Stripped bare by redundancy: Going into the office every workday may mean more to top executives than they know. Richard Thomson looks at the effects of losing a big job

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Tomorrow morning Ian Macpherson will take the train from his home in Devon and travel to a hotel in central London. He is an outplacement consultant, expert in advising highly paid executives made redundant by their employers. He has been called in by a large corporation to be on hand when they sack one of their senior employees first thing on Tuesday morning.

The employee, an executive who has been with the company for 25 years, knows nothing about this. Until he is handed a letter early on Tuesday, he will have no idea that his life is about to be turned upside down. He is in his fifties and stands little chance of finding a job comparable to the present one. The company suspects his reaction will be bad: bitterness, depression, bewilderment.

Mr Macpherson, who works for the outplacement specialists Drake Beam Morin, will have to pick up the pieces, as he is having to do with increasing frequency - particularly in the financial services and computer software sectors - as the recession drags on.

As soon as the unfortunate executive has been given his redundancy notice, he will be ushered in to talk to the consultant. 'People who haven't suspected they were about to be sacked are often in complete shock when the moment comes,' says Mr Macpherson.

The executive may weep or he may be too stunned to say anything very coherent. His first action will almost certainly be to retreat to his home to absorb what has happened.

'I once dealt with a US banker who forbade his wife for seven months to tell anyone, including their closest friends, that he was redundant. She nearly had a nervous breakdown.' It may be the better part of a month before the sacked executive has sufficiently recovered his mental and emotional equilibrium to talk constructively to a consultant about his future.

In a few cases the reaction is even more extreme. Last week David Elton, a former director of Ultramar, the oil company, battered his wife to death with a bottle, then walked into the sea and drowned himself. The violence was shocking, particularly from a man regarded as non-aggressive and reasonable by his friends. But so was the apparent trigger for his behaviour - the loss of his job after Ultramar was taken over by Lasmo in a pounds 1bn bid battle earlier this year.

He is not the only executive to have killed himself over the loss of a job in the last few months. In general, however, the correlation between suicide rates and unemployment is unclear. During the recession of the early 1980s, male suicides in Britain were about 2,800 a year. The rate fluctuated unevenly through the decade's boom years, hitting a peak of 3,036 in 1988 (when unemployment was relatively low) and a trough the following year of 2,765, before rising to 3,007 last year. Female suicides, meanwhile, nearly halved from 1,538 in 1981 to 886 in 1991.

What puzzled many people about Mr Elton's death was that he had not only been a highly paid executive but had received a pounds 500,000 pay-off when he left Ultramar. Money, in other words, seems not to have been a problem.

Like many high-flying executives he had given his life to the company. After 23 years there, he would have identified himself closely with his job. After several months of serious searching following his redundancy, moreover, he had still not managed to find himself new employment. The loss of prestige and the feeling of rejection would have been hard to bear.

For Neil Budd, status was the biggest single loss when he lost his job at the TSB Group. He had been a regional manager in charge of 20 branches and 400 employees. 'I had some stature within the community. After 31 years at the bank, redundancy was pretty devastating.'

It took him two or three years to realise that his idea about the status of his job had been something of an illusion. 'Now I think it was in my own imagination. My friends still treat me the same.'

Nevertheless, it is what goes on in someone's mind that determines how they will react to redundancy, which is why Mr Elton's burst of violence caused so much concern.

'Mr Elton's actions are a huge amplification of what can happen when things are taken to an extreme,' says Sarah Denning, a psychotherapist specialising in redundancy. 'Maybe the higher you climb, the further there is to fall.' But there must have been, she believes, more to the case than just the loss of a job. One danger with redundancy is that it can stir up personal problems that had been pushed aside while the executive was too busy with his career.

The way people cope with losing their job depends heavily, she says, on their own self-esteem. 'Redundancy may highlight feelings of inadequacy that come from childhood. There may be a lot of unfinished emotional business.'

Indeed, one of the reasons they may have worked so hard climbing the greasy pole at work is to overcome an underlying feeling of inadequacy. That can make the reaction to redundancy more extreme.

The other key factor is usually the behaviour of the executive's family. 'I would really like to know what went on in Elton's marriage,' says Ms Denning. His wife had asked for a trial separation shortly after he lost his job. 'If there are family problems that haven't been addressed, this is the time they'll come to the surface.'

Mr Budd echoes this opinion. 'I had a lot of support from my family and friends. Without that I could very easily have broken.'

Martin Lyton's experience was quite different. He was sacked from the management consultancy where he had worked for 20 years. Although he had seen it coming, it was still a blow. 'It was an almost physical shock. It shook me rigid.'

He was distressed, angry at the company and blamed himself for being a failure. 'My self-confidence took an enormous knock. One feels like a loser and wants to hide one's shame.'

Fortunately, the company gave him six months' notice, by the end of which he had organised enough temporary consultancy work to pay the bills. It was on the home front that things were more difficult. 'For a couple of years I would not have put any money on my marriage surviving.'

As well as his adolescent children having their own crises, Mr Lyton's marriage was already shaky and he and his wife were having therapy. But redundancy suddenly pushed the underlying problems into the open. 'My own depression was probably difficult to live with. But I know my wife found the financial uncertainty of my redundancy pretty scary. Her parents had been financially insecure and one of the things she had seen in me was security. Redundancy can destroy a marriage or greatly strengthen it.'

He believes that men's marriages tend to be more at risk than those of women who lose their jobs, largely because when men stop earning it is a greater challenge to traditional stereotypes.

Ultimately, Mr Lyton's marriage was strengthened. 'It isn't a pleasant process, but at the end you are glad to have broken free of the old job and started again.' Against all his old instincts, he went freelance and discovered to his surprise that he could earn more money than before. He also discovered that enjoying his work was more important than he had thought.

He believes strongly that outside counselling was a great help, although that may have had something to do with the lack of support at home. Mr Budd never felt he needed the counselling that the TSB made available.

Most people, of course, pull through one way or another - women more easily than men, most experts say. For many, particularly people who were already dissatisfied with their old jobs, redundancy can clearly be a liberating experience, a chance to start again. For others, though, it is a shattering event and the psychological effects may linger for years. So spare a thought for Mr Macpherson's client on Tuesday. It could have been you.

(Photograph omitted)