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Organizational change and employee stress - a recession strategy.

In these tough economic times, organizations and employees are highly susceptible to the most common, yet misunderstood features of working life - change and stress.

Recessionary economies demand an organization must adapt quickly to shifting markets and customer needs. For this to happen employees must be equally responsive and adaptable to each fluctuation in the marketplace. Clearly, if personnel are either resistant to this change or 'stressed out' from recent restructuring, they will not be able to keep the organization competitive, effective and cost-efficient.

With many companies downsizing and restructuring, the remaining employees are subject to an overwhelming number of adjustments -- new job descriptions, new procedures, increased workloads, identifying new markets, retaining market share and possibly, an overwhelming concern for their future. Employees under the burden of excessive change from restructuring do not work as effectively or efficiently. Over time the stress can contribute to an increase in personnel costs. This occurs when the ongoing pressure of change exceeds an individuals coping abilities. The typical result is:

* Higher absenteeism * On-the-job accidents * Longer and more frequent sick leave * Conflicts between workers and/or management * Inability to adapt to new operating conditions

Studies indicate that the cost of stress to Canadian business is $13 billion annually. In today's business climate controlling these costs may be crucial to survival. A recessionary management strategy must address employee stress by identifying the best methodology for implementing changes.

Understanding the relationship between stress and change is the first step.

The most common misconception is that stress is completely bad for you. In fact, stress is an essential component of life that makes us function and perform our best. But the stress needs to be at a level that we can handle. When our stress level is in our optimum range we have a level of stimulation and activity that helps us perform our best. Positive stress is the catalyst for growth, learning, achievement and personal contentment.

A problem arises when stress exceeds a persons capacity to manage and cope. This is negative stress and it directly inhibits performance at work.

We are all creatures of habit and if we are 'jarred' out of our comfort zone, negative stress is created. It is human nature to resist change -- to try and maintain a method, approach or attitude to which we've grown accustomed. We all tend to embrace that which is familiar and routine, partly because we usually know the outcome. It is our 'path of least resistance' because we don't have to learn something new, make silly mistakes or feel awkward while we get to know a new system.

We all remember the awkwardness, discomfort and stress of being new on the job. We are usually impatient to get to know exactly what we are doing and master the day-to-day routine. Later through repetition, everything becomes automatic and we perform our duties easily with little conscious effort. We have established our comfort zone. But, if that routine is disrupted, we are jolted back to that awkward stage. Our boss's expectations may be unclear, our roles less defined and we become unsure of just what it takes to do a good job.

So the dilemma for managers is to ease the impact of work place changes and lessen the stress it creates in all personnel. The challenge of managing in these times is twofold:

* How can we manage and implement the changes necessary in our organizations to reflect the needs of customers and maintain a motivated, productive work force?

* How can we prepare employees to adapt and accept constant change, so that the organization is responsive and aligned to the marketplace?

This undertaking applies to all types of organizations. For example, there is increasing pressure on our government administrations to provide better service at a lower cost to taxpayers. Community service and health organizations must continually adapt to a decreasing funding base to meet their user's needs. Clearly, change and stress are a common obstacle to organizational and personal achievement.

For organizations who have restructured or those considering such action, a five part process for managing the implementation changes and the stress of personnel, should be considered:

1) Communication:

Fear of the unknown is at the core of everyone's reaction to change. Management's communication style needs to be factual, open, frequent and clear so that speculation and anxiety is minimized.

2) Participation:

High stress is related to the feeling of having no control or say in decisions that effect your life. By assuming a participative style, personnel will feel a sense of 'ownership' for some decisions and the results that occur. Independent, closed door management practices have been proven to generate resentment and lower motivation.

3) Knowledge:

Management and personnel alike should understand the characteristics of change and stress. Only when the sources, causes and symptoms are known can corrective action be taken to diminish the impact. Self-awareness empowers each employee to recognize behaviour related to change and stress and apply a sound planning or problem-solving system.

4) Goal Setting:

In times of organizational change all personnel need to develop clear achievable goals. This process clarifies and matches expectations and provides an overall guide for all activities. Included in these objectives should be specific goals for staff to develop change/stress management skills and attitudes.

5) Recognition:

Since employees may be unsure of their new roles in a changed organization (or wonder if their old job is still the same), full recognition of individual achievement is necessary. As personnel and/or departments reach their objectives, a concerted effort to reaffirm the results and approach eases feelings of discomfort and motivates additional action.

To apply these principles to your organization you need not have gone through or be planning dramatic changes. Even when the work environment is fairly constant, these five steps can provide for your personnel an 'oasis of comfort' from the struggle of today's economy.

A successful change management/stress reduction plan will enable all personnel to perform better and give your organization the ability to respond and adapt to our changing economic, social and political climate. The efforts are cost effective through the savings in employee health costs, increased productivity and enhanced motivation. If it is true that the only constant in today's world is change, then developing a strategy to manage change is integral to your organizations success.

James LeCraw is a business and organizational change consultant, offering Stress/Change Management Workshops through PPS Consulting of Newmarket - (416) 830-0645.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:LeCraw, James
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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