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

Cover of "Psychological Capital: Developi...

Cover via Amazon

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.

Assuring Constancy Amidst Constant Change

Ruth Graham writes,

“It is difficult to trust things that change. Trust is built on the assurance of constancy.”

It’s almost cliché to say that we live in times of constant change – we know more change than we do steadiness. Fourth generation (4G) mobile technology is being released and I didn’t even know there was such a thing as generations of technology! The iPod was launched in 2001 and is in its 6th generation, meaning that the technology is waaaayyyy better today than it was in 2001, right?

Besides technology, we see change everywhere around us. Egypt is in the midst of a chaotic change to its political system as individuals take to the streets demanding to be heard. Companies have had to react to economic changes, forcing some to shut their doors for good, others to lay off scores of workers, while others took the opportunity to reinvent themselves to survive and thrive rather than fall victim of the recession.

So what is a leader to do when followers are looking for an anchor when change is swirling around them? The simple answer is character.

The leader who forgets that people are looking for stability will soon find their followers stopped in their tracks, unable to move forward because uncertainty has paralyzed them.

This disengagement occurs when leaders put forward momentum before relationships and miss opportunities to assure stability of character despite uncertainty and shifting priorities within the organization. I worked for a company that had three CEOs in less than five years and a new one was just coming in the door when I was leaving. Each executive had his own agenda, which meant no one knew from one year to the next what was going to happen to their job. It didn’t help that this company has a reputation for regular layoffs, so the level of uncertainty was magnified and pandemonium reigned. People put in their time, but politics and turf wars prevented the organization from thriving.

But there were some managers who did especially well even in this tumultuous climate. Leaders were often in the same boat as their followers however, I witnessed a couple of outliers who managed to maintain the trust of their team even though the future was uncertain. These leaders demonstrated constancy of character in the following ways:

  1. Transparency. The leaders who were best at creating constancy amidst change were honest and open. They shared their own concerns and frustrations in a way that promoted dialogue without promising anything beyond what they could commit to. They didn’t pretend and they didn’t ignore the issues, but faced them plainly and honestly.
  2. Positivity. Those leaders who could keep a proper perspective helped their followers to do the same. Positivity in the middle of uncertainty is challenging, but I saw leaders who could communicate with a long-term vision and foster a sense of “everything is going to be alright” amongst their teams. They remind people that change can be good and that even if we don’t initially like the outcome we will adapt, learn, or find something that fits us better in the long run.
  3. Reliability. Leaders who avoided jumping on the bandwagon of rumor, second-guessing, and chasing scape-goats provide an anchor for followers, a positive example of reliability and duty that strengthens the group. The reliable leader listens well but doesn’t allow finger-pointing or back-stabbing. This sends a message that the leader can be trusted and a calm in the storm.

Assuring constancy amidst constant change is a critical skill for leaders to develop in our fast-paced world.

The first century Greek philosopher Epictetus, in The Art of Living, says, “To live a life of virtue, you have to become consistent, even when it isn’t convenient, comfortable, or easy.”

Virtuous leaders who develop the consistent character traits of transparency, positivity and reliability when it is inconvenient and difficult, find that they are boosted by the support of faithful followers. This mutual partnership can withstand constant change in circumstances because it runs deeper than the external chaos in which it operates.