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High unemployment inspires working hard for job security

At 4:30 a.m., Paul Stevenson is awake. At 5:30, he's at the gym. At 7:30, he's flicking on the lights in his Clearwater office, a hot coffee in hand. • The work day begins. Stevenson, a partner in the McCormick Stevenson engineering firm, will spend his next 101/2 hours here, managing a trimmed-down staff of designers and drafters. • At 6 p.m., the 46-year-old father of two returns home for dinner and a game or two of solitaire. Then the laptop comes out. The job has followed him home. The workday doesn't end. • "Over the last several years I've found myself sucked into work more and more, and certainly these economic times aren't helping," he said. "Our clients can be very demanding at times. They expect you to be working on their problem as often as possible, and if you're not willing to, someone else will."

Of those in Tampa Bay wanting to work, one in eight is unemployed. But people with jobs, nonetheless, are feeling the strain, too, in terms of stress, workload and worries over job competition.

The record-breaking unemployment, said University of South Florida psychology professor Paul Spector, has fueled in employees a sense of "workplace misery" — feeling trapped in a disliked job and feeling anxious over one's financial uncertainty, feeling exploited by a piled-on workload. Even the survivor's guilt of watching colleagues get laid off can feel "like after a funeral — pretty difficult, pretty devastating."

Workers are thankful, of course, that they still have a livelihood. But in their fight to keep it, they've sacrificed sleep, leisure and sanity, with no end in sight.

"In some cases, employees are misreading the demands. In some cases, it's employers being unreasonable. In some cases, it's a matter of survival," he said. "The big problem is when employees don't know the difference."

• • •

When Brooksie Barton, 30, interviewed for her job as a runway engineer at AECOM in Tampa last year, she was up front: her family came first. Outside of work, she goes to the park with her boys, Brin, 5, and Ethan, 3, enjoys her out-of-work electrician husband's cooking and serves as president of two local engineering chapters. At night, when her children go to sleep, she unwinds in her quiet Valrico home with sci-fi and fantasy novels.

She tries her best to prioritize, she said, and maintain a healthy work-life balance. But that attitude isn't easy to maintain when hours are reduced, pay is cut, and friends and former colleagues are struggling to make ends meet.

"It seems like now we have to work even harder to keep our positions because there are so many people competing," she said from her desk during a "working lunch," typically a microwaved Healthy Choice meal.

"It's very hard sometimes to come home and make the designation between work and life, and not have those worries and stresses come with you," she said. "Sometimes your commitment with your kids is looked down upon because you're not putting in 60 hours a week."

To some, workaholism is virtue, a devotion to productivity and a job well done.

The problem is that everything outside of the professional life, like family and friends, gets left behind. The solution, according to psychologists: learning to say "no."

But employees said that in this economy, and in this era of expendability, declining work can be tantamount to professional suicide.

A 2008 Families and Work Institute study of 3,500 employees nationwide found that nearly half of all respondents spent more than 45 hours at work, with one in 10 working more than 60 hours.

More than 80 percent of both groups said they worked longer than preferred, and nearly half reported often feeling overwhelmed. And even with such long hours, one in five said they would lose their jobs if they worked less.

In the hustle to stay afloat, the 9-to-5 job has become a quaint symbol of the past.

• • •

It wasn't always like this.

"In my first few years, you couldn't really miss," said Kolby Jones, 28. "Everyone in real estate was making money. It seemed like such a great career."

Jones, fresh out of Florida State University, worked with a real estate developer until the housing bubble burst. In late 2008, the developer eliminated his salary and put him strictly on commission.

A self-described "worker bee," Jones continued with the job sans salary for two months. After a number of interviews, in which he competed with candidates who had four times his experience, he found new employment at Wallace Welch & Willingham, a downtown St. Petersburg insurance agency. He now says he works about 70 hours a week.

"Anybody who has a job, it's a lucky thing," he said. "Everyone's having to work harder right now. ... Everybody's on their p's and q's. It's just not a healthy market."

The stress hits the self-employed, too. Kristine Ketcham, 58, has run a management consulting firm out of her St. Petersburg home for five years. But as need for work has increased, she has begun traveling much more to clients nationwide, leaving Monday mornings, returning Friday nights and preparing for hours on the weekends.

"If you're independent, if you're self-employed, it's always about where's the next client, where's the next job," Ketcham said. "In this kind of economy, you can't say 'no.' … That just adds to the stress."

Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute, said employees' high personal standards have for years motivated employees to overwork. But that internal commitment is now seen by many as a compulsory demand, with grave consequences for those who rest and recover.

"Increasingly, there has been this feeling since the recession that you don't want to be seen as a slacker when people are making decisions on who to keep and who not to keep," she said.

"They work longer hours because there's this fantasy that at the end of the rainbow, if they get all of this stuff done today, they'll have a better day tomorrow. Which, of course, never happens. The rainbow just gets longer and longer."

• • •

Employees said waiting on the economy to ease their schedule hasn't worked. But some have found their own ways to cope with hectic workloads.

Summer Taylor, 33, who runs the Good Dog/Bad Dog Creative Design studio from her home in Brandon, hired a business coach to protect her from herself.

"Before my coach, I was all over the place," Taylor said. "I'd get up and work, work all day, maybe spend a little bit of time in the evenings and go back to work at night. It was too much."

Now she sets aside time for reading, kayaking, walking her two dogs, Marshall and Raley, and attending her women's entrepreneur group, the "biz-e-chicks."

Rachel Cantor, 28, said she works up to 80 hours a week at her technical recruiting business, RC Associates LLC, in West Shore. She sleeps about six hours a night, works through lunch and stays turned on to her job at all hours with her iPhone.

Dinners with friends, kickball games and eating healthy, she said, keep her going.

"It's really important to take time for yourself, … to find that thing that makes you sane again," she said. "Some people are getting so stressed out they're forgetting the basics."

Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.

High unemployment inspires working hard for job security 02/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 9:59pm]
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