URI business professor researches impact of work furloughs on state employees, paper published in prestigious psychology journal

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KINGSTON, R.I., April 10, 2013 – In these tough economic times, how an employer implements a work furlough has real consequences in terms of employee performance and morale, according to an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology by URI Associate Professor of Human Resources Management Anthony Wheeler and two co-authors.

In research thought to be the first of its kind on workplace furloughs, Wheeler and his collaborators looked at the impact mandatory furloughs had on public workers in four mid-west state agencies.

Wheeler, Jonathon R. B. Halbesleben, and Samantha C. Paustian-Underdahl, both of the University of Alabama, started with an assumption: among the furloughed workers, work performance would decrease and their emotional exhaustion would increase before the furlough, peak right after the furlough, and return to normal soon after the furlough. What they found was work performance decreased and emotional exhaustion, a sign of employee strain, increased before the furlough and peaked right after. But it stayed that way. The levels did not return to normal by the end of the research period of 19 days, as the researchers had assumed.

“It did not reset,” Wheeler said. “It was a pay cut masquerading as a holiday. Normally research shows how days off are good for recharging your battery but not all days off are created equally.”

A sample of 900 workers were surveyed on four dates over 19 days – 10 days before the furlough; three days before the furlough; one day after the furlough; and eight days after the furlough. The employees rated themselves on work performance and emotional exhaustion. About 200 workers completed all four surveys.

The workers surveyed were given no choice in the furlough and couldn’t pick what days they wanted to take off. The researchers determined that by giving the employees no say in the furlough, the state agencies were slowly burning out their workforce.

“A furlough in and of itself is not a bad thing,” Wheeler said. “But you need to give employees the opportunity to manage the time off. Mandatory days off with no choice make things worse.”

In times of economic upheaval, some employers try to avoid layoffs and turn to alternative measures, such as work furloughs. In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, 21 states had furloughs and each one was implemented differently, Wheeler said. In the case of government organizations, most furloughs are single-day events intermittently occurring through the year.