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The Responsibility of Having Employees — A Huge Emotional Drain on Business Owners


11Apr 2009

Today’s economic environment is taking a huge emotional toll on business owners and managers.  Given the shrinking economy, with orders for manufacturing being canceled or put on hold, with little happening in the construction industry, and with the general public spending less at the retail level — many businesses are having to either cut back employees hours or let them go altogether.

The “hidden” story behind this pattern is the huge emotional strain business owners and managers are experiencing.  And I am hearing from more and more of them each week.

One manufacturing executive told me he volunteered to take a 50% pay cut (his company is owned by a larger private corporation), even though his superiors suggested a 4% reduction for management.  He told me he couldn’t, in good faith, see his employees take a 20% reduction (by means of going to 32 hours per week from 40 hours), and not take at least the same level of reduction.

Other business owners are sharing with me the pain of having to let good team members go, because they don’t have the work needed to cover the overhead.  Some owners are losing sleep and experiencing a level of anxiety they state they never have had previously.

I grew up in a family-owned business.  My father, mother, grandfather and uncle worked together in a manufacturing firm.  And I vividly remember during the economic struggles of the 1970’s conversations during mealtimes about my dad’s concerns.  As a teenager, I was struck by the level of responsibility he felt for providing work (and thus, income) for his employees.  He frequently would share he felt terrible whenever he would have to let someone go, because of the impact it would have on the family — especially the children.  So he tried everything he could to keep them employed, even if it meant having them do tasks that were not directly revenue producing.  The stress of the situation wore him down emotionally, and physically.

Today, business owners struggling with the same issues.  Here are some of the burdens I see them carrying:

  • A sense of responsibility in providing for others.  Often, in our culture, business owners are viewed enviously of “having it all” — financial success, time freedom, prestige … Those who own businesses know the other side of the coin — the financial stress of making payroll and paying creditors, and the knowledge that other individuals and families are counting on you to provide for their income.
  • Balancing competing needs and demands.  Yes, your employees need work and income.  But the owner must also “keep the ship afloat” — you can’t keep people employed and risk losing the whole business.   Similarly, a business’s vendors and suppliers need to be paid (they have employees, too), but if you pay them, you may not be able to have sufficient funds for your own payroll.
  • Guilt.  “I should have …”  or “I shouldn’t have …”  Business owners are experts at second-guessing themselves and expecting themselves to have perfect judgment.  Business owners feel guilty for having to let employees go.  They feel guilty to the remaining team members for not letting other employees go sooner.  And they especially feel guilty for “not having seen this coming.”
  • Lack of knowledge about the future.  As the saying goes, no one knows what the future holds.  This is also true for business owners.  But, ironically, they are often asked by others (colleagues, employees, customers, family members, friends) to divine the future:  “When do you think this will turn around?”  And the lack of predictability in our current economic environment wears heavily on business leaders — it is very difficult to make decisions about the future when even the short term (3 to 6 months) is highly unpredictable.
  • Pressure from numerous fronts.  Business owners have numerous parties who place pressure on them — their customers, their vendors, their employees, the community, their family, their church and charitable organizations.  And most of these groups are generally unaware of the other parties involved in the business leader’s life — and they are primarily focused on their needs.
  • Need for wisdom and discernment.  Most successful business owners (that is, those who have endured difficult times previously) are humble individuals.  They know that they don’t know everything, and that, almost more than anything, they need wisdom and discernment in how to manage during these tumultuous times.   The goal often becomes survival, and they are willing to do what is necessary to accomplish this goal — even if it means not “looking” successful, or taking on responsibilities that are beneath their title and position.  And they are almost always willing to accept counsel from others.

So, the next time you are interacting with someone who owns or manages a business, take some time to listen to them.  Ask them how they are doing.  Give them a word of encouragement or appreciation for all they do for their employees and the community.  And try not to ask them to do something for you — they have enough demands in their life as it is now.

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