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Money stress puts strain on small firms' employees

Falling home prices, shrinking 401(k)s and job insecurity can affect performance.

September 29, 2008|Joyce M. Rosenberg | The Associated Press

Robert Fellman can see it on his employees' faces: the fear, stress and discomfort that come from a difficult, even scary, economic climate.

"There's panic in their eyes," said Fellman, director of PC Professor, a computer training company with offices in Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, Fla.

He also hears it when they reassure him that they'll do whatever it takes to keep their jobs: "If there's anything you need done, I'll accept the criticism, just let me know" is what he hears from staffers.

U.S. workers are living through an extremely stressful time, between falling home values, rising food and energy costs, and worries about job security. On top of all that, there's the crisis that has enveloped the financial system. And people with savings in the stock market are seeing their retirement nest eggs shrink.

Like Fellman's employees, many workers bring their stress into the small businesses where they work. His staffers are mainly uneasy, but at other companies, the symptoms may be more disruptive: angry outbursts, frequent absences, a loss of productivity -- problems that business owners have to deal with.

How they handle a situation depends on the source of the stress. If, like Fellman's staff, it grows out of job insecurity, human resources professionals recommend that a boss be upfront about what's going on with the company, let workers know what the challenges are and what needs to be done about them.

There are two important reasons for this approach. One, a lack of information breeds even more stress. Second, if employees know what the company needs to do to succeed, they can help make it happen.

If a small business has to resort to layoffs or other cutbacks, it's best to do them at one time if possible, said Dean Debnam, president of Workplace Options, a work-life consultancy in Raleigh, N.C.

"Don't dribble it out," he said. "Figure it out and do it all at once, and announce what the plan is -- rather than torture everyone else who's staying with when the next shoe is going to drop."

An owner can also help reduce stress in the office by giving out positive feedback and saying "Thank you" more often for workers' efforts. Employees are more likely to pitch in if they feel appreciated and validated.

Although anxiety over job security certainly is an issue, Debnam said a bigger source of stress in the workplace is financial and personal problems.

"People are getting calls from credit card companies. They're overextended, they're worried about eviction," he said.

That can lead to depression and difficulties at home, and some employees may turn to alcohol or drugs to help cope with the strain. All of these problems can affect how they act and perform at work and can also have an effect on co-workers and the work flow.

Debnam said the solution in such cases is to talk to the employee about what's going on and let him or her know that there are services available to provide help. If the company has contracted with an employee assistance provider, the staffer can be referred for financial counseling and aid as well as mental health and addiction services. If the business has no employee assistance provider, the owner should find out what community resources are available.

Debnam suggests owners take an understanding but firm approach when an employee's stress is affecting the workplace.

"Let the employee know that you care, that you're available," he said, but if there are angry outbursts or other forms of acting out, "you can say, 'That reaction was over the top. Maybe you should take the afternoon off.' "

In such cases, staffers need to be told that they have to deal with their problems and not bring them to work.

Some owners are dealing with stress caused by higher gas prices.

Cline Waddell, who owns an Assisting Hands home care franchise in Boise, Idaho, has had employees tell him they can't afford to fill their gas tanks to take care of clients, who often live in rural areas some distance away.

Waddell has 65 employees who work as caregivers. He's given them gas cards and reworked schedules so their stops are closer together.

But the stress is financial and emotional.

"It's wearing on the caregivers and wearing on the business," Waddell said.

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