How to keep employees engaged during an economic downturn

The current economic situation characterised by high inflation levels have negatively impacted on business productivity and employee morale. Employee’s behaviours and conduct is usually characterised by fear and uncertainty which makes it difficult for managers to keep them focussed and motivated. But for managers keeping employees engaged despite the economic turmoil is key because engagement is directly linked to performance and ultimately the survival of an organisation. With imminent reduction in productivity, reduced working hours and uncertainty, employees are worried about the turn of events in the economy and they need to be helped in some way to cope with their work.

Economic recessions are a global phenomenon, and many organisations also struggle from various social, economic, political and technological challenges. There is little managers can do about the economy at large, but there are certain management techniques that they can implement to try and protect their companies, employees and themselves. One of the best ways for managers to minimise staff disengagement is to open up communication and engage employees emotionally at the workplace. It has never been more critical to keep communication open in organisations. Leaders need to be mindful that engagement in bad times is the difference between surviving and closure.

Having to show care is a brilliant strategy when managing in turbulent times. Caring for employees will show employees that management is cognisant of the challenges faced in terms of their welfare, execution of duties and meeting customer needs. The challenging facet to this approach is that employees would then want to know how management will address the challenges. During my experience I have found that some of the solutions actually lie with the employees themselves. Issues of flexi time may be proposed and on the far end voluntary retrenchment may actually have takers.

Providing feedback on a regular basis is a must do. Consider new ways to change the attitudes and behaviours of employees when doing so. For example, if the feedback to be given is negative, desist from telling employees with authority as employees are stressed already. For example, having to deal with a worker’s safety requirement of wearing hats, it’s not about using authority to enforce the same but a different approach like asking them whether they are comfortable with their hats or if they fit properly may be a better approach. Gently remind them in a pleasant way the purpose of these hats as protective tools. This will yield compliance without resentment or emotional upset. I would like to refer to the studies by B.F Skinner the psychologist. These proved that an animal when rewarded for good behaviour will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behaviour. Equally with human beings when we criticise, we do not make lasting changes but instead incur resentment. In as much as human beings’ thirst for approval, managers should note they dread condemnation. Never tell your employees that they should feel lucky to have a job during an economic downturn. Operating on a sense of gratitude is even a bigger threat to wining the heart of employees.

Also give robust constructive feedback that is focused on issues and give guidance to employees. Remember what Abraham Lincoln once said, do not criticise someone, they are just what we would be under similar circumstances. Leaders need to realise that criticisms are like homing pigeons. They always return home. The employees we correct and condemn will probably justify and condemn us in return.

Keep encouraging the development of employees. Developing employees may be the last thing for most managers right now. You need however to position your employees for good times when they return. This also gives a sense of continuity and hope which in turn will help ease the stress and anxiety that employees feel.

Also give people the opportunities to do what they can best and always let them know what you expect of them. Employees are constantly being bombarded by bad economic news and they can easily become distracted and lose trail. By communicating regularly even those roles you think are implied and understood, you keep them on track and focussed.

Such challenging times and the constant changes organisations now face call for continuous review of Human Resources strategy and policies. The focus should be on ensuring organisational competitiveness and sustainability during the economic crises and any changes in general.

It is very natural for employees to be fearful when economic times are uncertain. That fear paralyses them. The antidote to fear in today’s economic circumstances is stability and security which are elusive. Employees tend to feel managers are stonewalling and sugar-coating challenges being faced in the workplace making them more fearful. As managers we have to strive to be candid and honest in all our dealings with employees. In conclusion, it is important to remember that organisations’ competitiveness depends on staff engagement.

Emmanuel Jinda is the Managing Consultant of PROSERVE Consulting Group, a leading supplier of Professional Human Resources and Management services locally, regionally and internationally. He can be contacted at Tel: 263 773004143 or 263 242 772778 or visit our website at