Articles > Finding your footing in shaky times

Finding your footing in shaky times
Globe & Mail, January 07, 2009

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Many employees did not greet the start of 2009 with the same optimism with which they've ushered in previous years.

Instead, the economy has wrought widespread feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness. These emotions will be reflected in how people feel and act at work, with serious repercussions on morale and performance.

Here are some of the common ways these emotions will show up in the workplace, and what can be done to combat the pervasive malaise.

DEPRESSION

Everywhere I go, I see what best can be described as depression. People may not be suffering from clinical depression, but if you think of the opposite characteristics - enthusiasm, optimism and a sense of efficacy - you will see these qualities are markedly missing in many workplaces.

Indeed, this depression is so pervasive and contagious that even people whose employment may not be in jeopardy have caught the virus.

It spells disaster for performance: Inertia, pessimism and lack of engagement do not translate into productivity or morale.

People need to feel that they have something to look forward to. They also need to feel there is a relationship between what they do and what happens to them: Right now, for example, many feel there is no relationship between performing well and keeping their job. For employers, this means showing employees how you appreciate the ways in which they add value.

Provide staff with opportunities to derive a sense of accomplishment. With so much doubt about their future, people need work that they can understand and control. Assign tasks that are doable and provide reinforcement.

Show appreciation for a job well done. Provide small perks, whether an interesting speaker or an opportunity to attend a conference. Talk about important projects coming down the pipeline. If spending money on development is an issue, offer up opportunities to work on interesting or high-profile projects or with people they can learn from.

And counter the sense of hopelessness: Reminding people of their competence helps them understand that, even if the worst happens and they do lose their jobs, they are still employable.

A DESIRE TO BELONG

In a time of crisis, people take comfort in the predictable and familiar. They want to be around those who care about them, make meaningful connections and appreciate having a shared history with these co-workers.

They also want to belong to something bigger than themselves, looking for community at work and in their teams. Seeing everyone else in the same boat provides a sense of security, even if it is a false one.

Organizations can meet staffers' needs to connect to others and feel a part of something greater by holding regular team meetings, arranging inexpensive social get-togethers and using charitable drives to promote a sense of group identity and pride.

This is the time to emphasize continuity, not change.

COMPARING YOURSELF

People look to what others think and how they behave to derive insights into how they should think and behave. So they trade information and pay attention to the rumour mills to sort it out.

Some workers watch for positive cues from co-workers. They look at colleagues and think: "It can't be so bad. They seem to be functioning as if they aren't worried about their jobs."

They may also try to reassure themselves and each other with happy talk, saying things such as: "In the last recession nobody lost their jobs." Often, such stories aren't true but they do alleviate anxiety by providing a false sense of security.

Others trade disaster scenarios, egging each other on with outrageous possibilities, such as: "Everyone in the department will be fired," or "The company is going bankrupt."

Either way, it is easy for information to be misinterpreted in a falsely positively or overly negative panic-inducing way.

Employers need to be thoughtful about what and how they spread the word. Communications should be open, simple and sensitively worded. Repeat key messages over and over to counteract the rumour mill and to prevent workers from jumping to false best-case or unnecessary worst-case conclusions.

Avoid using vague qualifiers. For example, don't say: "Assuming the economy recovers, there is a good chance we will be able to avoid significant layoffs." Just say: "Nobody knows where the economy is going, but right now, we don't plan to let anyone go."

SECURITY OVER PASSION

Doing meaningful work in tune with personal values is perceived as an indulgence, the luxury of good times.

In bad times, people put safety and community over being stretched and highly engaged on their career priorities. This leads to risk averseness, conformity and "group think" - precisely the kinds of behaviour that do not meet any organization's current needs.

And when clouded by fear, workers forget how their work is, in fact, meaningful, which leads to more disengagement.

Combat inertia and lack of engagement by reminding staffers that their work is important. Show them how it is meaningful and contributing to what is needed. Ask them to articulate how their work is consistent with their personal values and needs.

As well, encourage independent thinking by aggressively soliciting ideas and opinions. Create an environment that values healthy debate: You can't be disengaged when you are tossing ideas around.

RECESSION FATIGUE

Everyone is tired of the gloom, doom and cutback chatter. It's enough that workers get a daily onslaught of bad employment figures from the media . They don't need the never-ending internal memos and reminders about the company's ill fortunes.

Although you can't control the external news, you can provide a respite from it. Instead of constant language of deprivation such as, "we will no longer allow/do/pay for ..." share what you will allow, do or pay for, such as interesting new projects and plans, and how funds are being liberated for positive events.

And instead of worrying about what they can't control, encourage employees to focus on what they can control and accomplish in their own work.

SHORT FUSES

Fear and anxiety coupled with a scarcity culture create raw nerves. People are quicker to jump the gun and take offence at the mildest comments or changes at work. And when people feel there isn't "enough to go around," they become territorial and competitive.

