Healthy In A Recession

With the recession top of mind for many organizations, few would believe that it’s the right time to adopt psychologically healthy workplace programs. Employers would rather deal with the important things such as cost reductions, staff layoffs, and salary and benefits cuts rather than “touchy-feely” stuff.

Or so the thinking goes.

It’s a myth that psychologically healthy approaches are a luxury in difficult economic times. In fact the opposite is true. The goal of creating a psychologically healthy workplace, according to Dr. David Ballard, Executive Director for Corporate Relations and Business Strategy at the American Psychological Association, is to “optimize outcomes for employees and employers, which is different from maximizing outcomes for either group”. This means finding ways to promote productivity that don’t burn out staff. It means providing employees with benefits that don’t bankrupt the business. This differs from previous ways of doing business which highlighted maximizing company profits at the expense of employees or maximizing employee perks at the expense of the business.

Ballard suggested in a recent interview that business success comes when people recognize that placing a premium on employees’ psychological well-being is linked to higher productivity, better performance and increased quality. As a result, making sure employees have access to psychologically healthy programs and that employers have their needs met for a healthy business are key to success during a recession.

The most important element to ensuring business success during hard times is protecting the relationship between employee and employer. Dr. Ballard suggests four ways to preserve a positive relationship:

1. Honesty and Transparency
Be up-front about any harsh realities facing your company. Include employees in conversations about what actions are being taken to deal with business problems and why these are necessary. Discussing options for employers such as telecommuting or working from home to save jobs for instance, offers staff an opportunity to help the business deal with economic issues.

Dr. Ballard noted that when employers don’t even know specific outcomes, it is best to tell staff that you are working on the problem and you’ll keep them posted as information comes available. Trying to guess what’s going to happen next when you don’t really know is a recipe for creating uncertainty amongst staff.

2. Reduce Uncertainty
Uncertainty on the job can take its toll psychologically, says Dr. Ballard. Stressed staff may engage in harmful behaviours such as using drugs or alcohol to cope, reducing exercise and eating unhealthy foods. Anxiety based on wondering whether you’ll have a job in the future can undermine staff confidence, distract employees and cause feelings of depression. Uncertainty can be reduced when employers are specific with the information they have and admit they don’t know yet, if that’s the case when it comes to making changes to ensure business survival. It’s important that employees understand the rationale, their roles and anticipated changes. If job loss is part of the bad news, Dr. Ballard recommends avoiding telling staff at 4:45 pm Friday and then escorting them out of the building. Rather, he counsels a respectful approach, including an explanation behind the decision to lay off staff that includes out-placement services and financial advice for employees. It’s important to offer counselling to staff who have lost their jobs, too.

3. Access to Health and Wellness Services
Offering staff access to health and wellness services ranging from EAP, Peer Support and exercise opportunities is important in protecting the positive relationship between staff and employer. These kinds of programs do not need to cost a lot to be effective. For example, initiating a lunchtime walking club helps employees stay active during stressful times and encouraging employees to talk to each other regarding the challenges they face is helpful too. It’s key to let staff know that it is normal to feel stressed, uncertain and angry when facing changes at work that are beyond their control.

4. Be Flexible
Withstanding changes induced by economic hardship requires flexibility. Talking to employees about how to streamline the business for survival can help a business survive. Offering flex time, job sharing, and telecommuting are other ways to help a struggling enterprise.

Maintaining a positive working relationship with staff during hard times is vital to helping them cope with job changes and the stress that comes with a difficult economy. Ensuring that staff feel respected, involved, and included is important. In addition, offering staff choices regarding their work and encouraging employees to learn new skills during a down time can help ensure a psychologically healthy environment.

The 2009 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards will be held October 15th, 2009 and Dr. Ballard will be speaking October 16th, 2009 . For more information about either event contact the British Columbia Psychological Association at 604-730-0501 or http://www.psychologists.bc.ca/upcoming.html .

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at
  sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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