There has certainly been a flurry of activity in the job market these past few months. We've heard announcements of new job-growth opportunities juxtaposed with announcements of significant budget cuts and employee layoffs.We've also seen large job losses due to at least two tragic manufacturing facility fires as well as significant public sector mergers, corporate reorganizations and business bankruptcies. Then, with both provincial and federal governments in a belt-tightening mode, we can only anticipate more and more job-loss announcements trickling out.
We know that the tragedy of fire or the death of a business owner can't be controlled, and no matter whether these belt tightening measures are legitimate or not, all of these types of incidents and/or issues cause significant anxiety among employee groups. And then, let's face it, when employees feel insecure, they hunker down and go into what I call survivor mode. This means that they build an invisible protective wall around themselves. This is their way of attempting to keep fear at bay and to manage their anxiety. This is often called survivor syndrome.
As a manager and/or team leader, it's your job to recognize the symptoms of employee anxiety resulting from survivor syndrome and to do your best to help employees deal with their personal career and job related challenges. Failing to do so will lead to common human resource issues such as short- and long-term illness and general absenteeism, as well as low morale and low productivity.
Some of the symptoms your employees may be feeling include:
-- Exaggerated worry about money and job security; can't stop asking what's going to happen.
-- Obvious nervousness, restlessness and an inability to concentrate on work and therefore difficulty in tackling new tasks.
-- Extreme tiredness sometimes resulting in workplace injuries.
-- Signs of stress-related health issues such as headaches, nausea, stomach aches, inability to eat, chest pains or feelings of dizziness.
-- Engaging in non-stop gossip and rumours, verbal hostility or physical aggression.
-- Withdrawal from team-based activities, depression, anger, inappropriate interpersonal communication.
-- Evidence of increased alcohol consumption or escapist drinking and/or smoking.
-- Focusing all of one's attention on "flight" or "getting out" of the situation, instead of focusing on work done.
-- An overall drop in productivity with increased errors and time delays.
While managers are not psychologists and should never pretend they are, there are still many tactics a manager can and should undertake to help employees through the difficult time of job uncertainty.
Be open and honest about your own feelings -- Help your employees and reassure them that you value their expertise and contributions. Share what you know about the rationale for restructuring and downsizing process. Share the strategy for helping employees transition out of the organization as knowing their colleagues are being well treated helps to overcome anxiety.
Demonstrate personal empathy -- All employees have a "psychological contract" wherein they had specific expectations about work and one of these expectations is a steady, long-term job. Therefore when job loss occurs, people feel a strong sense of injustice. Put yourself in your employees' shoes and imagine their feelings when you are listening to them. Understand how each employee's concerns are affecting their emotional stability and offer support and suggestions. Avoid patronizing comments such as "I know how you feel." Summarize and restate what you hear so that people know you understand and can feel their pain.
Respect individualism -- Everyone reacts differently to downsizing. Some people will withdraw and become quiet while others will be overly talkative. Provide a safe environment in which individuals can voice their concerns; encourage them to speak about their fears and anxieties. Provide words of encouragement, but avoid forcing people to be part of the crowd if they prefer to deal with their feelings in private.
Prepare and distribute question-and-answer documents -- Brainstorm with other managers all of the questions employees might ask about the downsizing and restructuring and prepare responses that can be distributed to every employee. This ensures that all managers are providing the same answers. If you cannot answer a question, avoid responding with a glib answer. Inform employees you will find the answer at the earliest possible time. Update your information document frequently.
Shift focus to the future -- At some point soon after the layoffs, you need to hold a meeting and/or activity to shift employee thinking to the future. Discuss how you will be moving forward. Avoid sugar coating the challenges, but instead ask for suggestions. Invite discussion about employee concerns. Avoid being defensive about management decisions -- be confident and offer support. Focus employees on the goals and objectives.
Offer visible support -- Reinforce the procedures for accessing your employee assistance programs. Reassure individuals their EAP discussions are confidential. Be visible as a leader, keeping an eye on everyone as they go through the various stages of loss (shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Reassure individuals their talent and expertise are crucial to the future of the organization. Seek out opportunities to redistribute work that will be viewed as career growth and/or providing more employee control over their work.
Apply multiple communication channels -- During times of stress and anxiety, it's easy for employees to misunderstand what's being said, no matter how many times it is repeated. Make use of multiple communication avenues such as the company newsletter, the website, the intranet, bulletin board and frequent group emails. Keep the messages clear and simple, with minimal number of embedded messages. It's better to have daily messages rather than one memo with multiple messages; people will not remember.
Dealing with the aftermath of reorganization and downsizing is one of the most stressful times for both management and employees alike. No matter how much planning managers do, keep in mind that there will always be unexpected wrinkles. However, each and every step you take is directed toward rebuilding the trust of your remaining employees and evidence of strong planning, empathy and respect will help you to reach stability and improved productivity sooner.