In Brief

With rising predictions of a downturn in the U.S. economy, job security is an increasingly salient issue. Queen's School of Business organizational behavior guru Julian Barling, PhD, knows well the effects of corporate cost-cutting on workers. Now, his most recent study, published in APA's Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, finds children's academic performance and emerging work attitudes suffer when they witness--in effect inherit--their parents' apprehensions.

Barling and his colleagues Anthea Zacharatos, a Queen's doctoral candidate, and C. Gail Hepburn, PhD,of Toronto's Institute of Work and Health, surveyed more than 200 undergraduates and their parents to gauge how job security correlates to academic performance and work beliefs. Students aware of their parents' job insecurities proved preoccupied, and thus did not perform as well as students whose parents were confident about their employment status.

According to Barling, had the participants been elementary and high school students still living at home, "the effects of their parents' job insecurity would have been even stronger." Parents' occupational worries not only impinge on children's current schoolwork, but also future work values and beliefs, says Barling. Just as inability to focus grows, so does children's certainty of the pervasiveness of injustice.

"When children perceive their parents to be feeling insecure," he explains, "they believe their parents probably did not deserve this, which results in a negative mood, and then poorer school performance."

Although they lack specific data, Barling and his colleagues suspect the same cognitive distraction and depressed outlook would emerge for all family members.

"Parents make an erroneous assumption when they think they can hide their concerns about layoffs," says Barling. He advises parents to encourage children to voice their insecurities and in turn reassure them of their unconditional love. And he suggests teachers offer support to children so that school performance does not fall victim to students' domestic preoccupations.

As for employers, Barling points to recent data that show how downsizing detracts from worker morale and performance. Although some corporations have implemented programs designed to ease their employees' concerns during times of mergers and downsizing, "the anxieties of workers remain and are growing."

And with entire families sharing the burden of loss, the repercussions for children endure long beyond parental unemployment.

--E. O'CONNOR