With the prospect of more restructuring and redundancies on the horizon, empowering employees is crucial to helping them stay positive during change…
Every where we look it’s bad news. Unemployment is up to a 17-year high of 2.67 million and we've now slipped back into recession, giving rise to a 'double dip recession' and, no doubt, yet another bout of restructuring and redundancy activity.
So it would appear that, while the recent sunshine lifted our spirits, it could do little to alleviate the huge concerns most employees have about the prospect of impending change and now we're seeing miserable conditions on the weather front too!
On the one-hand, we all like to have something nice to look forward to. Come the warmer days, most happily employed people anticipate putting down a deposit for that summer holiday, splashing out on some new clothes or investing in that home improvement project. But for those individuals who remain fearful that the redundancy axe will fall on them or a loved one, those thoughts are being put on hold. “I’ve got nothing to look forward to anymore” could all too easily become the mindset of those feeling most at risk and unsettled by the change.
On the flipside, research into who stays healthy under pressure shows that it’s not the scale of uncertainty or the challenge facing us, but our ability to continue to feel in control of the situation that defines whether or not it has a negative impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. It is therefore important to remind ourselves what we do have control over, as opposed to what we don’t. For example, most of us have control over our attitudes and responses, our communications with others, how much we eat, how much we drink and how much we exercise.
The summer weather followed by the storms and torrential rain also served as a good reminder that while we might not be able to control the weather itself, the vast majority of us do have control over whether or not we choose to get outside on a sunny day, or even to get some fresh air after putting on our waterproofs on a wet one – or stay indoors feeling sorry for ourselves.
The challenge for employers is giving those individuals now facing the prospect of yet more change the sense of empowerment and choice that’s so vital to feeling like their life isn’t spiralling out of control. Best practice typically includes openly communicating the actual need for change, plainly and frankly, without dumbing down. This should be followed by ongoing two-way communication with employees, you providing them with information, and they providing you with questions and responses and even their own ideas about how best to deliver the changes required. Even if there is no new news about important issues, such as redundancies and relocations, it is still important to keep communicating – even if it’s just to say a decision has yet to be taken. No news is likely to be interpreted as bad news, sending the rumour mill into overdrive and causing unnecessary distractions and distress.
On a more psychological level, discouraging managers from micro-managing employees and giving individuals as much control over their work as possible - even if that’s just letting them decide their own deadline or flexing their hours slightly - has been scientifically proven to dramatically reduce the stress levels associated with significant change initiatives.
Forward-thinking employers now also recognise the need to do more than just equip managers with the practical information needed to deliver the change. They increasingly recognise the need to provide employees with emotional as well as practical support, while developing managers to identify and deal with the whole rollercoaster of emotions each employee may experience at different rates. These range from denial (“This can’t be happening”) to resistance (“If they think we’re going to accept this they’re wrong”) to hopefully acceptance (“This isn’t going away, so let’s find a way to make it work”).
Trying to suppress such emotions won’t help people move through a natural tendency to reject and resist change. Managers must be given the practical skills required to successfully empathise with and acknowledge people’s feelings. Only then will they have the opportunity to openly discuss these feelings, and help people come to terms with them, so that they can at least accept, if not embrace, the change.
At the same time, it’s also important to recognise that some employees won’t feel able to discuss the impact of changes with their manager. Encouraging them to talk to a friend, family member or confidential support services, such as that offered by the Employee Assistance Programme, can rapidly strengthen their ability to accept or even feel good about the change.
On the plus side, for most of us, it’s true to say that change is often as good as a rest, unleashing new levels of energy and opportunities, even if that’s just the opportunity to look at things from a new perspective, learn new skills and meet new people. Handled correctly and fully embraced, most change survivors would be the first to argue that what once seemed like a potentially horrible time in their life ultimately created the circumstances to transform it – and themselves – for the better.