Business Journal

The Recession's Impact on U.S. Employees

It wasn't as powerful as you'd think. Workers' perceptions on several key workplace conditions stayed relatively steady throughout the downturn.

Since the start of the recession, America's sour economy has given many U.S. employees reason to be anxious about their jobs and their finances. Employers have had to face worries about how measures like layoffs and pay cuts will affect workers' loyalty and morale.

Economic optimism among U.S. workers has varied more substantially over the course of the recession.

The crisis appears to have had little impact on employees' perceptions of workplace conditions that provide the foundation for productivity, however. Gallup's annual survey of the American workforce indicates that employee engagement levels remained steady in 2008 and 2009. (See "Exacerbating the Fear of Layoffs" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

Each day, Gallup surveys 1,000 Americans, gathering their opinions on a range of topics. The responses to three of the questions Gallup asks offer evidence that workers' perceptions on several key workplace conditions have changed little since the start of the recession. Examining these results by quarter produces large sample sizes that allow for in-depth comparisons of perceptions among different types of workers.

Work environment

American workers' likelihood to agree that their supervisor creates a trusting, open work environment has stayed remarkably consistent over the course of the recession. However, since the recession began, there has been a modest but steady slide in the percentage of employees who say their supervisor treats them more like he or she is their partner rather than their boss, from about 65% throughout 2008 to 61% in the latter half of 2010. As the graphic below reveals, this drop is also consistent across most individual job categories.

Economic optimism

As would be expected, economic optimism among U.S. workers has varied more substantially over the course of the recession. Overall, the proportion of employees who felt their own standard of living was improving dropped to a low point of about 40% in the last quarter of 2008 but has since climbed significantly to 54%.

Overall, the proportion of employees who felt that economic conditions in the country as a whole were improving doubled from about 19% to about 38% between the first and second quarters of 2009 -- a time when U.S. stocks showed signs of a sustained recovery following months of dramatic losses. This figure edged further upward until the third quarter of 2010, when it dipped significantly. At that time, federal stimulus funds had begun to run out, the unemployment rate edged close to 10%, and fears of a "double-dip" recession abounded. The trend rebounded significantly the following quarter.

Gallup's analysis of worker perceptions by job category appears on the following pages.

Professional workers

This category includes a broad range of specialized jobs, including lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers, engineers, nurses, accountants, computer programmers, architects, investment bankers, stock brokers, marketing professionals, musicians, and artists.

Trends among these employees generally mirror those for the overall U.S. workforce. Of note, however, is that about two-thirds of professional workers consistently say that their supervisor treats them like a partner -- a higher proportion than is typical in most other job categories studied. Economic optimism trends among professional workers closely mirror those for the U.S. workforce as a whole. In the last year, however, professionals have been slightly more optimistic than workers in most other job categories that the national economy is improving.

Managers/Executives/Officials

This category includes managers; executives; or officials in businesses, government agencies, or other organizations.

Like employees in the professional category, those classified as managers, executives, or officials are particularly likely to agree that their supervisor treats them like a partner. However, there is evidence of sustained erosion in this trend; the proportion of managers, executives, and officials who say their own supervisor treats them like a partner has yet to rebound to the 70%+ levels seen throughout 2008. Economic optimism among workers in this category tends to be similar to the levels among all U.S. workers. This may be expected because, unlike industry-specific job categories, there are managers, executives, and officials in all industries, and they are therefore more representative of the country's total workforce.

Clerical/Office workers

This category includes workers such as typists, secretaries, postal clerks, telephone operators, computer operators, data entry workers, and bank clerks -- in businesses, government agencies, and other types of organizations.

Clerical workers are somewhat less likely than those in the professional and managerial categories to say their supervisor treats them more like he or she is a partner rather than their boss, though a majority does consistently say this is the case. As with managerial workers, there was a significant drop in this trend between Q4 2008 and Q1 2009 that has yet to recover. Over the past three years, clerical workers typically have been somewhat less likely than U.S. workers overall to feel that their personal standard of living is improving.

Sales workers

This category includes various types of sales representatives, including store clerks, door-to-door salespeople, corporate sales associates, and manufacturers' representatives.

The proportion of sales workers who agree that their supervisor treats them like a partner has been somewhat variable, particularly since Q4 2009. Sales workers were among the most likely to say that their standard of living was improving at the outset of the recession in 2008. But the trend dropped sharply the following quarter, reaching a majority again in Q1 2010.

Service workers

This category encompasses various occupations, including law enforcement officers, firefighters, waiters and waitresses, maids, nurses' aides, attendants, barbers and beauticians, fast-food workers, landscaping workers, janitors, and personal care workers.

Over the course of the recession, there has been a modest but sustained drop in the proportion of service workers who say their supervisor treats them as if they were a partner rather than their boss. However, those in service occupations have also grown consistently more optimistic about their personal economic situation since Q4 2008. By Q1 2010, service workers were among the most likely to say their personal standard of living was improving.

Construction/Mining workers

This category includes construction managers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and employees in other construction trades, as well as miners and other extraction workers.

Throughout the recession, employees in construction- and mining-related jobs were more likely than most other U.S. workers to agree that their supervisors create a trusting, open work environment (the exceptions were professional workers, installation/repair workers, and managers/executives/officials). This workplace condition may be particularly important to workers in this category, whose jobs tend to be more hazardous or physically demanding than those in other categories.

However, since the first quarter of 2009, workers in this category have generally been slightly less optimistic than the U.S. workforce overall that national economic conditions are improving. This is perhaps due to ongoing softness in the real estate market and lingering hesitation among business leaders to make major investments in buildings and other capital-intensive projects.

Manufacturing/Production workers

This category includes factory machine operators, assembly line workers, non-restaurant food preparation workers, printers, print shop workers, garment industry workers, furniture producers, and those in other manufacturing roles.

Employees in the manufacturing and production category are particularly likely to work in environments that are highly structured and in roles that may offer little opportunity for collaboration between workers and management. Perhaps as a result, workers in this category are less likely than most other U.S. workers to say their supervisor creates a trusting, open work environment. Even so, a majority of manufacturing/production workers agree with this statement. Optimism among manufacturing and production workers about their personal standard of living was higher in Q4 2010 than in any quarter since the recession began, though their optimism about the national economy fell significantly in the second half of 2010.

Transportation workers

This category includes truck, cab, or bus drivers; airline workers (including pilots and flight attendants); train and boat operators; teamsters; longshoremen; delivery company workers or drivers; and moving company workers.

Like manufacturing workers, employees in transportation-related jobs tend to be less likely than those in most other job categories to say their supervisor creates a trusting, open work environment and that their supervisor treats them like a partner. The latter trend has fallen to just over half in the past quarter, the lowest proportion among the job categories studied. Trends in economic optimism have also been slower to recover among transportation workers than among those in most other job categories, though their likelihood to feel that their standard of living is improving rose steadily through 2010.

Installation/Repair Workers

This category includes garage mechanics; linesmen; and other installation, maintenance, or repair workers.

Employees in installation or repair roles are close to the overall averages for U.S. workers in their likelihood to agree that their supervisor creates a trusting, open work environment and that their supervisor treats them like a partner. As in several other job categories, however, the latter trend dropped significantly for installation and repair workers in Q1 2009 and has yet to fully recover. Optimism about their personal standard of living rose more dramatically among installation and repair workers than among workers in any other category through most of 2010, though it dropped significantly in the final quarter.

Gallup http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/145985/Recession-Impact-Employees.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030