News & Insight
April 2003

Managing in Stressful Times

For the past several weeks, the eyes of the world have been riveted on Iraq. It's hard not to think of the war, especially for people with family or friends overseas, and the conflict presents both managers and employees with an added source of stress in their lives.

"The Gulf War in 1991 seemed more abstract -- this seems more real," says Rabia de Lande Long, leader of WJM Associates' organizational effectiveness practice. "The embedded nature of the reporting is different, so it feels more real from a personal standpoint. Plus, between radio, television and the Internet, it's hard not to know what's going on at any time of day or night."

According to de Lande Long, one of the factors that contributes to people's sense of unease is the lack of control over the events happening in Iraq and around the world. "We are used to being in control of our destiny," she says, "and we are not very comfortable when we are not."

To help managers and employees deal with these feelings, de Lande Long suggests that the routine of work may actually provide a source of comfort. "We advise people to cope with organizational change by finding things that aren't going to change and to use them as anchors," she says. "In this case, work can fill that need because it has such familiarity and it can provide intellectual stimulation as well as intrinsic and extrinsic rewards."

To help maintain a familiar work environment, companies with televisions in the workplace -- such as those in the media industry -- may want to turn off some of their screens to reduce a potential source of stress. In their place, businesses can tell employees that they will notify them by e-mail of any significant developments during the day.

"The key is to strike a balance between empathy for people's feelings and a desire to return to normalcy in the workplace," she says. "We should all recognize that this is a time of great uncertainty and ambiguity. And we should recognize that people are social creatures so they are going to want to talk about it, to a certain extent. But they may also want to get back to work and not have to think about conflict all the time."

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