Managing Stressful Organizational Change

Employers can take steps to make change less stressful for staff.

Posted Nov 10, 2020

The onset of COVID

As an academic, two of the courses I have taught this year have been of great significance to students. One is Stress and Resilience at Work, and the other is Organizational Change. Many students have had their university studies, jobs, and personal lives disrupted, as the COVID pandemic has increased their stress.

Even prior to the blight of COVID, stress levels in many countries had been rising for a variety of reasons. For most employees (including managers), the organizational changes COVID has wrought have added further stress. Many people have been made redundant or had their pay reduced; others, particularly in healthcare and supermarkets, have at different times been overwhelmed by unmanageable workloads in fraught conditions when restrictions were heightened. Those in industries such as hospitality, leisure, and retail have faced ongoing change as to what they do, when they do it, and how they do it.

Working from home

As to where they do it, large numbers of employees (in what are still sometimes quaintly referred to as white collar jobs) were hurriedly required to work from home at the early stages of the pandemic and again, in some countries and cities, when the lockdown was re-introduced. Working from home has been a privilege that for many years had been granted to a limited number of employees. Prior research has shown, however, that some employees, particularly women, felt stigmatized by colleagues and managers, who regarded their absence from the office as a sign of lower productivity, commitment and collegiality. The rapid onset of COVID pressurized many organizations to order their staff to work from home, often with inadequate technology, unsuitable workspaces, extra family responsibilities, and overcrowded or lonely residences. The Observer and Guardian newspapers in the UK report that remote surveillance of employees has been ramped up to exert forms of control that were easier for bosses in more benign, office-based times. 

Stressful organizational change

Uncertainty, anxiety (if not fear) and powerlessness have invaded our lives, and our workplaces. Change is certainly not always stressful and the widespread belief that people do not like being put out of their comfort zones has not been supported by credible evidence. 2020, however, has been a year when terms such as pandemic, lockdown, the new normal, unprecedented, and second wave, have re-entered the global lexicon. Whether change is stressful or welcome depends partly on processes and partly on outcomes. Many decision-making processes have recently been altered. While many organizational changes in the past have been well planned and (perhaps ideally) delivered through widespread consultation, new conditions have required rapid adjustments, ongoing readjustments, new strategies, tactics and operations, often without sufficient time for careful thought and the participation of other staff. Outcomes, such as redundancy for our ourselves or others close to us, heavier workloads, varying work venues and the introduction of new communication and information technologies, have seen our coping resources being taxed and drained.  

Change as an opportunity

Many consultants claim that about two-thirds of all changes fail, yet there is little evidence that this is true. In the current context, some organizations have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to devise new strategies, such as making face masks, sanitizers, equipment and vaccines. Others, like Netflix, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook, have parlayed their digital strengths into rapid market expansion. Innovative approaches to product development, service delivery, communication, office space and organizational structure have not merely been changes triggered by COVID conditions, but potentially ongoing ways of working in the future. According to media sources, well-known companies such as Twitter, Dropbox, Microsoft and Google are making working from home a reality for most staff for next year, and even a permanent option, regardless of any viruses. 

How organizations can better manage organizational change to reduce stress

Given the continued acceleration of organizational change, it will be useful for managers to consider taking the following steps when change is planned:

Anticipate that change may be stressful for some employees. Some organizations have made employees redundant, sold off divisions or introduced information technologies baffling to many. Knowing that employees may be stressed by either the processes or the outcomes of change (or both), senior leadership teams should put plans in place to address stress.

Communicate consistently during the process, acknowledging that the change may be challenging to some employees. A flurry of communication at the beginning often peters out later on; employees are left in a vacuum, rumors spread, cynicism and turnover grow, loyalty and productivity drop. Sincere communication is also a message to employees that the organization cares about their well-being.

Conduct a stress audit with the input of external experts. This does not have to be related to organizational change, but soon after a major change is announced, a survey will provide valuable information on staff well-being.

Develop and/or publicize programs of stress management. These include employee assistance programs (EAP), extra paid leave and training courses in resilience and dealing with change.

Run HR workshops on writing a resumé and preparing for interviews. In the context of restructuring, redundancies and redeployment, these initiatives will help employees to become more proactive in coping with stressful change. If redundancies are planned, generous severance packages help ease financial concerns.

Develop or strengthen programs of well-being that go beyond the upcoming changes. These include social activities, paid gym memberships or alternative ways of enhancing physical and mental health. Facilitated volunteering — such as helping others less fortunate and caring for the environment — has also been found to reduce stress.

The pace of change is likely to accelerate, and, with ongoing uncertainty, organizations need to design programs of stress management and well-being, not just for employees, but with employees, and evaluate their effectiveness.