BY Antoinette Blunt, MPA, CHRP, SHRP



We keep hearing it. The global economy is in an unparalleled state of uncertainty. Many human resources professionals have experienced the impact first hand, where layoffs and buyouts have become daunting parts of their everyday work life.

But there are other, less obvious, workplace problems looming—and HR professionals need to be alert to them.

Sources of stress

Whether it’s fear of losing their own job, or the stress of a partner facing unemployment, anxiety is bound to accompany employees to work. Even those with job security will undoubtedly have suffered financial loss in their own retirement savings over the past 18 months.

That’s not even mentioning the tension in workplaces themselves. Increasingly, HR professionals are hearing from baby boomer employees who want to withdraw their requests for retirement because their nest eggs have shrunk. This is not only disappointing for the would-be retirees but also for younger employees who had been hoping to move into the management jobs vacated by their retiring colleagues. In short, it creates pressures on both ends of the employee spectrum.

Clearly, there are a number of issues present in today’s workplace that are causing more stress than those prevalent in the heady days of a healthy economy. Understanding the potentially negative consequences of those issues is something employers need to be aware of and becoming familiar with the signs and symptoms of stress-related work problems is essential.

Warning signs

Some key factors to watch for include changes in behaviour from normal performance patterns, stressful or ineffective communication, failure to meet deadlines and higher rates of absenteeism.

Although studies have shown that casual absentee rates tend to go down in a downturn, longer-term disability— often as a result of mental or nervous disorders— tend to increase, according to a report in Benefits Canada.

Although workplace violence has not been a common occurrence, it is something to be vigilant about when the potential for employee stress is as high as it is now and the work environment as unsettled.

Although there is no concrete research that shows workplace violence increases during economic downturns, there are several risk factors experts use to analyze a predisposition to violence. Risk factors listed by the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, such as relationship instability, employment problems, substance abuse problems (which could increase as a coping mechanism) aren’t necessarily linked to what’s happening in the economy, but they could be. The organization also lists exposure to destabilizers (including an economic downturn), lack of personal support (through jobs and social networks), and stress (this could certainly increase as a result of economic concerns) as risk factors.

Given all these risk factors, employers need to have a heightened awareness of the potential for problems.

We will get through these tough times of layoffs, downsizing, bankruptcies and cutbacks with a realistic understanding that the end could be in distant sight rather than in the near future. In the meantime, as HR professionals, we must be cognizant of our employees’ performance and behaviours and be vigilant of the potential impact of stress-related problems.

This article first appeared in the August/September 2009 issue of HR Professional magazine.

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