Let’s redress the stress mess

by 28 Apr 2009

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 organisation.

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