How to respond when change threatens your workplace culture

A study released on the connection between productivity and mental health in the workplace highlights a common challenge that employers often face at either extreme of the business cycle, when business is booming or floundering: employees have a difficult time managing change.

The research by Toronto-based management consulting firm Morneau Shepell found that 46 per cent of employees “have taken time off work and/or noticed other employees take more time off work following workplace changes.” Fully 66 per cent of respondents reported experiencing some form of organizational change with their current employer, and 43 per cent said it negatively affected their view of the company. Forty per cent felt that change negatively impacted their health and well-being.

Organizational change cited by respondents included everything from layoffs and job re-organizations, to mergers, periods of rapid growth and even physical office space re-designs.


Workplace culture a major influence on mental health

The study also looked at the most common mental health issues cited by those employees who responded to the survey. Respondents cited depression (31 per cent) and anxiety (28 per cent) as the most common mental health issues they’ve experienced in the past. Interestingly, a whopping 75 per cent of those polled felt that employee culture was the most important factor influencing mental health in the workplace.

In contrast, 47 per cent of managers surveyed cited negative workplace culture as being the most important issue affecting the success of their workplace, ahead of absenteeism (36 per cent), presenteeism (32 per cent) and employee engagement (21 per cent).


The importance of transparency

The data in the study is far from shocking, particularly for human resources professionals, business owners and managers who encounter these change-related challenges on a near-daily basis.

Progressive organizations might even shrug at its findings. That’s because they understand that many of the issues stemming from company-wide change are ultimately avoidable if they leverage a strategic approach to people management.

Specifically, mitigating the kind of risks that tend to emerge from organizational change starts with transparency. In many cases, employees fear change because they simply don’t see it coming. Many managers are caught off-guard when their employees are surprised by layoffs or restructuring, for example. But it’s unrealistic to assume that staff can prepare for these, often disorienting events, particularly when they’re not privy to management’s strategic vision for the organization.

While many executives recoil at the idea of extreme transparency such as the implementation of open-book financial management policies—where employees are permitted to see the organization’s key financial metrics in full detail—it is possible to keep them abreast of potential change with regular (at least quarterly) strategic information sessions where they’re made aware of opportunities and challenges on the horizon for the organization. Most importantly, sessions such as these are a good opportunity to outline how prospective change could impact their future and position within the company.


Keep communications frequent

There are many organizations that struggle with employee communications—and by that we mean that they basically don’t formally communicate with their staffers at all, or do so with such infrequency they may as well not bother.

We should remember that developing a communications-focused culture starts at the top. Leaders need to be seen and heard by their employees, they must be available to hear ideas and address concerns, and they should communicate with their employees regularly, even if it’s only through mass emails for busy C-suite executives who simply can’t find the time to meet on a one-on-one basis or in smaller group settings where meaningful dialogue is easier to establish.

Different tactics will work for different organizations, but it’s also important to remember that C-suite executives should be communicating key messaging to their mid-level managers and preparing them for impending changes, as well. Leaving managers in the dark is a surefire way to negatively impact engagement levels and send work-related anxiety soaring. The last thing any company needs are managers who feel insecure about their place in the organization, let alone the status or future of the employees who report to them.


Manage change in phases

Another important consideration is tackling change management in stages. If a major organizational reorganization is necessary, for example, it shouldn’t be dropped on employees and phased in over an unnecessarily brief period, say, 30 days or less. While this may sound far-fetched—who would ever try to implement a major new initiative within such a tight timeline?—it happens all the time.

By making staff aware of impending change, allowing them to absorb and process its implications, and even determine whether they want to remain on board or look for new opportunities with another employer, managers and employees will have the time to make necessary adjustments to implement the change efficiently and effectively.

The alternative is to ram through changes and risk sacrificing productivity and innovation, spiking employee turnover levels and compromising employee engagement. The very worst kind of change, in other words—one that should be avoided at costs.

The Williams HR Consulting Team