Anyone who’s lived through an organizational change knows firsthand just how stressful it can be. But employers may be surprised to learn those changes can actually lead to employees taking more time off work, according to a survey by Morneau Shepell.
Forty per cent of employees said organizational change had negatively affected their health and well-being and nearly half (46 per cent) said they had taken time off work or noticed other employees taking more time off work following workplace changes.
This costly phenomenon is next to commonplace: Sixty-six per cent of respondents had experienced at least one organizational change with their current employer, including team restructuring (39 per cent), downsizing or layoffs (35 per cent), job redesign (35 per cent), redesign of the physical office space (29 per cent) and mergers (15 per cent).
“That’s the nature of the world we live in, where change is the only constant,” said Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell in Toronto.
“Employers and HR professionals who understand the impact of that change on their employees, and who find the best way to support and empower them through the process, have a better chance at a healthier, more productive workforce.”
What’s causing the stress?
Typically, organizational change comes with a long list of unknowns, which can be at the root of employee anxiety.
“The first thing employees experience is uncertainty,” said Allen.
“Even if you’re told the steps of what will happen in the change, you’re not necessarily sure about what impact it will have on you.”
“For example, you might know that your department is going to come under another departmental leader, but what does that mean for you? Under this new leader, will you have the same role? Will you have the same experience? How is your work situation going to be different?”
Uncertainty can make workers feel the change is beyond their control, and that itself is a major stressor, she said.
While employees experience change as stress, each person will process it differently, said Tom Morin, an organizational change management instructor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“If we think of how a change could have a negative impact on someone, the impact will likely manifest in emotional, physiological or behavioural domains,” said Morin.
“If our response to stress is in excess of, or deviates too far from, what is acceptable to our employer, family and friends, or society in general, then one outcome may be time away from work.”
It’s not an absolute, however, that organizational change and stress will lead to negative outcomes and sick time.
While 40 per cent of respondents did report the changes negatively impacted their health, 25 to 28 per cent said their well-being and attitudes toward the workplace actually improved after the organizational change.
Lag time between change, time off work a challenge
Employers may not always connect the dots between organizational change and time off work, said Allen, because there can be a significant lag time between the two events.
“Sometimes, employers will only pay attention to employee responses to change for a short period of time,” she said.
“Usually, in that acute period of time, you won’t see the impact in terms of time away from work. You’ll see the impact in terms of job performance, errors or little bits of conflict in the workplace.”
Forty-three per cent of respondents to the survey said change had a negative impact on their perception of the company while 30 per cent indicated it had impacted their job performance. These two factors — feeling bad about both the workplace and performance — on top of the stress from the change — could compound the problem and contribute to time away from work, said Allen.
“The absenteeism definitely comes, it just comes later,” she said, adding organizations tracking absenteeism or disability will see spikes in their statistics after organizational change,” she said. “It was a pretty clear path in our research.”
In tough economic times, when organizational change is ubiquitous, human resources teams are often under incredible pressure to develop and implement some of the most disruptive organizational changes, according to Morin.
“Just because HR professionals are aware of impacts to employee well-being doesn’t mean that they have the ability within their current roles to adequately mitigate these impacts.”
An organization that ranks high both in terms of awareness and commitment to employee well-being will incorporate ways to mitigate or minimize the stress on those affected into its strategic change planning, said Stephen Flamer, a Vancouver-based consulting psychologist.
Mitigate and manage stress through awareness, empathy
There are two key areas to consider when addressing the problem, according to Flamer.
“First, how aware is the organization that major changes such as mergers and downsizings have the potential to create stress for employees and affect their psychological well-being?” he said.
“Second, to what extent is there a commitment to maintain or promote the psychological well-being of employees, and to mitigate the expected or potential impact of stress related to organizational change?”
Most HR professionals are generally aware of the impact of change on employees, said Allen.
“Where we could improve, however, is to be a little more specific in terms of what it actually means for people and how to mitigate that.”
An important early step is empathy: Consider what each employee is going through.
“I don’t believe there is such a thing as a change-resistant personality,” said Morin. “Some people resist some changes more than other people resist the same changes, but that’s because the resistors are losing more than the accommodators.”
“We fear and grieve loss, and once we understand this and reframe our thinking, we can direct change management resources toward understanding who is losing what.”
Sincerely engaging with people is one of the most important elements of any organizational change management effort, said Morin.
A supportive culture helps employees cope as well, according to Allen.
“If you have that positive work environment where coworkers are supportive of each other and managers are helping with problem-solving, then you have a platform of social support and coping skills that we know are strong protective factors.”
Continuous communication, too, is critical.
“Effective, clear, honest and ongoing communication prior to, during and after the organizational changes is key,” said Flamer.
“Being informed about the changes, what to expect, the timing of them, having regular updates and so on, all helps to reduce uncertainty.”
However, many times an employer doesn’t know all the details of a change, at least not at the outset, said Allen.
“Sometimes, it’s just not possible to get all that granular with the information,” she said.
“But I think it’s important to continue to communicate honestly about what you do and don’t know… What’s uncomfortable from an employee’s perspective is when you feel like the you’re the one that’s outside of the loop.”
Many employers will state all the things they’re clear on, but then entirely avoid the areas where they don’t have clear answers, she said.
“That’s not the best approach,” said Allen.
“You want to say, ‘Yes there are unknowns but we’ll work it through together. We want to hear from you.’ That two-way conversation is critical.”
Engaging, empowering employees helps people cope
Getting employees actively involved in the organizational change can also have a tremendous impact on their levels of stress, said Allen.
“Get them involved in the details of how the change gets executed, who moves to what position, who needs to be communicated to, and so on,” she said. “Having employees give that input helps give them that sense of control.”
In many organizations, the once-specialized skill of project management has now been woven into the general competency of most knowledge workers, even if their roles aren’t dedicated to project management, according to Morin.
“If we now begin to move organizational change management skills and knowledge into the competency profiles of every employee, then we may begin to experience less resistance to organizational change.”
By enabling employees to have some control over how they manage the organizational change that impacts them, they can become accountable for the success of the change, he said.
“I’m seeing more people who may never work in HR or have roles dedicated to change management, but who want to improve their own individual organizational change management competency.”
Melissa Campeau is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
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