By Jennifer McKee
Workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory seemed to suffer emotionally more from mass layoffs than their counterparts at other weapons labs, according to a recent Boston University survey.
Investigators at Boston University's School of Public Health surveyed approximately 6,000 employees at five nuclear weapons labs. According to the report, released in August, Los Alamos faced relatively few layoffs during the 1990s but responded to them with unusual fervor.
The layoff of 173 employees in 1995 at Los Alamos ignited a class- action suit. In addition, the report said, Los Alamos employees who did not lose their jobs were more likely to feel guilty about it, a phenomenon known as "survivors' syndrome."
Interestingly, while non-Anglo employees at the lab reported feeling discriminated against, they also seemed to have better mental health. Hispanics and other non-white employees reported fewer medical conditions, fewer incidents of bad work performance and scored well in measures of mental health.
The report came in response to a season of layoffs throughout the Department of Energy following the fall of the former Soviet Union and the feverish weapon-building of the Cold War, according to the study's summary. Congress passed a law in 1993 calling for a slimmer nuclear weapons work force. Since then, some 46,000 people have lost their jobs, the vast majority coming from the Nevada Test Site.
Officials at the DOE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned the study to see how the remaining work force weathered the layoffs.
Between 1993 and 1995, more than 2,000 people lost their jobs at Los Alamos. Of the five sites included in the survey, only the Pantex plant in Texas experienced fewer lay-offs.
The researchers found similar medical and emotional problems at all the sites: The more laid-off people an employee knew, the worse the employee's mental health. The more job strain an employee felt, the worse their morale and feelings of job insecurity following a layoff.
Los Alamos differed from other sites in the severity of emotional and physical problems suffered after the layoffs and the mobilized effort to fight them.
Los Alamos employees also reported that they felt their bosses were good scientists but lousy managers. According to the report, many employees described their managers as "poor communicators" who didn't help build a "team atmosphere" in the office.
The study concluded that, throughout the DOE, downsizing threatens morale. Those threats are eased somewhat if employees feel the lay- offs are fair and if the workplace is relatively healthy to begin with.
Los Alamos lab spokesperson John Gustafson said such a morale- killer is not in the cards at least not any time soon.
"The lab has no intention of conducting a reduction in force," he said. "It has maintained that position consistently for the last year plus."