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Keep your job: A 10-point survival guide

If layoffs, restructurings, and a foggy future at work have you rattled, try to take control of the things you can. Here's how.

By Anne Fisher, contributor
Last Updated: January 7, 2009: 4:27 PM ET

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(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: First of all, I'm glad I still have a job (so far), and I know there are lots of people worse off than I am, so I don't want to whine. Nonetheless, lately I feel I'm losing my grip. My company just went through a major restructuring (the third in four years), this time with huge layoffs that left the organization chart completely scrambled. So a promotion I was expecting is now probably not going to happen, we're all working harder than ever, and the 16 people under me are asking me for answers I don't have. It's hard to concentrate on getting everything done when there's so much uncertainty around. Any suggestions on how to stay focused? -Hanging On by a Thread

Dear Hanging: Ah. Well, let me give you the bad news first and get it over with. It seems that 2009 is going to be a lot like 2008, only worse. Nearly half of all U.S. employers -- 48% -- laid people off last year, according to a poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (www.shrm.org), while this year, 60% plan to cut headcount. Challenger Gray & Christmas (www.challengergray.com), a Chicago-based outplacement firm that closely tracks layoff statistics, predicts 1 million more pink slips in 2009, and says the job market may not bounce back until 2011.

Meanwhile, if a mid-December survey by human resources consultants Watson Wyatt (www.watsonwyatt.com) is any guide, folks like you who are still working may not see much extra green: The number of employers who were planning to cut costs by freezing salaries jumped from 4% in October to 13% by December. Want to bet in what direction that percentage will go over the next few months?

So feeling stressed out now is totally normal. The trouble is that letting an out-of-control environment get under your skin will eventually make you less great at your job, hence more likely to lose it.

"The key to weathering a crisis like this is, first, to understand what you can control and what you can't," says Deb Bright, a longtime executive coach whose firm, Bright Enterprises (www.drbright.com), is currently counseling lots of Wall Streeters who are tearing their hair out.

"Even when things are really tough, you have more control than you think," Bright says. "For example, you still have customers. You still have chances every day to make an impact. It's important for your own survival to do what you can - as opposed to backing into a corner and waiting for the ax to fall." She suggests trying these 10 steps:

1. Create successes for yourself. They needn't be earthshaking. "Just getting to the gym and working out when you didn't feel like it will do," even if you have to squeeze it in at 5 a.m. says Bright. "When there's a lot of negativity around, you need to find ways to feel successful."

2. Set 30-day and 60-day goals. Share them with your boss and then, as you get closer to your targets, update him or her on that, too. "Not only will measurable progress keep you upbeat and creative," Bright notes, but in practical terms, "your boss needs to know what his department is accomplishing, so he has ammunition if someone wants to chop it in half." Gulp.

3. Watch your attitude. "A pessimistic, bleak attitude makes it hard for people to work with you," Bright says. "And why be miserable eight hours a day, anyway?"

4. Keep your network active. "People always talk about networking, but they don't do it," says Bright. "I ask my clients to give me the names of five people they want to stay in touch with, and then make a plan for how they're going to do that, whether it's lunch or just a phone call." Always bring something of value to the conversation, even if it's just a tidbit of information or the name of a useful contact.

5. Update your skills. "Take a class, read a book, keep up with trade publications," Bright says. "You always want to be up-to-the-minute informed about what's going on in your industry that could affect you."

6. Make sure your work serves the larger goals of the organization. Take on as many responsibilities as you can, "especially the tasks no one else wants, like reporting to regulators," Bright suggests. "I had a client who did this and dodged a layoff." A word of caution, however: "At some point, do teach someone else how to do the extra tasks you've taken on, or you'll never, ever get to take a vacation."

7. For now, forget about work-life balance. A major preoccupation when the economy was humming along nicely, "having time for outside interests has to go right out the window now," says Bright. "You need to concentrate on doing whatever it takes to make yourself indispensable."

8. Take a hard look at your finances. Do you have the resources to coast through a seven- or eight-month (or longer) job hunt? If not, it's time to put yourself on a budget and stick to it. "And talk to your mate about finances," urges Bright. "Many high-ranking executives don't" - and then face shock and resentment at home when money gets tight.

9. Never badmouth anyone. "If you can't be positive toward someone at work, be neutral," says Bright. "In the next reorganization, the person you were trash-talking could be your new boss, and then you're gone."

10. Remember, in the knowledge economy, you are the product. So take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat right, and take time to work out a few times a week. "I had one client who was so nervous about everything that was happening around him, he gained 20 pounds," says Bright. "That's not good for your health - and if you do have to get out there and market yourself, being overweight won't do wonders for your confidence, either." In this job market, if heaven forbid you're plunged into it, you'll need all the confidence you can muster.

And by the way, happy New Year. Who knows, maybe 2009 will turn out to be less horrendous than it looks from here. Readers, what do you think? Are you stressed by the economic chaos? How are you coping? Any suggestions for staying cool when the going gets rough? What survival tips do you have? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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