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How does your organisation handle change?

According to recent research by human resources experts Gary Rees and Sally Rumbles of the University of Portsmouth Business School, many employees feel it to be true. Mr Rees and Ms Rumbles, argue in their study that while many organisations have serious concerns about the impact change is having on their business, very few were worried about employees or their welfare.

Mr Rees said: “We were alarmed at some of the results. Employees are an organisation’s most valuable asset and collectively have the power to help businesses survive and thrive in bad times as well as in good.

“Managers seem to think they have a licence to change, but our research has shown high-level executives admit only about a third of changes they’ve made are successful and have helped sustain their company through turbulent times.

“Employers and senior managers need to stop foisting continual change upon their staff in a bid to stay viable as a business. The secret is not to ignore the fact change can threaten the staff who, in turn, can become exhausted, cynical or depressed, which destabilises the organisation.

“Companies which overload their employees with continual change tend to see staff react by withdrawing and becoming less engaged, resulting in poorer performance, productivity and retention.

“In the past three years the global economic crisis has sparked unprecedented change with businesses traditionally considered as solid, crumbling before our eyes. Businesses know things are hotting up for staff, but they don’t know what to do about it.”

Burnout in the workplace includes emotional exhaustion (loss of energy, feeling worn out and powerless), cynicism (negative attitude, distancing and irritability), and low personal accomplishment (feelings of incompetence, low assertiveness, low self-esteem, ineffectiveness and cognition focused on failure).

Their study of 20 senior human resources practitioners at companies employing more than 100 people found senior executives are embarrassed at high levels of employee stress within their organisations but also, that many don’t care if employees are burning out.

Ms Rumbles said: “The worst thing is those who are more likely to burnout in the workplace are the most engaged and hard-working staff. If a business loses those people then it risks destabilising the business.

“Instead of seeing people as the most important asset and what gives a business its competitive advantage, too many senior managers think what is good for business is good for the workers.”

The research suggests organisations react to change in a variety of ways including the ‘boiled frog syndrome’: When a frog is placed in hot water it will instinctively jump out, but if it placed in cool water that is then slowly hearted, the frog will stay in the water until it is boiled alive. In terms of organisational change ‘boiled frog syndrome’ is a state of denial that things are ‘hotting up’ and a complacent attitude to the effect it is having on employees and the organisation.

Other syndromes preventing organisations from dealing constructively with burnout include the ‘empty shell syndrome’ – where a wide range of policies and procedures exist but have little impact on stress and burnout; and the ‘survivor syndrome’ – where those who survive a round of redundancies then suffer from low morale and higher stress levels.

The researchers say the concept of successfully managing change is not new, but the recent pace and scope of that change is exceptional. Some organisations are now taking ‘stress tests’ to see how fit they are to survive more change, less money and more uncertainty. But while it might be possible to judge if a business’s finances are resilient enough to survive a bleak economic period, organisations are less able or willing to judge if the people they employ are close to burnout.

Ms Rumbles said: “Continual change can feel like bereavement and employees need time to recover and adjust after change, not be thrust again and again into new periods of uncertainty and new initiatives and restructuring.

“Businesses need to plan change, execute it and then tell staff the turmoil is over.”

The researchers say the root cause of burnout lies in people’s need to believe their lives are meaningful, and that what they do has significance. Managers can help avoid burnout by not avoiding problems and by encouraging staff to be innovative, to ‘break the rules’, to use their talents and take initiative.

In the UK, the cost of sickness absence due to mental ill health alone is estimated by NICE to be £28bn a year.

The research is published in the International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management.


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