Magazine article Personnel

War & the Workplace

Magazine article Personnel

War & the Workplace

Article excerpt

Editor's note: Peace initiatives in the Persian Gulf war were underway as this issue went to press. The United States has not fought a major war in 20 years, and many HR managers are inexperienced in dealing with the workplace effects. What follows describes the challenges HR managers faced during the first month of war and what they learned along the way.

The Persian Gulf war hit home. The war has left HR executives from Wall Street to Main Street with a new set of challenges. They must shift workloads to cover for employee/reservists who have been called into active duty They must deal with a new, often formidable source of employee stress. They must ensure that employees of Middle Eastern extraction are treated with dignity and respect. And that's just for starters.

War daze

Although employees with friends or relatives in the Gulf are the most affected by the war, stress hits employees across the board. The day after the war started, "employees were stunned, overwhelmed and shocked," says Patricia May, a spokesperson for Rocco, Inc., a privately held poultry firm with plants in Virginia and North Carolina. "The war was definitely the most talked about subject. Everybody was in a daze; they couldn't believe it was really happening."

Adds Susan Grainger, executive director of Employee Assistance of Central Virginia, an EAP that serves 43 small plants and companies, " People are generally feeling tension and nervousness about not only the war but the economy. They're very tense and unsettled."

The fact that the war is intertwined with a recession has resulted in a double whammy, explains psychiatrist Leon Warshaw, executive director of the New York Business Group on Health, Inc. "The impact of the recession is enhanced in some industries by focus on the war:' she says. "You have an acceleration of plant closing, downsizing and threat of job loss." Dealing with both the war and the recession may prove overwhelming, Warshaw says.

Adds Grainger: "We work with a plant that has an older population, and although not one single person has been called up, the war and the economy has an unsettling effect on them. Some are deciding about. retirement right now, and the economy of the future is weighing heavily on their minds.

"We've also had quite a few mothers call about children graduating from high school, who are concerned about the reinstatement of draft," she says. "It seems like the war gets you in one way or the other'"

is productivity down because of war stress? Mostly no, say PERSONNEL sources. " Sure, productivity was down the first day or so simply because people's attention was diverted"' says the spokesperson for a financial institution. "We were all transfixed by what was going on our television screens. But there has been no long-term impact."

Adds Brad Whitworth, a spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard, "If productivity did slip, it was probably just for the first few days. Our shipping levels and attendance rates all checked in at normal."

Still, to stem possible productivity declines in the future, smart managers are taking steps to curb war stress in the workplace. At Hewlett several division managers asked the company's EAP providers to host a brown bag lunch. EAP counselors came on-site and discussed the increased tension and stress caused by the war. They also gave employees pointers for handling war stress.

In addition, Hewlett managers "were tolerant of allowing people to listen to the radio at their desks, especially in the beginning"' says Whitworth. Some worksites set up televisions in employee lounges, so that workers could catch a few minutes of the news on their break time.

Companies that are hard hit by the wartime economy should be especially aware of employee stress. Dr. Warshaw, of the New York Business Group on Health, recommends that such companies should keep employees apprised as to what's going on and give accurate information. …

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