Larned S. Whitney, MBA, CPA
Business Development Group

275 East H Street
Benicia, CA  94510
phone: 707.745.5991
fax: 707.745.5995

Helping People Achieve Success in Business

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Leading Your Team In Stressful Times

These are particularly stressful times for businesses. The global economy is in a prolonged downturn, with uncertain prospects for recovery. The US economy has been in recession.

Businesses are laying off employees and many are restructuring. Globalization has introduced new competitors and challenges. Markets are changing rapidly with the introduction of new technology and businesses need to show increasing flexibility and adaptability. Large share market fluctuations have made both business and private investors more aware of risks and less certain of returns.

The developed world now has to deal with the awareness that in addition to natural disasters terrorist attacks may occur at any time. Biological and chemical terrorism are real threats. Workers in certain industry sectors, such as travel, face heightened and ongoing concerns for their safety.

Dealing With Traumatic Events

While you can never predict the unexpected, you can develop strategies to cope with it. This will help you in a crisis and will reduce ongoing stress by minimizing uncertainty. Workers will suffer less stress if they know that effective plans have been made to protect them in case of a crisis. They will also be reassured by effective communication of what those plans are.

A crisis plan does not only need to cover terrorism. Crises come in many forms, and problems that are minor for one business could be disastrous for another. A crisis could be caused by burst water mains, fallen power lines, technical failures that shut down information systems, leakage of hazardous materials, workplace violence, a death in the workplace, fire, etc.

Prepare a crisis plan

Although it is never pleasant to think about the consequences of a workplace crisis, most employees will benefit from the confidence that they know how to behave in an emergency. Prepare a plan to cover your various crisis scenarios. You will need to appoint a leadership structure that can react effectively to a workplace crisis. The leader does not need to be the CEO, who may spend much of the time away from the workplace and could be absent during a crisis. Leaders could be the managers for different shifts, for example.

You could consider using the services of a professional organization, such as a Critical Incident Response Provider, to help you work through crisis strategies. They can help you devise a crisis procedures manual and assign roles for employees. The procedures set out in the manual need to be drilled. Evacuation procedures should be practiced, for example, so that workers will not be thinking about what to do in an emergency – they will actually be doing it. 

Coping with the aftermath

Professionals can also help you deal with the aftermath of a crisis. They can debrief employees, assess their emotional state, offer support and help stabilize emotions, where necessary. They can offer expertise that will prevent distorted and damaging perceptions of an event from taking hold in the survivors’ minds. This will minimize the prospects of long-term psychological damage.

Emergencies cause ‘critical incident stress’ – which is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. The stress can result in physical, mental and emotional effects that can be felt immediately, but could also take months to appear.

Short-term reactions to critical incidents can include nausea, profuse sweating or chills, tremors, increased pulse rate, confusion, difficultly making decisions, and intense grief and/or anger. Over time, crisis survivors may find they suffer from nightmares, sleep disorders, poor eating habits, moodiness, anxiety, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts.

Left untreated, these symptoms may develop into serious and long-term mental and physical health problems. Generally, the earlier the intervention, the more likely it is to help.

It is important that people talk about their experience and realize there is nothing wrong with their feelings.

Helping Your Employees Readapt

Organize activities

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and eePulse conducted a poll following the  September 11, 2001 attacks. They found that a feeling of helplessness was an important stressor for many employees as they tried to readjust. You can help overcome such feelings by organizing activities.  

“Although many respondents reported that their employees felt helpless,” said Theresa Welbourne, eePulse CEO, “reaching out to the workforce through communications, meetings, and direct actions ranging from donating money to relief funds, organizing blood drives, and even holding garage sales, helped many employees cope.”

Monitor employee stress

The September 11 attacks affected people’s workplaces, and employees are likely to feel more vulnerable in the workplace for years to come. You need to be on the lookout for the signs of stress, which may take time to emerge and which will vary according to circumstances. 

