrowing distance, we’ll find the future of hope.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House, “Life Happens” and “… and His Lovely Wife.” She is a featured contributor in a recently released book by Bloomsbury, “The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union.'”

Copyright 2010