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Managing Change


Significant changes in a workplace affect the mental and physical health of employees, says a recent study by Toronto-based consulting firm Morneau Shepell.

The nationwide survey asked employers and workers about their reactions to major changes like job redesign, downsizing, restructuring or mergers. Results show that about 40 per cent of employee respondents said that organizational changes had affected their health and well-being, while 30 per cent of workers claimed that change had negatively affected their job performance. For nearly half of the respondents (43 per cent), such changes had adversely influenced their perceptions of their employers. Only slightly more than one-quarter indicated that organizational change had improved their health, performance and perceptions of their firms.

“We thought it was important that we actually look at this,” says Paula Allen, Morneau Shepell’s vice president of research and integrative solutions. “The numbers were a little bit higher than we thought, in terms of how many negatively impacted employees.”

This is the third straight year in which the company has conducted a survey like this, Allen adds. “People are talking about workplace mental health, and there is expert commentary and different things of that sort,” she explains, “but we think it is most important to hear directly from the people who are most impacted.”

Morneau Shepell’s findings are consistent with what other researchers have found on organizational change, which refers to the process of changing an organization’s strategies, procedures, technologies and culture. “A lot of us don’t really know how to deal with that in a healthy fashion, especially if there is a lack of communication,” says Louise Chénier, program manager for workplace mental health with the Mental Health Commission of Canada in Ottawa. “It can have a positive impact if we are involved in the change, if we have some control over it. But for the most part, it can have a negative impact on the employees’ mental and physical well-being.”

Julia Kaisla, director of community engagement with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s British Columbia division in Vancouver, agrees with the study’s findings. “We know that organization change causes stress for people, and we do know that culture has a big effect on how people respond to change.” While change itself can be positive, it can also become challenging when it threatens people’s sense of security and predictability for the future, Kaisla adds.

The study also analyzed the differences in effect with varying types of workplace change. “Organizations put a lot of effort into communication and planning and preparation for something like a merger and might put a little bit less into something like changing the nature of an individual’s job,” Allen points out.

But the survey reveals that job redesign had the strongest effect on respondents’ physical and mental health, while major organizational shifts like mergers had smaller effects. “The closer it is to the person to what they do every day, the higher the impact of a change,” Allen notes.

Adapting and evolving

Globalization, advances in communication technology and increasingly diverse workplaces are some of the factors driving organizational change, which is not the only area that the survey covered. Other findings include the following: workers younger than 30 were more than twice as likely to take sick leave over mental-health concerns than older workers; 61 per cent of employees said that their co-workers had a positive effect on their mental health; and 75 per cent of respondents cited work culture as the most important issue regarding workplace mental health.

To help workers adapt better to major changes, Kaisla suggests that employers should view their organizations as individual people who will be affected by big decisions in different ways. “At every level,” she says, “they need to be asking the question, ‘How will this impact the psychological health and safety at our workplace?’ And you need to start looking at the risks that are being discussed, and you need to have a two-way conversation.”

Organizational change is inevitable, especially these days, says Chénier, who advises employers to communicate as openly as possible about what is happening, even when they do not have all the details. Otherwise, anxious employees may fill in the knowledge gap with their worst fears, like downsizing or closure. Such communication should include the reasons for the decisions being made, and employers should take the workers’ feedback seriously.

Employers should also instill a positive problem-solving culture in the work environment to help workers adapt to change more effectively, Allen recommends. Good communication, availability of resources and managers who know how to support employees are ways to help workers ease into change. “It is really important to consider how adaptive the workplace is and workforces are.”

Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.