Job Anxiety: Workers Are Really Working Up a Sweat

Employees anxious about layoffs want to look irreplaceable. Managing that fear can be challenging

Bosses are witnessing a lot of bizarre behavior in Officeland these days. The lumpy and rumpled are showing up all spiffy and dry-cleaned. Mouthy iconoclasts are newly docile. Clock-watching slackers are suddenly the last to leave. People, it seems, are performing transplants on themselves--like the senior vice-president at a pharmaceutical company known as a terrible flirt who says she recently forced herself to go oh-so-straitlaced.

The desperation hustle may seem like a giant productivity boost for companies. Bosses can extract the work of two or three people out of a single body. But are employees really working harder? Or are they simply kissing up? And if they are working harder, how do managers tap into these paranoid spirits without turning workplaces into sweatshops? "Everybody is weirding out all over the place," says Stanford University management professor Robert I. Sutton. "I am surrounded by people who are just hysterical." The danger, says Sutton, is that fear in the workplace can be contagious. "Bosses need to be patient, understanding, and forgiving. These insecurities aren't irrational."


For some bosses, managing the fear and loathing has become a job in itself. Trevor Traina, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has sold startups to Microsoft (MSFT) and Intuit (INTU), now heads, a Web site that provides drivers with everything they need to know to manage car ownership. Since the downturn, the offices of the San Francisco company have become a tableau of Boy Scout-like diligence. "I'm getting e-mails all day long that say 'I'm doing this and I'm doing that,' and it makes my job harder," says Traina. "Every time I turn around, there is someone sticking their head in my office reminding me what they are doing for me." Traina has taken to informing his staff on a daily basis that the company just secured another round of funding and that they should lighten up on the oversharing.

At law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one senior associate is being bombarded by junior associates hitting her up for new work. But she is also contending with the opposite problem: the recent law school grads, coddled and clueless, who are "sort of psyched there isn't that much to do." Every day is a managerial juggling act: keeping hope alive for some while trying to provide a reality check for others. "It's a giant time suck," she says.

For some leaders, the paranoia is a kind of blessing. "The world's best innovation comes from the greatest desperation," says Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, a Trenton (N.J.) company that makes organic fertilizer and other planet-friendly products. Times are tough for TerraCycle, as they are for a lot of companies that supply hard-pressed retailers. "We have no money to hire anyone," says Szaky. He put the challenge out to his charges: Do more with less. Amp up sales without spending any money.

So the TerraCyclers decided to become their own marketing machines, hitting the road and visiting stores in person. Normally, when TerraCycle staffers visit far-flung Wal-Marts (WMT) and Home Depots (HD) to check on displays and chat up customers, they take a plane, stay in a hotel, and expense their meals. But last month three members of the marketing department drove their cars more than 1,000 miles each instead. As if that weren't Grapes of Wrath enough: They also slept in their back seats.

Szaky says he has already seen a revenue jump. "Money is easy," he says. "It's good to starve companies sometimes. That's where innovation comes from."

Business Exchange related topics:Employee EngagementBusiness InnovationLeadership

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