Piling Canada

Under Pressure

Strategies for addressing and alleviating employee anxiety
January 2015

Strategies for addressing and alleviating employee anxiety

Although Canadians appear to be fairly far away from any potential of encountering the Ebola virus, after reading and hearing the daily news, I can easily envision the heightened fear that’s beginning to occur amongst workers, especially those that travel to foreign countries. Not only are general citizens in the targeted countries becoming ill, doctors, nurses and other health care workers are also becoming patients.

Then, as fear spreads, we are seeing some health care workers refusing to work, causing a shortage of staff to help curb the disease. Similarly, cabin cleaners at New York’s LaGuardia Airport recently walked off the job to protest what they perceived as insufficient protection from potential exposure to the Ebola virus. They raised concerns about the lack of proper protective equipment, as well as the quality. The one-day strike forced airline crews to clean planes themselves, which in turn creates additional health hazards. And in countries such as West Africa, there are already tremendous economic impacts as schools and businesses are closed.

We are also experiencing challenges within our own workforces. On one hand, we are hearing announcements of new job growth opportunities while on the other we are learning of significant budget cuts and employee layoffs. As well, provincial and federal governments appear to be in a belt-tightening mode. Regardless of whether these efforts are legitimate or not, these types of incidents and/or issues cause significant anxiety amongst employee groups.


Recognizing anxiety
And when employees feel insecure, they hunker down and go into “survivor mode.” This means that they build an invisible protective wall around themselves. This is their way of attempting to keep fear at bay and to manage their anxiety. This is often called “survivor syndrome.”

As a manager and/or team leader, it’s your job to recognize the symptoms of employee anxiety resulting from the survivor syndrome and to do your best to help employees deal with their personal career and job related challenges. Failing to do so will lead to common human resource issues, such as short- and long-term illness and general absenteeism, as well as low morale and low productivity.

Some of the symptoms your employees may be feeling include:

  • Exaggerated worry about money and job security; can’t stop asking what’s going to happen
  • Obvious nervousness, restlessness and an inability to concentrate or focus on work and therefore difficulty in tackling new tasks
  • Signs of stress-related health issues such as tiredness, headaches, nausea, stomach aches, inability to eat, chest pains or feelings of dizziness
  • Engaging in nonstop gossip and rumours, verbal hostility or physical aggression
  • Withdrawal from team-based activities along with evidence of depression, anger, inappropriate interpersonal communication, increased alcohol consumption or escapist drinking and/or smoking
  • Focusing all attention on “flight” or getting out of the situation instead of focusing on getting work done

Help employees through challenging periods

While managers are not expected to be psychologists, there are still many tactics you can and should undertake to help employees through their difficult times. Consider the following:

Be open and honest – about your own feelings. Help your employees and reassure them that you value their expertise and contributions. Share what you know about the rationale for organizational change.

Demonstrate personal empathy – when change occurs, especially job loss, people feel a strong sense of injustice. Put yourself in your employee’s shoes and imagine their feelings. Understand how their concerns are impacting their emotions and offer support and suggestions. Avoid patronizing comments, such as “I know how you feel.”

Respect individualism – everyone reacts differently to stress. Some people will withdraw and become very quiet while others will be overly talkative. Provide a safe environment in which individuals can voice their concerns; encourage them to speak about their fears and anxieties. Avoid forcing people to be part of the crowd if they prefer to deal with their feelings in private.


Prepare and distribute question and answer documents – anticipate questions your employees might ask and prepare responses that can be distributed to every employee. If you cannot answer a question, avoid responding with a glib answer. Inform employees you will find the answer at the earliest possible time. Update your document frequently.

Shift focus to the future – at some point, you need to shift employee thinking to the future. Talk about and discuss how you will be moving forward. Avoid sugar coating the challenges but instead ask for suggestions. Invite discussion about employee concerns. Avoid being defensive about management decisions, be confident and offer support.

Offer visible support – reinforce the procedures for accessing your employee assistance programs (EAP). Reassure individuals their EAP discussions are confidential. Be visible as a leader keeping an eye on everyone as they go through the various stages of loss (shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Seek out opportunities to redistribute work that will be viewed as career growth and/or providing more employee control over their work.

Apply multiple communication channels – during times of stress and anxiety, it’s easy for employees to misunderstand what’s being said no matter how many times it is repeated. Make use of multiple communication avenues such as the company newsletter, website, intranet, bulletin board and frequent group emails. Keep the messages clear and simple with minimal number of embedded messages.

Dealing with employee anxiety is one of the most stressful times for both management and employees alike. This is especially when external factors, such as the Calgary hydro crisis, are impacting the organization. No matter how much planning managers do, keep in mind that there will always be some unexpected wrinkles. However, it is the responsibility of a leader to plan for all types of challenges and if you are confronting something new, it is even more important that you apply good decision-making skills while at the same time ensuring communication to employees is given high priority. 

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group, a talent management consulting firm. She is also president of Career Partners International, Manitoba. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com.


From Piling Canada Q4-2014 🍁

Category: Business

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