by Mike Ryan | July 28, 2010
As we slog through the second year of an uncertain economy—a deep recession followed by a jobless recovery—it’s evident that anxiety continues to build in the workplace. The reason is simple: People are working more and feeling less appreciated while operating under an umbrella of unprecedented uncertainty about their job security and their families’ financial future.

The Corporate Leadership Council reports that the average "job footprint"—what a worker is expected to do—has increased by 33 percent since the beginning of the recession. The Hay Group says that two-thirds of workers report they are putting in unpaid overtime. The reward for all this effort is frozen or reduced pay and shrinking perks.

Here is the reality, as reported by the Hay Group: 63 percent of workers say their employers do not appreciate the effort.

Anxiety can breed a “shortcut” mentality
When people are nervous and worried about job security, they may be prone to take shortcuts because they need results and they need them fast. On the job, they may become defensive, protecting their turf and not sharing information with colleagues as readily as they once did. They may behave opportunistically, focusing on the final outcome and rushing through or skipping steps in normal processes.

Worrying more about their own situations, employees can also become less empathetic with customers and colleagues. Not making the effort, not taking the time to listen closely to others’ needs, and missing opportunities to solve issues or add value, these types of subtle behaviors can have insidious side effects. They can:

* become a cancer internally, creating adversarial workgroups

* damage the brand with customers, as employees make their own survival a bigger priority than customer service

* harm the bottom line, as reduced collaboration results in lower productivity and a decrease in innovative thinking.

Applaud best efforts, not just outcomes
Smart companies recognize the impact of workplace anxiety and go out of their way to applaud employees’ “best efforts”—even those that may not have resulted in tangible results. They applaud people who go “about their business” in a manner that reflects the firm’s internal values and external brand promise.

It’s also important to note that in today’s environment, customers face higher anxiety as well, and employees who build trust through their behaviors reduce customers’ perceived business risk. Those that don’t can exasperate concerns and motivate customers to look elsewhere.

Against that backdrop, forward-thinking, brand-savvy companies are applauding employee efforts with programs that recognize and acknowledge workers whose steps go the extra mile to serve customers or help their teams deliver big projects.

Rewarding employee efforts in an uncertain economy also makes sense because many of the outcomes used to measure success in boom times are simply not as attainable today. Putting pressure on employees to deliver unrealistic numbers heightens the anxiety they already feel and increases the likelihood of shortsighted and ultimately risky behaviors.

Recognition fosters mutuality—and that drives business results
Mutuality is one of the primary drivers of engagement in any workplace, virtual or physical. From an employee’s perspective, mutuality can be thought of as: “My company and my coworkers share my goals, visions, and values. We compete against shared adversaries, not each other.”

When employees experience a high level of mutuality, they are more likely to be engaged and enthusiastic about their work. In addition to shared values, employee needs include trust and knowledge-sharing between colleagues, respect for the company they work for, and belief in the company brand. All of these positive byproducts serve to reduce workplace anxiety.

Recognition fuels mutuality in numerous ways. Its storytelling nature distributes information, emphasizes cooperation, and gives positive reinforcement of a job well done. Further downstream, recognizing and rewarding employees for positive behaviors can have a strong, positive effect on bottom-line business performance.

In today’s competitive, global economy, the most innovative ideas for serving customers and creating new products come from employees who are intellectually and emotionally committed and enthusiastic about their work.

Mike Ryan is the senior vice president of marketing and client strategy at Madison Performance Group, an employee marketing firm in New York City. He is also the president of the Performance Improvement Council and sits on the board of directors for the Incentive Management Association.