Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 March 2018

Stressed employees and financial crises: detecting the symptoms.

When times are hard in the markets, it's easy to forget sometimes that employees suffer as much as profits.

Hard times on Wall Street can mean even harder times for stressed employees.
Hard times on Wall Street can mean even harder times for stressed employees.

When times are hard in the markets, it's easy to forget sometimes that it is not only the bottom line that suffers, but that employees are the key to either a turnaround or further losses. Managers also ought to be aware that their human capital can feel the pinch as well. As stock markets around the world take a tumble, and once proud financial institutions go out of business, so has the mood fallen of many of those whose livelihoods depends on the financial markets. Subprime and credit crunch are now words likely to induce a nervous breakdown for many.

Undoubtedly, pressure is piling up on financial market players. People feel there is a perceived questioning of their abilities and dedication, so they want to remain keen, motivated and on top of the job. They will work harder and harder in ever more stressful settings. This, of course, is not without its problems. It inevitably has a knock-on effect on personal relationships and general well-being. People see their spouses and friends less, and start socialising or going to the gym less, and therefore the quality of life balance is lost. That has a direct impact on well-being and therefore mental health.

While low levels of anxiety can be a positive thing that sparks hard work - and most institutions encourage competitive rivalry to one extent or another - if it continues for a long time or gets above a certain level, it can become destructive. Low mood is a natural progression from low levels of anxiety. That is not only bad for people's private lives. It can affect their effectiveness at work as well.

At a time when employees might need to be problem solving and creative, they are exhibiting traits that are symptoms of a deeper malaise - they are either not sleeping at night or waking up too early. Among the effects is an increasing reliance on alcohol or drugs. This becomes a pattern and has a knock-on effect on their health, which can mean that they don't eat. What are the results of all this? As well as being miserable, employees who are stressed are more likely to underperform and make mistakes. That is the last thing that anybody needs at the moment, with the financial industry in turmoil. Resilience is a big issue. If employees are a few percentage points down from their peak performance, then companies are pouring money down the drain.

Often, especially in an environment where weakness is frowned upon, it can be hard to recognise when somebody has a problem, especially in an industry such as finance, which has a macho aura and none more so than investment banking. So how do you recognise when somebody is suffering? One of the first signs of a serious problem can be loss of sleep. Another sign is weight changes, either rapid weight loss or gains. Simple office observations give clues that something is not right. People become withdrawn when they are anxious; somebody who used to spend their time chatting with colleagues in the tea room is head down at their desk all the time.

So what can good management do to help people who are depressed? As so often, it is all about communication. The idea of being polite and not asking is not helpful to anyone, and it is difficult in societies where personal privacy is much prized and the borderline between inquisitiveness and helpfulness is thin. However, managers have a big role to play supporting their staff, especially if some feel they are losing control. People who feel out of control are not well equipped and feel uncomfortable. Top-notch companies soon find out that it is as important to be professional in managing people and leading, as it is to be technically good.

Mangers have a responsibility to keep people's resilience high. It is vitally important to make sure that managers have regular supervision meetings with staff. It is easy for managers and staff not to make these meetings a priority, and assume that everything is fine unless a problem arises. But it is important that everybody has a chance to say that things are not OK. People are also unlikely to go to their manager if they are under pressure: one of the symptoms when you're depressed is that you think nobody cares about you. For traditional Middle East companies with strict hierarchical chains of command, the problem of communication is compounded, as going to a manger to report such matters is seen as a sign of weakness, with a possible threat of dismissal.

The other key is to make sure that managers are informed in terms of mental health, and what a diagnosis means, for in the final analysis, it is no good having somebody go to their manager and say that they are clinically depressed, if the manager doesn't know what the symptoms are. Sometimes, the solution can be relatively straightforward. Saying thank you, for instance, surveys reveal, indicate that people react very positively about being thanked, even more than monetary gains. As psychiatrists tell us, we are very simple creatures and are not told often enough how brilliant we are. People call these things soft skills, but they are actually very hard skills to master in any organisation. Now might be as good a time as any to develop them, especially given the boom in the financial sector in the Gulf, where pressure to outperform other superstars is piling up.

Dr Mohamed Ramady is a former banker and a visiting Associate Professor, Finance and Economics Dept. at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia