Managing Employee Stress during Significant Organisational Change

Today, managing change is a critical part of organisation’s agendas and is ever more important in a fast-paced world and unpredictable future. Much consideration is given to working practices, new structures, new ways of working, processes and results and how the new organisation will be. But how does this impact the employees and their engagement, mindset and behaviour in relation to the change that is happening around them?

Factors in organisational change can include some of the above and also culture, leadership, job demands, and physical conditions causing workforce stress. Research and the literature evidence the link between stress and absenteeism, high turnover, work family conflicts, work overload, decreased productivity, low morale and job dissatisfaction. The impact on employees can be both visible and hidden at the same time and lead to resistance to change and loss of motivation.

Stress is present to some degree in any organisational context as employees, including managers, grapple with host of work demands. Individuals all have different coping strategies, although ultimately not everyone copes. It all depends on the specific stressors present, the individual’s personality, emotional intelligence, and their social identity. Moreover, specific stressors need tailored coping strategies. Stress for employees can become more acute when organisational change exists in a cloud of ambiguity and uncertainty including lack of consultation, or when changes are miscommunicated or not communicated at all.

Research has shown there are four stages of change which include anticipation, confirmation, culmination (implementation) and aftermath. These can ebb and flow as change happens and stress for the employee can increase or decrease at these key stages. The importance of communication is evidenced through the research, and the sooner change is communicated, the more equipped colleagues feel to implement the appropriate strategies to manage their well-being. Interventions to support employees in the phases of anticipation and confirmation can help support employees and thus reduce stress. This can be done a number of ways by organisations which can include team briefings, one to one meetings, discussions and focus groups. These can be completed in both formal and informal settings, but the key is to start them as soon as change is commencing and help reduce stress and engage employees coping mechanisms as soon as possible.

Another key aspect of organisational change is the aftermath and it is here that any support that is provided is not always readily available for employees after change has happened. It has been said that employees use a variety of coping mechanisms and it is the understanding of how these are used that can help organisations to understand the wellbeing of their employees better and provide an environment of appropriate support.

Some of these coping strategies include seeking information and feedback to problem-solve/understand the change, which is why communication and regular communication is often said to be important during periods of change. Another one that has been used by employees is seeking social support, and often seen as the one that was used most by the employee. Using internal and external support mechanisms provided by the organisation were often not used as much during the first three stages of change but increased in the aftermath of change. One key theme amongst all these studies was an employee feeling that they had control or perceived control during the period of change, this would often lead to greater engagement with the change process and lead to less stress focused outcomes.

There is a lot of information, reports and articles regarding the importance of the role of line managers and leaders regarding organisational change and the support they provide to employees during change. It is, however, important to provide managers and leaders with the understanding and tools of change if they are to be effective in helping employees cope with change, but in turn ensuring they themselves can cope with change including their responsibilities during the process. The studies have shown that colleague support is seen as important to employees for coping during periods of change and is often used to lessen stress regarding uncertainty and emotional aspects of change. However, there were also other coping mechanisms used by employees to deal with different aspects of change such as increased workloads, conflict and perceptions of unfairness.

What is clear is that there isn’t one silver bullet that can solve the wellbeing challenges of employees during significant periods of organisational change, but a number of interventions that are required to support employees through all the aspects of change including awareness of the factors of stress.

Altruist Enterprises have been supporting organisations since 2013 to build resilience and support interventions for all employees during periods of change. Find out more about our Resilience Training and Online Resilience Training.

After a successful career in the banking sector, Michael spent several years in Strategic HR with the Workforce Intelligence and Planning Function of Birmingham City Council, where he lead the council’s transformation programme as strategic lead for the design and deployment of workforce planning, talent management, succession planning, and to enhance human capital intelligence / metrics. In 2014, he moved to join the newly formed Acivico, where as Head of Commercial, he led on business development, communications and marketing, HR, Legal, engagement, customer service and organisational effectiveness. In 2017, he then moved on to become the interim CEO of Acivico Ltd before taking a career break to complete his PhD at Aston University.

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