Discovery Surveys, Inc.
Specializing in Employee Opinion and Customer Satisfaction Surveys
Improving the Workplace

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. President of the Discovery Consulting Group, Inc.

Four out of ten employees say they are overly stressed.

It was 8:30 AM in the offices of a large Midwestern telecommunications company. The normally crowded, bustling hallways were empty. There was an ominous feeling in the air throughout the building. Employees were nervously burrowed in their cubicles. Many of them had already packed up their things the day before just in case. There was going to be a surprise layoff today, and everyone knew it. Word had passed like lightning through the rumor mill several days earlier. It had even been leaked to the media and had been announced that morning on the local television station.

One-by-one throughout the day employees were called and told to report to a conference room on the first floor. When the phone rang, and they checked the caller ID, they knew that the end had come.

Their manager and a representative from the human resources department were waiting in the room for them. The manager, his voice quavering, barely making eye contact with the employee, read from a script that said that today was that person's last day. Even though many had expected this bad news, they were stunned. Then the human resource manager told them about the severance and had them sign a few papers. They were then escorted out the door by security, never to return.

The next day there was a little more activity in the hallways, but things were just not the same. The organization was still in shock and mourning. Many were relieved that they had survived to see another day and another paycheck, but most worried that there might be more layoffs to come.

They tried to focus on their work, but were preoccupied with worry, anxiety, and stress. There were very few productive meetings and little informal conversation. Most people had a difficult time downing their lunch, kept their eyes on the clock hoping that it would move more quickly, and then left promptly at 5:00 leaving quietly. The stress lasted for many weeks and things were just never the same.


This scenario is common in many organizations today. The morale and motivation of the layoff survivors is often a major problem for employers.

Needless to say, these are very trying times in the workplace. Senior management is faced with the task of trying to motivate stressed out, anxious employees who may feel sad and guilty about those who have departed and who are constantly worried about:

  • Losing their own jobs;

  • Making less money while once they had counted on pay raises, incentive payments, or bonuses;

  • The security of the jobs of their spouses and children; and

  • How they were going to be able to retire now that the value of their homes and investment portfolio had greatly declined.



Many senior executives empathize with the stress their employees are experiencing, but feel powerless to do anything about it. Here are a few things they can do.

  1. Remind Employees of Your Employee Assistance Program

    If your organization has an employee assistance program, encourage employees to use it. These programs can help if people are experiencing personal, emotional, or financial problems.

  2. Conduct In-house Workshops

    Hire speakers to present workshops on topics such as reducing stress and managing finances. These are topics that are particularly important to employees today.

  3. Instill Optimism and Hope

    Now, more than ever, employees want be hopeful. They want to know the truth about how their organization is faring and also what it is going to do to meet its current challenges. Senior management must be upbeat and visible to employees. Instead of hiding in their offices, they need to spend more time telling employees about how the organization is going to survive and even thrive. They must enlist the energy of employees with practical strategies that instill hope.

  4. Celebrate Successes

    Employees are thirsty for good news. Share positive information such as new prospects, new customers, sales from existing customers, successful launches of new products, additional company funding, favorable letters from customers, or favorable reviews about products.

  5. Show Employees You Are Still Investing in Their Personal Future

    Employees want to know that even during difficult times, their organization views them as important assets. When business is slow, it can be an ideal time to train them on new skills and retool them to better face upcoming challenges.

  6. Revisit Your Compensation Program for Some Employees

    Many employees are paid contingent on what they produce, their billable hours, or what they sell. The strategy works very well when business is good, but when workflow is reduced or customers are just not buying, these employees make less money. To keep them in the fold, you may need to alter how they are paid. For example:

    • For production employees paid by the number of pieces they produce, consider paying a fixed living wage until business picks up.

    • For the sales force, consider temporarily increasing the base pay percentage or increasing the draw they can take. My colleague, John Haas, an expert on incentive compensation (, suggests providing incentives to the sales force for desired behaviors that will eventually lead to sales when business picks up such as meeting with A customers and telephone calls to B and C customers.

  7. Provide More Recognition to Employees

    During stressful times especially, employees want to know that their hard work is respected and valued. Supervisors need to make certain that they are providing employees with verbal recognition. A pat on the back and words like, "keep up the good work," "you're doing a great job," and "thanks for your hard work" can go a long way to relieve employee stress.

  8. Promote Work Life Balance

    Remind employees that during stressful economic times it is important for them to be supportive of their families. Urge them to use their vacation time and spend time with their families. Also, encourage them to try to plan to do something fun every day.

  9. Conduct Fun Activities in the Workplace

    When the time seems appropriate, try some low-cost fun activities to change the atmosphere like a potluck lunch, dress down day, Halloween in June, noontime talent show, karaoke after hours, or a checkers tournament.


It is easy to manage an organization when business is going well. The true test of management is how well it can keep employees motivated and engaged during difficult times, especially after layoffs. Helping employees to overcome stress is key.


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