Organisations warned to avoid 'bad stress' during economic downturn

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Organisations warned to avoid 'bad stress' during economic downturn

Economic worries, the credit crunch, and rising petrol prices could raise the potential for workplace aggression, a management expert has warned.

According to workplace aggression expert Paul Harvey, the global economic slowdown and decreased job security could lead to more work-related, ‘bad’ stress.

Unlike ‘good stress', which challenges employees with reasonable goals and rewards, ‘bad stress' can lead to reduced productivity and workplace aggression, he explained.

Very tight deadlines, arcane policies and uncomfortable working conditions were highlighted as possible causes of ‘bad’ stress.

“Reducing bad stress often can be done by reducing bureaucracy and listening to employees’ concerns to see if they can be addressed,” said Harvey, an assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire.

“What you generally don’t want to do is try to reduce employees overall stress levels by taking away the good stress, the aspects of a job they find enjoyable and energising,” he said.

Harvey mentioned yelling at co-workers and threats of violence as some examples of aggression.

Increased stress also could translate into alcohol abuse, depression, withdrawal from work and family, and even suicide, he warned.

“A big problem with these reactions is that they don’t always go away once the stress is reduced,” he said.

“People become addicted to alcohol or irreparably harm their reputation at work or their relationships with family members.”

“Fortunately the really dramatic stress-related incidents, like workplace shootings, are rare,” he noted.

As the economic downturn has put more jobs at stake, Harvey suggests that companies deliver bad news with common sense and respect to minimise the likelihood of an extremely bad reaction.

Managers are advised to try to understand an employee’s personality and watch for a ‘hostile attribution style’, which is the tendency to blame others whenever things go wrong in their lives.

According to Harvey, these people usually are easy to identify: they never take responsibility for problems, frequently seek scapegoats, and tend to be angry frequently.

“If you need to lay this type of person off, it’s important to be very explicit about why they were chosen and why this was a logical decision,” he said.

“If it’s because of economic reasons, be very clear that it’s because of economic reasons. Otherwise the tendency to believe ‘they’re out to get me’ often takes over,” he said.

Even if an employer believes an employee is a calm and reasonable person, Harvey believes that it’s best to be as candid as possible and explain all the reasons a person is being laid off, even if the situation feels awkward.

“One of the worst things you can do is create ambiguity,” he said.

“While the managers might think they are sparing feelings, they are also giving ex-employees an opportunity to spin conspiracy theories which fuel anger and resentment. Be kind and respectful, but also as candid as possible,” he said.
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