In this 2 part article Dr. Lise Saugeres and Warren Howard discuss the topics of Organisational Change and Stress. In this first part, Warren and Lise discuss the impact of organisational changes on staff and the type of stresses that change can lead to.
Change can create many stresses in organisations. From an employee perspective, it may be the fear of losing one’s job, fear of learning a new skill or shifting to a different and unfamiliar environment. For leaders, change may bring about fear through uncertainty, fear of failure or a loss of power or influence. For whatever reason the very act of change can have unintended consequences on the health of an organisation, which if unaddressed may result in unnecessary stresses that make change efforts falter or worse still, fail.
What changes are happening in organisations?
Warren: Change is being forced on many organisations due to external pressures or is being internally generated as a means of competitive advantage e.g. being first to market with a new product or service. Industry disruptors are shaking up traditional ways of doing things and established players must respond and innovate to remain relevant. Changes can take many forms but there are basically three types to consider, each having a different impact on the organisation:
1) Strategic change: is where there is a fundamental shift in purpose or direction such as the creation of a new business, new product, acquisition or refocus of the existing business on a new priority;
2) Process change: is where the emphasis is on improving the performance or productivity of the business through the introduction of new technology, systems or work methods;
3) Organisational change: is where there is a re-design of the way the business is managed including outsourcing, restructuring and role changes or physical changes such as relocations and off-shoring.
These changes are occurring faster than ever before and are quite often occurring concurrently, adding to stress and confusion in already fast paced, competitive work environments.
Why do people find change stressful?
Lise: Change can be very difficult. We are used to doing things in a certain way and we derive a sense of security and certainty from it. Sometimes, even changes that only impact negatively on your job in the short-term, like moving to a new location and changing offices, may, however, be destabilising.
I remember when in the university department where I worked several years ago, we all had to move to a new building which was not totally ready for occupancy. There was still work being done, not all the computers functioned and the heating did not work. Even when these problems were eventually solved, I still felt unsettled, begrudged the move and found it difficult to concentrate on my work for a couple of weeks. I thought that was surprising because I was used to change, having lived in four different countries, moved houses and changed jobs many times. However, I realised that the stress that I experienced as a result of this move came from the fact that it had been imposed on me.
Of course, when a major change with longer-term impact on staff, like restructuring or outsourcing takes place or there is a change in business direction, this can be even more stressful for them. They can feel very uncertain about their future, especially if there is a risk of redundancy or they need to reapply for their role. These changes can cause anger and grief among the staff, especially if they have been employed in the organisation for several years, because they may feel unappreciated and are left feeling stressed and anxious about the future.
Why is managing the stress of change important?
Warren: Work related stress is on the rise and one of the contributors to this is the impact of organisational change on people. According to the National Health and Safety Commission, work-related stress accounts for the longest stretches of absenteeism and is the second most compensated illness/injury in Australia, after musculoskeletal disorders. If you combine the fact that many change initiatives fail to meet their objectives with the rising cost of employee welfare, you have a business case for managing change better.
One of the key reasons change initiatives fail and, consequently, create unnecessary stress at work is the lack of understanding of how people respond to change and the lack of effective internal processes for helping people cope with and manage the challenges of change.
Lise: Learning to manage change is very important because we undergo many changes throughout our lives, whether these are self-initiated or due to external causes.
When an organisations experiences high levels of stress, the whole working environment will be impacted by it negatively. It may lead to increasing tensions and conflicts among staff in the organisations. Productivity and performance will also suffer as it is difficult to concentrate and function properly when experiencing high levels of stress. Employees may have to take sick leave as a result and use the EAP program, resulting in significant costs to the organisation.
What are some of the stresses that change can cause?
Lise: Change in an organisation can cause stress in many ways. For instance, staff may worry about losing their job or their financial security, about who they are going have to work with, or simply because they are not happy with the changes. When they are stressed, they may feel drained and exhausted, anxious, fearful and irritable. Because stress is both a mental and physical response to an event, staff may experience headaches, digestive problems, problems sleeping, illnesses or may even injure themselves.
However, even though stress can be a response to external events, like organisational change, what causes stress is actually how we perceive and react to these external events. Indeed, it is how we perceive and think about change, for instance, that will determine how much stress we will experience.
For instance, two employees may deal with change very differently even though they may both be feeling unsettled by it at the time. One might become very stressed out because he or she worries about the situation over and over again, keeps thinking how bad it is going to affect him or her and keeps wishing that it was not happening. In contrast, the other employee might be able to focus on what he or she may learn from it and what they can do to improve their situation. By doing so, the latter employee will experience significantly less stress than the former.
About Dr Lise Saugeres
Dr Lise Saugeres is the founder and Director of Experiential Mindfulness Melbourne. Lise helps small to medium businesses reduce workplace stress and improve productivity and performance through mindfulness training. Lise has a PhD in the Social Sciences from Manchester, UK, and has had extensive research and training experience in organisations. To find out how Lise can help you and your organisation, visit: https://mindfullyserene.com.au or contact Lise on 0405 067 030.
About Warren Howard
Warren Howard is the Director of Howardco Business + HR Solutions. Warren is a People Management and HR specialist with particular expertise in Workplace Engagement and Change Leadership. Warren has been responsible for medium to large-scale change initiatives in a wide range of industries helping clients with systems integration, restructures, cultural re-alignment and new business ventures. Visit Howardco at www.howardco.com.au or contact Warren on 0417 594 760.