By Chelsea Corless, Consultant/Psychologist Spring Point

With mental health becoming a national and global priority, conversations with individuals are essential, but it is also important to understand the multiple and complex relationships between our experiences at work and our mental health. One of the critical workplace factors impacting mental health is the experience of constant change mandated by today’s corporate context. Now a mainstay of our working lives, “change is the only constant” has become a truism. While change is natural and imperative, the real human effects on mental health and subsequent performance are often overlooked. Indeed, a recent study of 5297 employees across 66 organisations in Norway found the odds of mental distress were significantly increased amongst employees experiencing change, with effects still felt two years after the experience.

Moreover, with the rise of automation and the known workforce transitions that will impact millions of workers over the next decade, it is essential that organisations learn to support their employees to manage change well. It is in this context that we continue to see many call out change fatigue as a descriptor of employee experience, but few have made a concerted effort to help employees manage the exhaustion, stress and distress often associated with change. While change can be positive, the negative impacts of change are experienced via two primary mechanisms:

1. Threat: employee appraisal of change as threatening leads to mental distress. While disruptive change can pose real threats to livelihood and opportunity, ongoing change can be perceived as a threat to stability, control, predictability and experience – all of which can impact employee mental health.

2. Strain: change often results in employees attempting to function in the face of too many demands with depleted resources. In particular, a lack of control over work and decision-making and a lack of social support can seriously impact employee ability to cope with the increased demands of a changing environment.

Five practical strategies for managing the impact of change:

We often work with clients who need to get serious about managing the effects of change on employees. Both empirical research and our experience suggest some key first steps organisations can take to protect employee mental health – and boost performance – during change:

1. Prepare your people leaders: Frontline leaders need support to come to terms with the change themselves and support others to do the same. Concerted efforts to develop leader coping skills, as well as the ability to understand, communicate, manage and support their team during change is essential.

2. Create balance: Reframe a threatening context by encouraging employees to pay attention not only to their negative reactions to change, but also positive thoughts such as curiosity and hope. Provide opportunities to regain control by pushing important decisions downwards when possible, and helping employees identify and focus their energy on things they can control (think Steven Covey’s Circle of Influence Model). Humans are wired to attend more to negative information, so regain balance with simple communication techniques such as the Positivity Ratio: sharing 3x as many positive messages as negative ones.

3. Promote flexibility: Reframe challenges as genuine learning opportunities and give employees the support to pursue these. Help people move on from missed opportunities by ‘re-goaling’: redirecting energy and effort towards new, attainable goals and ensuring employees have realistic strategies for goal achievement in a new or changing context.

4. Build strength: Focus time and resources on providing employees with the skills they need to do good work in a changing context and help them identify and use their strengths. Using strengths during change can boost self-efficacy, or the personal judgement of your ability to take action to deal with difficult situations. This improves coping and ability to sustain effort in the face of obstacles.

5. Promote endurance: Encourage employees to find coping mechanisms that work for them. The New Economics Foundation’s 5 Ways to Wellbeing identifies evidence-based activities to enhance wellbeing, such as connecting with and giving to others; being mindful; focusing on learning; and being active. Also concentrate on building team coping strategies, by boosting collective ability to solve problems together and leverage each other’s skills and resources to manage the demands of change. Teams also need to be able to express emotions and offer each other emotional support, particularly when faced with situations they can’t control.

Change is an inevitable feature of modern workplaces, but it need not take such a toll on employees. With a commitment to good practice and simple strategies such as these, organisations can promote both employee wellbeing and performance. A fitting aspiration for R U OK Day.

Citations hyperlinked through text above:

  1. Fløvik, L., Knardahl, S., & Christensen, J. O. (2019). Organizational change and employee mental health: A prospective multilevel study of the associations between organizational changes and clinically relevant mental distress. Scandinavian Journal or Work and Environmental Health, 45(2), 134-145.
  2. Webster, J. R., Beehr, T. A., & Love, K. (2011). Extending the challenge-hindrance model of occupational stress: The role of appraisal. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79(2), 505-516.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Luchman, J. N., & González-Morales, M. G. (2013). Demands, control, and support: A meta-analytic review of work characteristics interrelationships. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18(1), 37-52.
  5. Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
  6. Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). Mindsets: A view from two eras. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3).
  7. Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122-147.
  8. Lazarus, R., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York: Springer.