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Wall Street woes, election add to workplace stress

The latest round of financial concerns and a hotly contested presidential race may make good cable news fodder, but they are adding an extra layer of stress for American workers already straining under the pressure of a 24/7 working world.

And that increasing worker stress is trickling up – managers are being forced to deal with more personnel issues rather than focus on meeting their goals and that of a company, says one management expert.

Christine Probett, a San Diego State University lecturer and former Goodrich Corp. executive, says managers are dealing with an increasingly anxious workforce that is frightened, unsure and emotional about the future. She says that’s why managers need to focus even more on communicating clearly with their employees.

“When people get nervous – as they are now with the economy – it’s really important that companies keep their workers informed about what is going on,” says Christine Probett, a San Diego State University lecturer. “If they don’t, the rumors will start to fly.”

Probett says that she was once told by an employee that the way the employee separated fact from fiction was by asking three different people about a rumor. If it was confirmed by those three people, then the employee accepted it as fact – and that meant she could pass it along to other workers.

“In a company, there are enough rumors going around that you can get 100 people to confirm a rumor as fact,” Probett says. “Just because you heard it doesn’t make it fact, but that’s how it happens.”

That’s why Probett says managers need to be as open as possible with workers during these tough economic times, when every closed-door meeting can spawn speculation among employees.

“If management has a meeting, they better come out of that meeting and communicate about what was discussed with the people who work there,” Probett says. “Even if all they can say is that they can’t talk about it. It’s better than out-and-out-lying about what was said. That’s the worst thing you can do.”

Further, Probett says the upcoming elections have added another layer of drama to workplaces that already are trying to deal with workers stressed by rising consumer prices and unsettling news from Wall Street.

“There are a lot of emotions in the workplace right now from employees, and managers need to be careful how they handle them,” Probett says. “Otherwise, people start to say the wrong things and a ‘hostile work environment’ can be created – and that’s trouble.”

Specifically, under federal law, a “hostile work environment” means that “unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex, race or other legally protected characteristics unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

“We’re either going to have an African-American man as president, or a woman as vice president,” Probett says. “There’s a lot of energy and emotions tied up in that. Diversity is one of those issues that creates a lot of tension and disagreement in the workplace, because sometimes it’s hard for one person to understand where someone else is coming from,”

According to an American Management Association survey, 35 percent of business people said they are uncomfortable discussing their political views with colleagues and 57 percent of companies have a formal policy in place regarding distributing or posting of material endorsing a political party or candidate.

“I do think more workplaces need to set up policies about what is OK and what is not OK regarding elections because, once again, you could set up a hostile workplace if you’re not careful,” Probett says. “At the least, I would discourage people from wearing buttons supporting a specific candidate or party, and not allow signage or fundraising while at work.”

Finally, Probett says while managers spend up 25 percent of their time resolving workplace conflict, employees themselves can lessen the strain simply by dealing with problems in a direct, professional way.

“Don’t let the issue get bigger,” she says. “Talk to the person, and tell them what you believe the problem to be. Don’t name call, and make sure you listen when they talk. Once you understand where the other person is coming from, try to come to a resolution. Then, move on. Don’t hold a grudge.”

Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy…and How to Avoid Them” (www.45things.com). Write to her c/o: Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.

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