Calgary offices teem with 'palpable paranoia' on Termination Tuesdays — and all week

Conventional corporate wisdom holds that people get fired or laid off on Mondays, but that's changing. Now many workers in Calgary office towers remain constantly on edge, fearing, "Today's the day."

Conventional corporate wisdom holds that people get fired or laid off on Mondays, but that's changing

Mark Howells still spend his days at the engineering firm in Calgary where he works on contract, despite the fact most of his work has dried up. He says it helps to ground him and keep him from his darkest thoughts. (Cassandra Harasemchuk/CBC)

Originally published Dec. 8.

For someone who's used to being at the helm of his world, Mark Howells' slow slide towards unemployment has left him reeling.

Layoffs have come fast and furious in Calgary, but there's something else going on too. In a city where hard work is a virtue and productivity a culture, a slowdown in the office and the fear of a future layoff is keeping thousands of Calgarians on edge.

Howells used to rack up as many as 250 hours a month at the downtown engineering firm where he has worked on contract for 15 years. Now he's down to about 24.

Still, he shows up at his office every day at 8 a.m. and stays until 4 p.m., even when there's nothing to do. He likes staying connected with the few people still on the job.

It's one of the few things that keeps him from the darkest of thoughts.

Howells s­ays he's always loved his job as an independent contractor for DJA Engineering Services, even when it kept him out in the field living in a hotel or trailer for weeks at a time. He admits that his single-minded passion for work played a big part in why he's no longer married and lives alone.

But now, the job that consumed him is vanishing as the bottom falls out of Calgary's oil boom.

The uncertainty principle

Clinical psychologist Glen Edwards says there's something worse than a layoff — the possibility of a layoff. This, he says, is a real and ongoing trauma for many people in Calgary's office towers.

"As human beings, we can do a pretty good job of dealing with bad news and adversity in many different forms. When we know what it is we need to deal with, we can proceed accordingly and resourcefully," says Edwards.

"However, when we don't know what's around the corner it can be very unnerving and impactful. We go on all systems alert, but without knowing the outcome, which can make it more difficult to prepare."

That sense of vulnerability disrupts our lives; our sense of self.

"To some extent, we need an illusion of control to get through life. Increasingly, this sense of control is threatened by social and economic factors bringing home the realization to many that we have a lot less control over things than we initially thought."

But it's hard to feel in control when the axe is hanging above your head.

Like many people struggling with economic stresses, Mark Howells says he's reluctant to seek help, especially given an unspoken macho mindset in the oil and gas world. 'I would have to lose everything to get help.' (Cassandra Harasemchuk/CBC)

Termination Tuesday

Conventional corporate wisdom holds that people typically get fired or laid off on Mondays. Now a new anecdote seems to suggest Tuesday is the day.

So much so that the phrase Termination Tuesdays has been coined at some Calgary companies, says Ross Gilker, a Calgary outplacement transition counsellor. Whether there is truth behind the particular day is immaterial. Many people believe it.

"Now people are freaking out all weekend and if they dodge the bullet on Monday, on Tuesday if nothing happens they relax as the week goes on. It's that palpable; that's why I say this time it's very different," says Gilker.

"There is an unbelievable palpable paranoia at every company. People are living every day thinking, 'Today's the day.'"

While that kind of fear can become toxic in an office, it also has a profound impact on people's home life. 

There is an unbelievable palpable paranoia at every company- Ross Gilker

Uncertainty about a job puts pressure on marriages. Husbands and wives often get panicky, too, says Gilker. "We're getting clients coming in and we're spending just as much time coaching their spouse."

So dire is the situation that people who may never have asked for help in the past, now feel the need.

"We have talked with companies with EAP programs, asking for extensions for EAP, especially related to stress and depression. People are accessing more of those kinds of services."

But not everyone in Calgary's culture of work is looking for help.

Preparing for the worst

"I would have to lose everything to get help," says Howells.

There is also an unspoken macho mindset in the oil and gas world. "It's frowned upon to say, 'I need help,'" he says.

So Howells spends time on what he calls his "worst-case scenario" spreadsheet.

As a contractor, all he has for cash are his savings. He doesn't qualify for Employment Insurance, so it's a matter of cash on hand.

The spreadsheet itemizes his bills and expenses: spousal support and the mortgage for his ex-wife who can't work because of poor health; the rent on his furnished downtown apartment; Blue Cross; life insurance; groceries; the occasional handout to two step-kids.

Howells also calculates how he can raise cash if it comes to that; when exactly he would have to sell off some of his precious memorabilia — first-run comic books, rare movies and vinyl records.

But it's not just the creditors Howells has to keep at bay. Besides the insomnia and depression that comes with fear of unemployment, Howells fights hard against the bogeymen known as 'boredom.'

Dark thoughts

In his darkest moments, Howells has thoughts of suicide.

If his life ended, he reasons, his ex-wife and step-kids would be well taken care of and his debts would be wiped from the ledger.

Still, it's also family that's helping Howells cope. He says one upside of the downturn at work is that he gets to see his kids more, and that helps him keep a sense of perspective.

"You have to be hopeful or you might as well give up and give in. This is not the Apocalypse." 

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Lisa Monforton is a Calgary-based freelance writer and editor.


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