6 Ways to Respond to Stressful Changes at Work
April 23, 2019

6 Ways to Respond to Stressful Changes at Work

by Brian de Haaff

Have you heard of the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale? It is essentially a scale of life events, ranking from the most stressful to the least. It is no surprise that some negative markers include things like the death of a loved one or losing your job. But you will also see things that are typically thought of as positive — like getting married or having a baby. No matter how you look at this scale, I believe it reveals a simple truth.

Positive or negative — change of any kind in our lives can be hard to navigate.

This is especially true in our professional work lives. And yet this is also where some of the biggest changes are happening — as companies race to keep up with today’s dynamic markets and improve how they serve customers.

To do this, many are undergoing enterprise transformations that impact the way the entire company operates. I have written about this topic quite a bit on the Aha! blog, sharing my own perspective and what we have seen with our customers (ranging from mid-sized companies to the Fortune 500) who are working through these types of opportunities and challenges.

Depending on what type of transformation is happening, it may require learning new technologies, adopting different processes, or modifying how products or services are marketed and sold. The goal is always a more strategic and agile organization. But, if not handled right, there can be negative repercussions.

A survey of more than 1,500 U.S. workers showed that organizational change is linked to chronic work stress, adverse physical health symptoms, and lower levels of job satisfaction. Folks were also more likely to distrust their employer and want to quit their job within the next year.

Initial reluctance in the face of something different and new is only natural. But you can help make a difference for yourself and the people you work beside each day. Whether you are a leader in title or action, you have the power to reframe change positively and rally people around what is next. Of course, this assumes a healthy organization overall, with healthy relationships. But it is possible. Here is how:

Start small

No one responds well to a dump of “new, new, new.” It feels scary and sudden. And while there is no guidebook and every organization is unique, there are some basic things you can do to make it more palatable for the broader group. They are likely focused on their own work — not aware of the shifts happening at a company level. Begin by seeding the major concepts and themes of what is to come when you talk about the company’s overall plan and direction. This way, the eventual reveal will feel natural and almost expected.

Connect the dots

“Why is this change even necessary?” Even if teammates do not vocalize this question, you can bet it is something they are all thinking. It is up to you to give the answer — explaining the benefit to the company, team, and customers. You can start by creating a roadmap for what will happen, prioritizing what is most important and establishing key milestones that teammates need to reach along the way. This will help you monitor progress, while giving the team clarity into the areas of focus.

Share expectations

Another question teammates are likely thinking, “Where does my work fit in?” You need to make it clear how the organization will be impacted by the new way of working and what you need from folks moving forward. You can do this by referring back to the overall plan, clarifying who is responsible for each area of focus or activity. And be sure to ask questions yourself. A good one to start: “What do you need to accomplish this?”

Highlight continuity

As I wrote earlier, change can be hard. This is why people like knowing what will stay the same. According to recent research on organizational change, most people place a high value on continuity. Tap into this by sharing what will not change. Ideally this is something as big as the company’s core values and approach to work, but you could also speak to other comforts — like team structures and who people report to.

Identify supporters

Yes, there will be detractors — but expect supporters too. You need to identify people who will be excited about the big plans at varying levels in the organization. Research suggests that enlisting the help of teammates (and giving them a specific role) may improve the success rate of change initiatives. For instance, maybe you could ask someone to help manage the transformation roadmap or to set up weekly status meetings.

Empower teammates

Studies state the obvious — managers play a key role in helping people cope with the stress that organizational change can bring. So what can you do? You can listen to concerns and find ways to include people in decision-making, even if the decisions are trivial (such as when to schedule new meetings). Giving this sense of agency will help teammates feel less like powerless bystanders and more like active participants.

Change can lead to greatness — if you are able to create space for inspiration, not fear.

When you approach organizational transformation thoughtfully and incrementally, you can build trust. As a leader, it is up to you to show people the value of where you are headed and guide them through it step by step.

Have you recently gone through a stressful change at work?

Help your team do great things — sign up for a free trial of Aha!

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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