Bouncing Back (and Beyond): The Emotional Side of Economic Recovery for Employees

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As the economy begins its slow climb out of the pit of recession, workplaces have a lot of messes to clean up, especially the emotional debris caused by the economic tsunami the washed over the global marketplace these past 2-3 years. Companies slashed workforces and raised performance expectations in an attempt to ride out the storm, some barely keeping their heads above water. But what was the emotional toll and what do organizations need to do to help employees bounce back to pre-crisis levels of wellbeing?

Even before the recession was in full swing, when the pundits were still debating what title to put on the economic crisis that was beginning to raise its ugly head, a study by Towers Watson showed that “nearly half of U.S. employers say stress caused by working long hours is affecting business performance.”  Yet only about 5% were trying to do anything about it. And as the economic crisis became a beast of recession, one can only imagine that things didn’t improve!

It’s important for employers to consider what their employees have been through these past three years.  Did they face foreclosure? Did a spouse lose a job? Did they have to take on a second job just to make ends meet? Were there constant threats of layoffs and spending freezes and drastic cost-cutting measures that made it difficult for them to do their jobs? And did you keep giving them more work to do because you were feeling the stress of trying to keep the business afloat as you faced your own financial tsunami?

The good news is that we are resilient.

There are some practical steps employers can take to help employees bounce back, and hopefully go beyond where they were prior to the crisis.

Empathize. Put yourself in their shoes and gain some understanding of the stress they’ve faced. Very few individuals have come through the recession without being impacted in some way. Talk to your employees about what they’ve experienced and what their level of optimism is for the future. Find some common ground and let them see you as “real.”

Re-establish Trust. Employees may distrust employers, especially if they feel they have been treated unfairly. If you had to make drastic cuts and reduce hours, expenditures and support, talk with employees about priorities as you can begin loosening up the purse strings. Ask them for input on what essential resources are needed and how they might be funded. Collaborate with them and empower them to have some control over their work.

Give them Hope. Share with them how they fit into the organization’s future. Consider courses or conferences that may build their skills. Share your dreams for the future of the enterprise and how you see them being a part of the future success of the organization. Give them insight into exciting developments or plans. Don’t give false hope, however, or you’ll erode trust quickly.

Sustain their Wellbeing. Employee engagement grows as employers focus on initiatives that help employees find meaning in their work, balance all aspects of their lives, and minimize their stress. Gallup identifies “Five Essential Elements” of Wellbeing as Career, Social, Financial, Physical, and Community. What can you do as an employer to contribute to these areas of wellbeing so that your staff is energized, engaged and ready to help you succeed?

If you really want to make the most of the economic recovery, the key as an employer is to consider the emotional recovery of your employees. According to professor Fred Luthans & his colleagues (Psychological Capital, 2007),

“Today’s organizational participants need to not only survive, cope, and recover, but also to thrive and flourish through the inevitable difficulties and uncertainties that they face and to do so faster than their competition.”

They describe a process of “proactive resiliency” that helps individuals and organizations “overcome, steer through, bounce back, and reach out to pursue new knowledge and experiences, deeper relationships with others, and finding meaning in life.”

Employers are encouraged to reflect on adversities and setbacks and use them as a springboard for growth and development. Celebrate together that you’ve gotten through the difficulties and are now ready to take on the future together. This process can ultimately improve performance and lead to net gains for your business. Employees will gain job satisfaction and increase engagement as hope, trust and confidence create a positive spiral of increased resiliency.

Employees key to bouncing back after the recession

Few companies have come through the past 2-3 years unscathed by the recession. Leaders should consider the impact the recession has had on those who have survived in your organization. How are your employees doing at riding the wave of the economic crisis?

  • Are they disheartened, barely hanging on?
  • Are they committed to your organization and doing everything they can to maximize revenue?
  • Are they coming to you with innovative solutions to bring new customers?
  • Are they maintaining your reputation or just waiting for an opportunity to jump ship?
  • Have you been so focused on surviving the recession to pay much attention to the needs of your employees?

Most companies cut training and development when times get hard.  At the same time incentives and motivational processes take a hit, leading to a discouraging scenario for employees.  If layoffs or deferred hiring also are used to cut expenses during a downturn, the surviving employees are asked to do more with less. The accumulative effect is a disengaged workforce that puts in minimal effort, feeling that the organization doesn’t do anything to earn their commitment.

Not all of this is fair, of course, since employers have to do something to ride out the storm. It’s important for business leaders to understand the value of learning during challenging economic times. The old adage, “You have to spend money to make money” comes into play here.  According to a 2009 study by The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and i4cp (Organizational Learning in Tough Economic Times), 38% of companies plan to place more emphasis on learning during the economic crisis. The remaining 60% are either maintaining pre-recession levels or cutting back, some drastically.

The reality is that there’s never been a better time to focus on talent development within your organization.  It is your employees that will pull your company through and help your regain traction as the economy begins to recover.  Managers and business owners must become astute at managing performance, growing talent, and leveraging strengths to maximize human capital.

Because people are the cornerstone to any business – the foundation upon which the organization either stands strong or falters, the wisest thing for companies to do is become experts in managing human performance.  A strong human capital strategy includes an assessment of desired verses actual performance, analysis of strengths & competencies and selection practices to ensure the right people are in the right job, and a commitment to developing people that doesn’t waver despite market and economic fluctuations.

The good news is that human performance management doesn’t have to be expensive! And the return on investment pays off quickly. The key is having a plan and sticking with it. Once processes are in place they can be maintained through feast or famine.  Keep in mind the toll that the economic crisis has on your employees and consider budget-conscious solutions that will keep them engaged. Your employees want to succeed, but need to know they can trust management to support them.

As businesses make difficult decisions about how to pull through the current economic downturn, they must think beyond the knee-jerk reaction to slash costs to the bone. In ASTD’s Economic Survival Guide, the message is “Survival of the learning function in a down economy is all about leveraging existing best practices, eliminating redundancies, and creating programs or situations where employees can learn from each other.” You may want to invest in the services of an organization development consultant to initiate your human performance analysis, which will ensure you’re focusing on the most valuable efforts that lead to sustainable performance and position your company for success as the economy bounces back.