People generally go through stages in their reaction to a traumatic event. The first phase is a ‘heroic’ one, in which they feel invincible and able to meet any challenge. As this feeling fades, people try to get back to work and normal life. But this is often difficult, as they go through a phase of disillusionment, depression and dissatisfaction.

Show sensitivity

You can help your employees by showing sensitivity. Listen to them and acknowledge their feelings. Do this on an individual level, and also try to provide informal opportunities for employees to share their emotional reactions.

Foster a supportive environment, so that employees will be comfortable about accepting help and even professional counseling if necessary. It’s important to offer counseling confidentially, as people may shy away otherwise.

Be patient

Employees commonly reassess their life and priorities after a critical event. They may want to change their work/life balance, perhaps in favor of their family life. They may want to move into new work areas or even resign. Employer flexibility and understanding can help retain good people while they go through this process.

Accept the reality of people’s emotions

Don’t dismiss or minimize emotional reactions to a crisis. This will not help people recover. For example, don’t dismiss fears of flying. That fear is likely to be widespread at the moment, but most people will get over it in their own time. 

The key is to acknowledge emotions, deal with them and then move on with recovery. But be aware that people will work through negative emotions at different paces and will need varying amounts of help from you and their colleagues.

Watch out for bullying

Not all workers will want to help their colleagues. Be alert to anti-social tendencies that may emerge, as some workers unload stress on others. Anger is a common reaction to stress and angry outbursts and bullying are likely to be more common in the wake of a crisis.

Aggressive employees will damage the sense of the workplace as a community. They can interfere with the recovery of other employees, slow their return to normal working patterns and reduce productivity.

Deal decisively with bullying, as it may escalate into violence if left unchecked. Counseling may deal with mild cases, but in severe cases you may need to notify the police.

Enforce harassment regulations

Be alert to any harassment on religious or ethnic grounds. Harassment will have the same negative effects as bullying and will not only harm employees, but also leave you open to lawsuits if not addressed effectively.

Get professional help

Call in professionals if problems are too deep for you to handle. Stress reactions can be very emotionally intense and non-professionals may have difficulty handling them.


Finally, you need to help employees refocus on productive activities. Explain to them that they need to keep working for the sake of everyone in the company. Help provide a broader business perspective. Show leadership in identifying real and positive goals. But do so at the appropriate time.

Dealing With Post-Traumatic Stress

After a crisis, most people eventually regain their normal perspective and emotional equilibrium. But for some, emotional disturbance deepens into post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome include sleep disorders, high absentee rates, persistent lateness, depression, lower productivity, eating disorders, substance abuse, and anger management problems.

If you think an employee may be suffering from post-traumatic stress, guide them towards professional psychological help. They will need it to recover.

Fostering Resilience

Not all stress comes from crisis situations. We all cope with moderate levels of stress as a part of normal life. We even thrive on moderate levels of stress, as low levels of stress can lead to boredom and depression.

Rather than trying to eliminate all stress, good leaders help people to develop resilient attitudes and strategies for dealing with stress.

A lot of workplace stress is subjective. “The distress that a person may feel is not a result of what actually exists objectively in the job,” says Al Siebert, author of The Survivor Personality (Perigee Books/Berkley Publishing Group, 1996) as quoted by SHRM. “It is a result of how the person perceives what is happening.”

“If you had to handle 300 telephone calls a day from people wanting some sort of action from your company, would that be stressful? For most of us, it would, but the customer service reps at an insurance company I consulted averaged over 400 calls a day. For them, 300 calls would be an easy day.”

Stress varies according to an individual’s skills, knowledge and attitudes. For example, some people hate working to deadlines. Others thrive on it.

If you introduce a new computer system to your workplace, says Siebert, you’re likely to find your older employees stressed, while younger employees are excited by new possibilities. But the situation could be reversed during a business crisis. The veterans might cope coolly, using their experience, while their younger colleagues flounder.

