Line managers in even some of the best-run companies are now starting to be forced to cut staff, making it even more imperative that senior executives set aside time and space to mentor, coach and support them – or risk this most valuable asset slipping into pessimism and negativity.
Research of past and current recessions by Sirota Survey Intelligence has identified the maintenance of engagement and morale among front-line managers and leaders as being absolutely critical to the wider effectiveness, productivity and motivation of employees.
In other words, if your managers are allowed to fall into a slough of despond it is inevitably going to be much more of an uphill struggle to keep things above water.
"Their 'lynchpin' role requires constant monitoring during these turbulent times," pointed out Sirota president Douglas Klein.
According to the Sirota research, when managers become disengaged, their employees are more than three times as likely to become disengaged themselves.
Moreover, they are 12 per cent less likely to stay in their job, even when the recovery occurs.
They are also 13 per cent less likely to be innovative and a third more likely to be frustrated with the company's systems and processes.
Similarly, when managers become stressed, their employees are seven per cent less likely to feel valued and six per cent less likely to feel recognised or to feel that their managers are "walking their talk", it argued.
Looking at the last, post 9/11 recession Sirota found that layoff survivors felt less valued when times were harder.
Positive attitudes declining from 67 per cent to 44 per cent, while attitudes towards innovation, teamwork, advancement and job security also declined.
"We are already seeing the signs of decaying morale during the current downturn," suggested Klein.
"For example, employee confidence in the future of their companies has declined since the beginning of 2008," he added.
But one of the difficulties right now, of course, is that while many executives would no doubt agree with the principle of all this, the reality of actually keeping people feeling happy, rewarded and motivated in the current climate is much harder.
For example, one of the easiest ways to say thank you for going the extra mile in tough times is to sign off a pay rise.
But, as research from consultancy Mercer has suggested, one in four U.S companies has frozen pay so far this year and the chances are this will rise to one in three as the year progresses.
What's more, in light of the continuing public anger over boardroom pay and bonuses, it is executives and managers who are most likely to be seeing their pay being frozen rather than rank-and-file employees.
In fact, more than three quarters of the 700 firms polled said they planned a decrease in their salary budget from their 2008 projections.
The latest Sirota study follows on from one it published in November, reiterating the need for managers not to forget to look after those workers left behind after a round of redundancies.
Much as in the November study, the company has outlined a series of actions that executives can take to mitigate the after-effects of layoffs, led by the need to "communicate, communicate, communicate".
"Most employees want to know what will be happening to them, especially whether they will they be laid off. Secrecy or lack of transparency will just add to their sense of powerlessness," argued Klein.
It is also important to make it clear that it is all right to be feel anger, concern, and insecurity, as only then can people actually talk about how they are feeling.
"It is crucial for managers to spend time assuring employees that it is OK to feel this way. Otherwise, employees may release these feelings in non-productive ways or situations," said Klein.
Front-line managers in particular need a lot of support in the current climate, he stressed.
"The front-line manager population is likely to feel the brunt of the pressure – from worried employees below them and harried managers above," he said.
"Front-line employees perceive that their managers are 'in the know', but in reality they are quite far down the organisation with limited managerial experience and skills," Klein added.
"Among the many ways organisations can help this sometimes beleaguered group is through mentoring programs – matching managers who are weak in certain areas with managers with demonstrated strengths in those areas," he advised.
While it is almost inevitable that there will be increased workloads for employees who survive layoffs, managers should also make an effort to involve their employees in the search for solutions, he recommended.
"For example, gain-sharing and other employee involvement teams offer opportunities for employees to help improve work processes and teamwork while benefiting economically as well," he said.
It was also important to demonstrate a continuing long-term interest in the careers of the survivors.
"Following layoffs is a good time to introduce 'stretch assignments' – those that will expand the skills of survivors and demonstrate your confidence in them. It is also a good time to increase the frequency of discussions about career-related topics, including possible advancement opportunities," said Klein.
And, finally, don't just try and guess how things are going, try to gather evidence about how your company and your teams are really doing.
"Management-by-facts is the best way to gauge how employees are performing after layoffs," stressed Klein.
"CEOs still must report to their external constituencies, including investors, boards of directors, media, and communities in which they do business. Periodic, systematic, employee attitude assessments enable management to ascertain the impact of their actions on the day-to-day operations of the company.
"Employee attitude surveys also demonstrate to workers that they are still an important asset. Even if budgets have been cut, an efficiently designed employee survey process can provide critical information for management," he added.