A HELPING HAND FROM THE BOSS In times of stress, employers need to be sensitive to workers' personal problems


Before the shooting started in the Persian Gulf, managers at PHH Corp. in Hunt Valley were put on alert.

The company played no direct role in the war. Still, PHH managers were vigilant about any emotional impact on their own troops. They wanted to be sure that war anxiety didn't impair the company's 1,000-member work force.

"The company definitely does care. It cares about the human factors of its business," says Rita Ennis, director of employee relations at PHH, a business services firm. "How people's emotions are moving is very relevant for all of us. There's also a basic bottom line issue here, and that's productivity."

Anxiety ran high in many offices as people coped with fears related to the war. And apprehension continues as workers grapple with the recession, including layoff fears. In the midst of so much emotional turmoil, companies are learning important lessons about helping their employees cope with crisis, employee assistance specialists say.

Such lessons came in especially handy during stressful wartime days.

"People have been bombarded with information and news on the war. Over time, the effect of all that is to increase your stress

level because you're dealing with the unknown. You wonder how the war is going to affect you, your job and your country. Uncertainty breeds anxiety," says James Quinn of Changing Point, an Ellicott City company in the drug and alcohol treatment field. The company also runs employee assistance programs.

Anxiety is also bred by fears of job loss, EAP specialists point out. Thousands of Maryland workers already have been laid off. Many others fear the recession, combined with a general trend toward corporate downsizing, will cost them their jobs.

"People's view of the safety of their world changes when something unexpected impacts on them," says Philip DeLoache, employee assistance program manager for Sheppard Pratt Health Systems, based in Towson.

K? Some employees have been suffering such acute emotional dis

tress that their job performance, reliability and appearance has been significantly affected, employee assistance specialists say.

As employee anxiety increased, managers at many companies realized their role in helping workers cope. Without such intervention, productivity can plummet. And a company's morale and public image are affected by the way it handles employees (( -- including the way it lays people off.

"There's a recognition that employees have more needs now," Mr. DeLoache says. "There's also a recognition that with diminished work pools, employers are asking employees to do more with less. An employee who is 98 percent there is not good enough."

Like a growing number of companies, PHH looked to its employee assistance program to help employees handle war-related anxiety. EAPs work with companies to provide employees confidential, short-term counseling and referral services to help them cope with personal problems. A few large companies operate their own EAPs, but most firms contract with outside organizations for such services.

In a letter to all key managers at PHH even before the shooting war broke out, company Chairman Robert D. Kunisch urged managers to recommend that employees affected by the war turn to the Baltimore-based Prime Employee Assistance Program, the EAP on contract with PHH.

"As key members of management, please be attentive to the special need for sensitivity to employee concerns during this time," Mr. Kunisch wrote in his Jan. 15 letter.

To head off problems, managers must learn to recognize signs of trouble.

Outward signs of a troubled employee include absenteeism, irritability, cynicism or an overall decline in job performance. An anxious employee may wander away from his workstation frequently or change his social behavior in the office.

Less apparent signs may be present, too. Many troubled employees suffer insomnia, tension headaches, teeth grinding, spastic colon problems or appetite disruptions.

Although many employee fears are based on nebulous, unfocused worries, others are related to practical problems growing out of the war or recession.

One such recession-era problem facing many employees is a debt burden. With many families' finances hurt by the recession, people are having more difficulty meeting bills and may be mentally absorbed in cash-flow problems when they should be giving their full attention to work, says Mr. Quinn of Changing Point.

EAP specialists offer these pointers to managers seeking to help employees who are facing short-term troubles of any kind:

* Allow some flexibility in employee schedules, but set limits.

With a spouse serving overseas, many working parents have been faced with total responsibility for child care. They have needed changes in work hours to accommodate a day-care or school schedule. And, on occasion, they've needed time off to take a sick child to the doctor.

Whenever possible, companies should accommodate such requests by workers in good standing, according to Mr. Quinn. That helps lessen the employee's stress level and builds loyalty to the company, he says.

But Mr. Quinn cautions against carrying the policy of accommodation to extremes.

He recalls, for instance, how a university had to set limits on the outside activities of a professor with a grown daughter serving in the Persian Gulf. The professor became so engrossed in anti-war activities that she missed many of the classes she was scheduled to teach. Her department chairman delivered an ultimatum: Curtail the time spent outside the classroom or quit. She decided to stay.

* Communicate often and thoroughly with your employees about layoff plans.

"In the long run, when people are informed of the facts it's easier for them to deal with the information they receive," says Mr. DeLoache.

Factual information sent to employees through written communications or verbal presentations is the best way to head off rumors about possible work force changes, Mr. Quinn says.

Too often, companies planning layoffs wait until the last moment to tell employees. The companies fear that disgruntled workers would sabotage operations if they had more notice of layoffs. But Mr. Quinn says such fears are usually baseless and that employees, given weeks of advance notice, are grateful and typically perform well up until the last day.

He cited the closing of the Dundalk bottling plant of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. The company, which announced the expected layoffs in 1988, a couple of years before the closing, gave most employees extensive advance notice that they would lose their jobs. Sabotage wasn't a problem, Mr. Quinn says.

* Show sensitivity to subordinates without getting intricately involved.

"If you make someone special and provide them with extended personal time, you change your relationship with them and it becomes difficult to set appropriate limits," Mr. DeLoache cautions.

Rather than trying to address employees' emotional concerns directly, refer the individual to an employee assistance program, Mr. DeLoache suggests.

"You have to strike that fine balance between objective concern and trying to do psychotherapy with employees," Mr. DeLoache says.


4** To keep anxiety at bay in your company:

* Watch for warning signs such as absenteeism or a sudden decline in productivity. Less obvious signs: employees complaining of insomnia, tension headaches or appetite loss.

Allow some flexibility in employee schedules, to accommodate their needs. But make sure to set limits.

Communicate often and thoroughly with your employees about layoff plans. That can head off damaging rumors.

Show sensitivity to employees. But be careful not to get too personally involved.

* Consider subscribing to an employee assistance program.

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