Match skills and jobs

One way to minimize stress is to match employees with their areas of skill. When you hire or re-deploy, try to identify the team member’s personal inclinations and strengths. For example, if an individual loves to take initiative, don’t put them where they will be closely supervised, and don’t leave employees alone if they need a lot of support.

Help employees manage their own stress by fostering an awareness of their own preferences and capabilities. For example, get them to do skills audits on themselves.

They should identify:

·         skills they use in their current job;

·         skills that they enjoy using but currently cannot;

·         skills they need to use but don’t like using; and

·         skills they don’t like to use and currently don’t have to.


This will help them assess their own level of job satisfaction and stress. It will help them plot their own career path through the company.

Give people options

Building resilience also means giving people options. People suffer less stress when they feel they have some control. Encouraging people to take ownership of a situation will build their resilience. This may not only help your business to weather difficult times - it may add to your bottom line too.

For example, in the wake of September 11, many firms had employees working from home – teleworking - due to a shortage of office space. Companies often noticed an increase in productivity.

Fostering employee initiative and assertiveness may make your business more efficient. For example, if employees are given deadlines they can’t meet, some will say nothing, get stressed out and not perform. More assertive employees may communicate with supervisors and negotiate arrangements that are both productive and achievable.

Employees who do not speak up when they are seriously overworked may burn out or just get another job. This will be very distressing for the employee, and the company will lose their skills and knowledge.

Less resilient people resort to a victim mentality. As they can’t or won’t take charge of their circumstances, they blame problems on other people. This is the sort of attitude that can lead to disability claims in the long run.

Basic Stress Tips

Reducing workplace stress does not always mean full-blown industrial re-engineering. There are a few basic things you can do to minimize workplace stress.

For example, stress can be caused by poor air quality (due to air-conditioning or workplace chemicals), poor lighting, high noise levels, and poorly designed and uncomfortable office furniture.

If the workplace is depressing your employees, change it. This is likely to increase their productivity and reduce absenteeism.

You can’t tell your employees how to run their lives. But it won’t hurt to include health tips in documents such as induction manuals. Communicate the benefits of good nutrition and exercise, as many people are simply unaware of key facts about their daily diet.

Caffeine, for example, increases arousal in the short-term, but contributes to overall physical stress levels. Having a beer after work may help people relax, but large amounts of alcohol disrupt sleeping patterns and contribute to fatigue. 

Nicotine raises the body’s pulse rate and harms the cardio-vascular system, making it less able to deal with stress, while sweet foods can give short-term energy boosts, which will be followed by an energy dip.

On the positive side, regular exercise helps people cope with and minimize stress. And your employees should not feel guilty about setting aside time for relaxation, pursuing hobbies or simply doing nothing in particular. Everyone needs downtime.

Carrying out an occasional stress assessment will warn you when stress levels in the workplace are getting too high. Ask your employees to make a note of all the things that are going on in their life and the things that they do each day and rate them according to the stress they cause. The Life Crisis Units Scoring table at can give you some guidance on this.

If both you and your employees keep an eye on stress, your workplace is likely to be a better, happier and more productive environment.

Regular pieces

How to Make the Most of Your Newsletter

Be sure to read each article with the mindset “How could this apply to our business.” Thinking of it that way will guarantee that you get value.  Better yet, take notes as you read and commit to having the ideas implemented by the time the next edition arrives.  Also, make copies for each team member.  To really make sure something positive happens, work with your business development specialist to talk your team through the ideas and how to set a schedule for getting them implemented.  We’re here to help you get started.


Memorable Quotation

“When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

-- John F. Kennedy

An Important Message

While every effort has been made to provide valuable, useful information in this publication, this firm and any related suppliers or associated companies accept no responsibility or any form of liability from reliance upon or use of its contents.  Any suggestions should be considered carefully within your own particular circumstances, as they are intended as general information only.