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Article by: Lisa (Dean) Mamula — View more articles by Lisa (Dean) Mamula

Posted on: January 31, 2019

What the Government Shutdown Teaches Us About Psychological Paychecks

The Capitol and Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC.Now that the government is out of shutdown mode we can stop worrying about the acronyms (EEOC, ACA, IRS, etc.) being unavailable and hopefully move on. There are rumblings that “shutdown politics” may be ended by Congress soon, but what can HR glean from what has already happened?  

There were stories… in fact, lots of stories of Federal workers and their plight, whether they were furloughed or not. Many agencies who required their workers to continue reporting included TSA and air traffic control. There were also stories where some agencies wouldn’t even allow for “work from home” during the shutdown presenting childcare issues for individuals with no incoming pay.  

Beyond politics (as all HR professionals tend to show an apolitical front), what can we take away from a 35-day government shutdown? I, for one, have been reminded of a term an employee used with me more than two decades ago: the psychological paycheck. In short, a psychological paycheck is what keeps you going to and happy at work. It can be a sense of belonging, feeling appreciated, or simply liking the flavor of coffee served. It’s everything that cannot be quantified in a paycheck – or better said, everything that kept government workers from reporting and not calling in sick. A “thank you” from travelers to TSA agents would be part of a psychological paycheck. It may not seem like much to you, but it’s not about you, it’s about letting people know they are appreciated. It’s about making small changes that feel big to employees.  

In the private sector shutdowns are (hopefully) not a reality but layoffs can be, and turnover is a reality every organization faces and tries to eliminate. Ask yourself – if I couldn’t pay my employees for 35 days would they come in. Yes, they may know (or hope) that back pay will be issued, but what keeps them coming in? How many of them would leave immediately and how many would stick around until the company could pay them?  

Young man using a laptop building online business making dollar bills cash falling down. Beginner IT entrepreneur under money rain. Success economy conceptReally a psychological paycheck is another way of quantifying morale. For some, a “thank you” may keep them enthused while others may be motivated by other types of recognition or perks. The show Mad Men visited this concept in an episode where Don Draper screams at Peggy when she complains about a lack of recognition. When Peggy complains that Don “never says thank you” he retorts with a scream “That is what the money is for!”  

But today we face a job seekers’ market where good help is hard to find and employee retention should be a top imperative for HR professionals. Talk to your employees and find out what makes a generous “psychological paycheck” in their minds. It may differ from employee to employee, but you may find some common threads including flexibility in working hours, working from home, employee events and recognition, and yes, maybe even free coffee and/or snacks.  

Technically a psychological paycheck will be different for every employee, but it’s the HR professional’s job to consistently address morale and create a happy workplace. Impacting the psychological paycheck  is a lot easier than giving everyone a huge raise!