Times are tough and as demands press on employees to balance tighter budgets and battle in more competitive workplaces, pressure also builds for HR departments to help ease their employees’ woes
The economic crisis is the cause of many
sources of stress. Employees may quite
rightly worry about losing their jobs;
they may have lost a good deal of their sav
ings due to falling stockmarket and housing
prices; they may have children who are grad
uating but cannot find a job. Most employees
will be able to handle these stresses, but some
will begin to crack under the pressure. What
should HR do?
Understanding the risks
Employees who cannot handle the stress
present several problems. One is that for
merly good employees will start performing
poorly. If someone has done good work for
several years, but now isn’t doing the job
competently (perhaps is even drinking too
much) what do you do? It is not only that poor
performance hurts the organisation, it also
puts your managers in a tough situation.
Another potential problem is fraud or steal
ing. Employees who have severe financial
problems, perhaps because their spouse is
out of work, may be tempted to steal from
The third problem is violence. While cases of
violence in the workplace are rare, the stresses
employees now face make violence more likely.
HR needs to work with managers to proac
tively respond to these threats.
Reducing stress for everyone
One wise strategy is to try to reduce stress for
everyone. Managers need to be reminded that
bad times are times when they need to com
municate frequently and sensitively. The more
concrete information people get the better.
Dave Crisp, a leadership speaker who led
HR at Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company says:
“The tendency to act, think and even say, that
employees should be glad simply to have a
job (so we can take them for granted and over
work them) is damaging.”
HR needs to warn managers that not tak
ing measures to reduce stress in their team
can hurt performance. Some simple guide
lines and reminders of good management
practice can help managers reduce the stress
in their group.
Enhancing employee assistance programs
Many organisations have employee assistance
programs (EAPs) that offer individuals confi
dential help with problems like alcoholism, stress and financial difficulties. Now is a good
time to review what your EAP offers to be sure
it is adequate for the current situation. You
should also remind employees that there is an
EAP and tell them what it offers.
You can also offer employees programs
beyond what the EAP provides. This is a good
time for financial counselling; particularly ad
vice on how to handle debt.
Fraud, harassment and violence
Establishing controls to limit fraud is the duty of finance and internal
audit. HR’s role is to bring it to their attention that the increased stress
employees face increases risk. HR can also explain to these depart
ments what it is doing to reduce stress overall (and hence get their sup
port for these programs). HR should also make sure that finance is not
introducing any programs in a way that will reduce morale.
Many organisations have harassment and violence prevention pro
grams. Now is a good time to review those programs and policies.
Typically violence prevention programs encourage managers to be
vigilant, help them recognise the signs that someone may become vi
olent and tell them what steps to take. If you Google “violence pre
vention programs” you will find a fair bit of information.
HR taking the lead
My comments on what HR should do about stress provide a good
model of how HR should be acting in general. First, HR should be
keenly aware of the business issues, in this case increased stress.
Second, HR should understand those issues through an HR lens, in
this case identifying problems such as the risk of poor performance,
fraud and violence. Third, HR should proactively support managers
so that they can handle those issues.
This is a time to prove that HR is not just processing transactions
but actively applying its specific expertise to help the organisation
handle tough times.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, a US-based consultancy which provides writing, research and commentary on human capital management