Morale Under Stress

June 23, 2003

How to limit the damage when staffing is short

In these difficult economic times, many companies have had to downsize to control costs and stay in business. And as business picks up, many will be caught understaffed. These scenarios can result in highly stressed workforces with too much to do and neither the horsepower nor the skills to do it well.

When companies downsize, morale and productivity take a beating. Along with worrying that they'll be next, remaining employees often are overworked and trying to cover unfamiliar job functions. If management doesn't take a proactive role and anticipate the effects on critical personnel, the company may lose key employees and suffer unanticipated financial effects.

Research shows that overwork and job insecurity can lead to stress, depression, anxiety, and burnout. One study showed men working 60-plus hours a week had double the risk of heart attack of men working 40 or fewer hours. Over time, the combination of long hours and lack of sleep can increase blood pressure and heart rate, while chronic stress can induce abnormalities in heart function. According to Jurg Mattman of the Workplace Violence Research Institute, as companies demand more of each employee, stress levels can increase to a breaking point, resulting in more incidents of workplace violence.

John Sullivan, professor and head of the Human Resources Program at San Francisco State University, recommends companies take these steps to help maintain employee morale:

  • Use metrics and rewards to help employees maintain a focus. Metrics tell employees what's important so they can prioritize their work, and rewards encourage them to get it done faster.
  • Squash rumors by establishing a hot line for employees to get direct and fast information about what's going on. Try to keep any workers' union involved--the company will then have better relations with the union in the future.
  • Reward top performers who are at risk of leaving. Pay special attention to them.
  • Offer counseling and make it easily available so employees can get help to manage stress and survivor's guilt.
  • Survey key employees to identify concerns or issues. Knowing what these are will help you shape your communication and build morale more effectively. The CEO needs to be more visible to motivate the employees.
  • Publicize your layoff criteria. Employees who fit the criteria may work harder to become exempt; the others will be reassured and realize they are valued, needed, and have job security.
  • Continue limited hiring. Recognize that some parts of the company continue to grow.
  • Consider employees' families. Prepare family members by informing them of the stresses and problems employees might experience during these tough times and how to handle them. Mention that counseling services are available. Send families a thank-you letter for their support, and make the CEO available to answer questions and reassure them.
  • Over- rather than under-communicate. Let employees know when layoffs are over. Give them the opportunity to vent their frustrations and ask questions. Have a newsletter or a targeted web page to provide information.
  • Use an open-book management style. Make everyone feel included, not left in the dark.
  • Improve your company's image as a great place to work for future recruiting, retention, and customers. Get some positive write-ups that include your great employees and practices in trade publications. Encourage employees to spread the word the company is moving forward.
  • Don't overlook the offsite employees. They are going to feel more isolated, so you have to make a concerted effort to include them and increase the flow of information their way. You may want to visit them.
  • Increase tools and technology so remaining employees can do more with less.

Whatever steps management takes, you must establish realistic expectations and prioritize your work and customers. You will have to eliminate less essential tasks. Take time to learn what work is vital and which customers are important. Be careful not to overwork yourself to impress the company, because you can make significant mistakes.

During these stressful times, it is more important than ever to separate yourself from your work when you are not on the job. Immerse yourself in activities that provide pleasure and a complete shift of focus. Get plenty of rest, exercise, and pay attention to what you eat.

Doing these things will help alleviate stress, but you will have to make a conscious decision to use your limited time this way. You may want to look into short-term counseling to help with stress management. Counseling can help address survivors' guilt when many of your coworkers have been let go and you haven't. You will learn relaxation techniques and coping skills, and have a place to vent your frustrations without taking it out on your loved ones.

Bettyann Lichtenstein is a licensed clinical therapist. 

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