The holiday season is stressful at the best of times. People are planning to travel to visit relatives. Kids are home from school. And, of course, there's shopping to do. But for people who work in the energy sector, or businesses close to it, holiday stress has taken a quantum leap this year.
Robin Ewan is sitting in the café of the Fry's Electronics store in Stafford, just south of Houston. To judge from the floor traffic, you'd never guess Christmas was just around the corner.
"This is the first time around Christmas that I've been laid off," Ewan says, "and it is a bit of an effect, because now, you know, you're wondering who to buy presents for and what presents. You're going to make it more meaningful ones than expensive ones."
Ewan worked for oil service giant Schlumberger as a test engineer for more than three decades, the last two in Sugar Land. In February, he had to rush home to Scotland to say goodbye to his dying mother. The day after he returned, he was told he no longer had a job.
"Basically, I've been doing odd jobs for people here and there," he says. "Electronic-related stuff, fixing computers, fixing cars, whatever. But as for looking for a real job, I basically haven't tried because I know there's so many people in my situation in this town that are in the same boat."
For Ewan, getting laid off was almost a relief. It meant the threat was no longer hanging over his head.
"Because I saw some really good guys let go before Christmas last year, and so everybody was aware that it didn't matter how good you were or what your role was. They were just chopping people, so you had to be ready," he said.
Crude oil prices have dropped to their lowest level in nearly seven years. Oil and gas companies have laid off close to 56,000 Texans since December of last year, according to the latest estimate from the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. That doesn't include cuts in industries dependent on the oil sector, like manufacturing, trade, and professional services.
Debbie Milks is chief operating officer for Brookwoods Group. The staffing firm specializes in finding jobs for marketing and communications workers.
"Some of them, this is their second or third time that they've been let go from different large, major oil and gas firms, service companies," Milks says. "What we're seeing now is some are actually saying, ‘Oh, my gosh. Maybe it is just time to let it go and get out of here.'"
Milks' says her clients are now begging to be placed somewhere more stable than the energy sector, even if it means taking a pay cut of tens of thousands of dollars.
"They know the pink slips are coming and they hear the talk," she says. "There's a lot of stress associated with that, and then the holidays, it doesn't make it any better."
Companies can take steps to manage that stress. If they make sure employees feel they're being treated fairly during layoffs, those who remain are more likely to concentrate on doing their jobs.
Brent Smith, who teaches industrial psychology at Rice University, says that's not happening.
"The magnitude of the downsizing is quite large," Smith says. "So it's very difficult to accomplish that in a manner that probably is going to be perceived as fair and equitable by the surviving employees."
The Greater Houston Partnership is predicting metro Houston will lose another 9,000 energy jobs in 2016. That will include more cuts at Schlumberger, which is finalizing its multibillion-dollar merger with Cameron International.
Robin Ewan still gets together with his old friends from Schlumberger for meals regularly.
"They are very stressed," he says. "You can tell that they're just waiting to get chopped any time. And they're also doing more work than they used to, because there's less people and the same amount of work going on."
As for Ewan himself, he's still getting by on savings and what he earns from odd jobs. But he says he'll be looking for a more permanent position sometime in the new year, probably outside the oil business.