Unfortunately, besieged managers are most prone to irritability. In turn, this increases everyone's bad humour.

Whether a manager or an employee, before you fly off the handle, ask yourself: Why am I angry? Should I be angry? Am I projecting my own frustrations onto others? What is the cost of this to the well-being of others?

As an employer, think twice about how much you cut back and whether the short-term cost savings are worth the productivity loss associated with a lack of benevolence. Reducing costs shouldn't translate into stripping everything people need to do their jobs.

And remember, if you raise the productivity bar into the stratosphere at a time when nerves are already frayed and they're least capable of performing at that level, people will just implode or explode.

BOREDOM FACTOR

As organizations continue to pare budgets and cut interesting, new projects, accomplishment-hungry professionals are simultaneously overworked and underutilized. And when their skills and brains aren't being put to maximum use, they get bored.

Ask staff to think of ways to renew themselves, whether by reconfiguring their jobs, mentoring younger workers or participating in task forces that require brainstorming and blue-skying possibilities. Encourage people to do something that will stretch them.

MANAGERS FEEL THE PAIN, TOO

Managers are hurting. They are pilloried on all fronts. They need to fire people, deliver bad news, and take away many of the fundamentals people need to feel good about the work they are doing. For all this, staff blame them.

But while they are cutting the resources of others, they are also seeing their own resources being cut to shreds, not to mention worrying about their own job security.

It's tough enough for seasoned bosses - those new to management are reeling.

Many managers will anaesthetize the pain by making the simplest and least creative decisions about cost-cutting. Many divorce themselves from thinking about human costs.

But, although it hurts and it isn't easy, managers will have to think more deeply, and weigh all of the short- and long-term implications of their decisions, including the effect of aggressive cost-cutting on morale, skill shortages and turnover.

And organizations need to be sensitive to the huge pressures being placed on managers, and provide them with coaching and support to help them in their juggling acts.

FUTURE INTERRUPTUS

Many people have been forced into rethinking career and life plans, whether to change jobs, go to school, take a sabbatical or retire. Some have no choice; many are reacting to mass hysteria and knee-jerk panic. Having to delay their plans leads to resentments, which, in turn, fuels anger and depression.

People need to take a realistic look at their finances and what they can legitimately afford. They need to be given ways to keep their plans on the front burner, rather than the back.

Most important, they need to be reminded that the economy will recover.

How to cope with the at-work blues

Feeling depressed at work?

Rest assured that you're not the only one. There are many things that individuals can do to try to overcome the malaise that is pervading workplaces. Here are some suggestions for how to keep your spirits up:

Be kind to yourself

This is not the time to beat yourself up. Sure, there are a lot of things that may be making your workplace demoralizing, but there are still things you like about work. You may not feel like you are accomplishing things but you are. Remind yourself of what you are good at and like about your work. Take inventory of your accomplishments weekly and regularly repeat them to

Take your own counsel
With such low morale everywhere, it's very easy to get sucked into the general depression. Push off group funk by refusing to be drawn into the maelstrom of others' general malaise. Don't get sucked into the rumour mill. Stay detached. Evaluate what you hear rather than immediately panicking.

Reframe your plans

Maybe the economy has caused you to rethink your plans, whether to change jobs, go back to school, take a sabbatical or head into retirement. Tell yourself you have not permanently changed course, but have put plans on hold for a few months. Anyone can delay gratification for a short period. What was true before the recession, for example, a desire to retire or change jobs, will still be true, just not immediately.

Be creative

Think about what you can do on a shoestring. Consider what new technologies you can take advantage of. Use this as a time to experiment with alternative ways of thinking how to solve problems. Put your hand up for new assignments or challenges.

Set achievable goals

You may have had your budget torn to shreds or seen projects you expected to work on shelved. Of course you're disappointed. But don't look at what you are failing to do or cannot control. Rather, focus on what you can achieve. Set new meaningful goals in the light of current budgetary restraints and what you can do. Don't be a perfectionist.

Pick a mood elevator

It's easy to get drawn in a funk. But if you're walking around depressed, you are not performing well at work and it will spread to all areas of your life.

Lift your spirits with something that makes you feel better about yourself inside or outside of work, whether music, a laugh, exercise, hobbies or a compliment.

Cherish your friends

Nourish yourself with people who are important to you and can provide an independent perspective. They will also allow you to vent your anxieties, give you the sense that you are not alone, and offer comfort, support, and humour.

Get support

If you are having trouble coping or feeling signs of depression or anxiety, consider seeking clinical support. Take advantage of your company's employee assistance program.

Be kind to others

Doing something nice for someone releases "feel good" chemicals in your brain. And given how most people are feeling today, a kind word can make a huge difference in someone else's life.