NEW YORK - In small businesses across the country, employee stress levels are rising along with talk of recession and the stock market's latest plunge. Problems also can come from a reality that's painfully close by: a co-worker whose home is undergoing foreclosure.
Trying economic times can create uneasiness and tension at even the healthiest companies, forcing small business owners to deal with productivity and disciplinary problems, or they might find themselves approached by a struggling employee who asks for a loan, experts said.
Attorneys and human resources professionals said owners need to be sure that in handling any issues that arise from the increased economic problems they treat staffers equally, not favoring one over another.
Owners could sign on with an employee assistance provider that can supply financial and emotional counseling, experts said.
Some workers at Quality Float Works Inc., a maker of hollow metal balls and valve parts, are clearly under stress, although the company is doing well, vice president Jason Speer said.
"We noticed some employees who have been having some problems I imagine are due to some housing issues," said Mr. Speer, whose company is in Schaumburg, Ill.
So, he said, "we've given them loans interest-free that we deduct every week out of their paychecks."
What if the problems start intruding into the workplace? An employee with debt or mortgage problems is spending an entire morning on the phone with creditors. Or staffers are short-tempered and there's friction between co-workers.
When employees have a concern, "they don't check it at the door when they come in," said Jennifer Blum Feldman, an attorney with Wolf Block Schorr and Solis-Cohen LLP in Philadelphia.
If one worker is spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone, you probably need to tell everyone that occasional calls are OK, but if they have to do a lot of calling, it should be done at break or lunch time, Ms. Feldman said.
Setting limits not only will aid productivity, experts said, it will help other staffers know the boss is making sure no one takes advantage of a difficult situation.
"A sense of fairness in the office is something that goes a long way," said Gus Stieber, a media representative for Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, a Chicago employee assistance provider.
If someone ignores the rules, "treat it as any employee performance situation with progressive discipline," Ms. Feldman said. In progressive discipline, an employee is given a series of warnings that could end in dismissal.
Employers who are seeing signs of stress in the workplace can ease the situation by letting staffers know help is available, experts said. They can contract with an employer assistance program that can refer staffers for financial or emotional counseling, or they can give them information about resources available from groups such as the United Way.