Stiff Upper Lips

Are your employees happy or just biding their time?

Downsized employees are stressed. But in a sense they may suffer from less anxiety than those left behind. Why? Their situations are clear: They’re out of work. Those who remain employed tend to be enveloped in uncertainty — particularly in work environments where managers and subordinates have little exchange of dialogue. “Silence is very ambiguous,” says Arlyn J. Imberman, president of Emerging Image, an executive coaching company in New York City. “If no one is saying anything, if managers are not talking to their staff, then people will fill in the silence with their own scenarios and create more anxiety for themselves.”

According to Dr. Richard Bayer, the COO of the The Five O’Clock Club in New York City, the absence of dialogue may lead employers to feel everything’s OK. But, in a discussion with industry experts recently, the career counseling organization found that employers may be unduly confident about higher employee retention rates, which could be temporary and masking serious problems, such as low morale and hidden labor issues.

Dr. David A. Kipper believes that low company morale in this type of work climate is a by-product of survivor’s guilt. “It’s very common among soldiers in combat when one dies. The feeling is, ‘Why not me?’” The second component of such anxiety, he says, is the employee’s feeling of: “When is the boom going to be lowered on me?” Other stresses may be a result of the additional workload placed on remaining workers and could play out in a number of different ways, says Kipper, a psychiatrist.

Talking. “That is an obvious sign,” Kipper says. “The way people find relief is to talk, even if it is vague or in a joke. Unfortunately, managers tend to dismiss it.”

Working like crazy. Uncertain about their futures, employees want to show they are valuable. They could, however, drive themselves into fatigue, which could spin into other problems, including a reduction of work quality.

Kipper suggests using their standard performance levels as the benchmark for measuring change. “You have to encourage dialogue,” insists Imberman, “because defense mechanisms can be easily misread.” She suggests setting up small departmental group meetings so that no employee is singled out. Smaller, intimate meetings can also help to blur the gap between employee and employer for better feedback sessions.

“You have to communicate how important your employees are to you, particularly because they are the people on the front line going to battle for you,” Imberman says. “You have to listen to their concerns and address them. Even if their concerns are not acted upon, they have to be [acknowledged]. Not getting answers makes people uneasy. This is a time when people need to feel connected.”

“Managers are conditioned to problem solve,” Kipper concurs. “Don’t be so quick to offer solutions. It’s important that you take time to listen.”

Both Imberman and Kipper offer these suggestions:
Solicit help. “Effective managers have to be attuned to what’s going on in their departments, but they are not psychotherapists,” states Kipper. “Nor are they, in some cases, inclined to

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