Organizational change, especially in a post-merger environment in which two disparate cultures are brought together, can bring about stress and disorder even when on paper, the change should go off without a hitch. Evidence shows that organizational change is a primary trigger to higher levels of workplace stress, and this lack of resilience in the workforce requires a very specific type of leadership.
The functional and logistics challenges of organizational change can be overcome with the right tools, tactics and strategic plan. The bigger challenges are addressing the mental health and resilience of staff amidst the inevitable staff reductions and lateral shifts. In the sales organization, for example, change – even a positive one – can have a negative impact on the bottom line, as sales staff temporarily shift their focus away from bringing in sales, and instead worry over things like account reallocation, overlapping territories, and learning about new product lines.
Change management then, to be effective, must go beyond the tactical, and incorporate "soft" strategies that take into account the causes of stress in a change environment, and take steps to remediate that stress.
The prevalence of stress in the workplace
Effective leaders recognize the potential for stress, anxiety, and triggers for depression when major changes are underway, and that these occurrences are far more prevalent than most realize. With over 300 million people suffering from depression and anxiety (4.4% for depression and 3.6% for anxiety), chronic stress at work can approach 80%, with some differences in regions and countries. With numbers so high, it is imperative for any change management initiative to include efforts at stress remediation, promoting resilience, and identifying those triggers which create anxiety in the workplace.
'Cognitive pressure disorders often begin with work overload and confusion – two factors which are quite common in a post-merger environment,' said Dr. Sven Hansen, CEO of The Resilience Institute. 'Primary triggers for these pressure disorders may include excessive workload, unexpected complexity, long hours which result in poor sleep patterns, and excessive demands and performance anxiety.'
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in its 'Stress at work' report, highlighted several studies which reported that up to 40% of workers report stress on the job, and three-fourths of workers believe there is more on-the-job stress than there was a generation ago.
Mitigating change-induced stress
Management often ignores the mental health impact which the stress of organizational and post-merger changes may have on staff members across all departments. To ensure resilience amidst change, organizational leaders must take into account these anxieties, guard against excessive workload, undue complexity, and confusion – factors which not only affect productivity, but may also have a significant and negative mental health impact.
'In sales organizations undergoing change, we often see sales staff under significant stress, for two reasons: They are at least temporarily burdened with more administrative tasks, and there is also significant confusion as to what they are selling, and to whom," said Hansen. "That stress negatively impacts the bottom line and can cause a potentially positive change to fail. The solution is a simple reallocation of work, removing as much administrative work as possible, applying positive reinforcement, and working towards building a more positive and supportive work environment.'
According to Hansen, the confusion which frequently results in change initiatives can be addressed by simplifying priorities, and giving employees a clearer goal. 'Breaking that confusion by quickly establishing new patterns and rhythms will also help build resilience, as will clarity about new roles, new business requirements, and new timelines for success. Often, it's not the change itself that brings about stress, rather, it's the confusion and lack of direction, and worries over job security that are the main triggers. These triggers can be avoided with simple clarity, clearly defined roles, and positive reinforcement.'
Leadership tactics for stress remediation
The tension, stress, and mental health issues that result from rapid or sudden change in the workplace requires a strong change leader to be in place. A charismatic leader with the ability to motivate employees and facilitate the desired transformation. Before change, regardless of whether the change benefits the organization in the long run, there is an 'organizational identity' or culture, which can easily be destroyed with the change.
Change, whether it involves new management, new operational processes, or a post-merger environment, is almost always executed with a positive outcome in mind, and post-change failure is all too common a result. Ultimately, the chances of success can be significantly increased by not focusing exclusively on cut-and-dried operational processes, and giving equal time to stress reduction tactics and resilience training.