Chasing the rainbow: Embracing Organizational Change. Part 2: Preventing change related burnout

We like order and certainty. When things change is unsettling. Constant change? … well it can make us weary. Change can make even the smallest of worries cast a big shadow.

But the fact of the matter is, in the workplace, organizational change is inevitable, and it’s nothing to be afraid of. Change means progress, new technology, business growth, and increased productivity. But if poorly managed, change can only mean one thing…employee burnout.

During her extensive research of people whose companies undertaking major transformational organizational change, Dr. Geri Puleo looked at how these individuals felt about the change and how these feelings as well as organizational practices caused them to burnout. In addition she also looked at what they did in order to remove themselves from burnout. The main thing she emphasis is that the descent into burnout can be rather quick. Especially in comparison to the time that it takes to recover from burnout. So embracing a preventive approach is a far, far more suitable and cost effective solution.

During organizational change, but not only as we can expand these findings to companies that are not undergoing changing initiatives, initially people start out with hope, they are excited about their job, they are excited about their organizations and the challenges they bring and they are very optimistic in regards to what they think the future will hold.

But unfortunately, due to some of their assumption and their expectations, as well as some of the ways the organization is treating them, they started going down the slippery slope into a full blown burnout.

So initially when they’re expectations have not been met, they became, not surprisingly – frustrated. The frustration after a while began to really build up until they became angry. But then, after they became angry, they became apathetic, they no longer care. And this lack of caring about what you are doing at work is very indicative of workplace related burnout. Is only after they became apathetic, when they did not care and their work life started to have little to no meaning, that they entered a full blown burnout. That’s when you feel like an empty shell of a building. The only remaining timbers after the building has been bombed. In other words, you are there on the outside, but inside is this uncomfortable feeling of being emotionally dead.

What a lot of people don’t understand though is that companies contribute a great deal into creating feelings of burnout in their employees. There are at least 10 different ways in which companies took their employees from feeling hopeful and motivated to move down into frustration – apathy – burnout route. Here we can talk about work overload due downsizing, lack of organizational caring, lack of a clear vision and direction, lack of poor leadership or lack of collaboration and poor communication of the planned changes. All of these are ways in which companies contribute to burnout by creating an environment in which employees feel devalued are lacking any sort of control and they struggle to find meaning in their work. So it is important to remember that during burnout we always have to look at the environment that is also creating stressors that are contributing to your feelings of being burnout out.

As I mentioned the descent into feeling burnout can be relatively quick. However, the recovery from burnout can be agonizingly slow. You start from being burnout, when you are feeling apathetic and miserable and as first steps you have to make a conscious decision to psychologically of physically remove yourself from the environment that is causing burnout.

Only through this first step you allow yourself the necessary space to get the so much needed self-knowledge and acceptance as well as being able to revise your expectations about the work environment and renegotiate the psychological contract between yourself and the work that you do.

So how do employees usually do theirs? In our most recent organizational burnout intervention we discovered that there are several ways. Many employees engage in escapist activities, sometimes taking the form of addictions such as alcohol and drug use, gambling or food bingeing. Anything that makes them think that they have gone away from that situation, even if only for a short while. Some employees, engaged in slightly more pro-active choices and asked for internal transfers within the company, in other words, they believed in their company but their particular situation was just untenable so they did not want to change the company but just their immediate situation. The vast majority, however, physically left. They either left the organization voluntarily by resigning, or being made redundant by the company downsizing. What is most disturbing and what is indicative of just how pervasive and how unsettling the feelings of burnout are is that a large percentage actually left the industry. Is not just the company but they became totally disenchanted with the industry. And they thought that the only way they can recover their psychological and emotional wellbeing as to totally change career.

Now that is sad. Not only that we know by now that the recovery from burnout is so much slower compared to the descent into burnout, but also because when we are faced to burnout for a prolonged time there is a high risk of experiencing residual burnout. That means that in absence of a robust burnout intervention, if any of the environmental factors or unmet expectations will reoccur in a totally different situation within about 2 years since you burnout, you can go right back into any of the stages of burnout.

What’s even sadder is that more often than not, organizations may wish to adopt a denial stance, exhibiting the “Boiled Frog Syndrome”. When a frog is placed in a pot of boiling water, it will instinctively jump out. However, when a frog is placed in a pot of cool water, which is then heated slowly, it will remain in the water and then be boiled alive. In terms of organizational changes, there is a state of denial that things are “hotting up” and a complacent approach to continuous organizational changes and their effect on employees and the organization. Alternatively, organizations may hide behind policies, as exhibited by the “Empty Shell Syndrome”, a term first defined by Hoque and Noon (2004) with regard to Equality Management. Despite the wide range of policies, procedures and guidelines, in reality, organizations do little in practice when it comes to accepting the point that there are high levels of burnout in the organization.

It is of no wonder then, that a 2019 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that nine out of ten of the key barriers to the success of change programmes in organizations are people related. When looking at particular challenges posed by an organizational change Dr. Sally Rumbles from the University of Portsmouth found that employees can have the following concerns that if not resolved, can lead to burnout:

• Loss of organizational or service identity in the case of mergers and acquisitions

• Changes in team structures and potential loss of relationships with colleagues, especially long standing relationships that are seen to be the most productive

• Changes that employees feared might impact upon their ability to do their job or to provide what they see as a good quality of service

• Loss of job security – where there was a threat of job losses, it was often all consuming and employees found it difficult to see beyond this

• Increased workload and pressure, which could result in normally engaged employees beginning to feel that their good will was being exploited.

Organizations should therefore place considerable emphasis upon the people factors and the employment relationship during times of change and more so in times of harsh economic cost cutting and asset stripping. Employers should take responsibility for ensuring how effective organizational change is brought about, without having a significant negative effect on employee and organizational wellbeing. Before anything else organizations have to have measures of organizational stress, an understanding of the potential for organizational burnout and determine how to get out of the burnout rut by becoming more resilient to change and engaging employees in a positive and productive manner in order to ensure long term success.

So taking all this information into consideration what can you do to prevent change burnout and ensure sustainable results?

Given the rush to digital transformation across all industries these days, the answer may surprise you – slow down. A paced and steady path is crucial for effective change management. Technology has transformed every industry, and there’s an increasing pressure to keep up or be left behind. This triggers a knee-jerk reaction to seek change and implement it as quickly as possible. But just like people in the gym who are seeking fast results through heavy lifting, if you push for change too rapidly and without a phased plan of action, you’re likely going to hurt your progress and productivity.

Furthermore, what particular steps can you take to ensure smooth and successful transitions within your organization and avoid burnout? Here are a few suggestions:

First and foremost, be transparent.

Nothing is more frustrating to employees than a manager implementing major changes that directly affect them without so much as giving them an explanation. So when you do find that change is necessary, be open with your employees about those changes. Chances are you’re making them for the benefit of everyone involved, so why keep your team in the dark? Before implementing a major change, hold a meeting to explain exactly what that change will look like, how and when it will take place, and the benefits everyone should expect. Get people feeling good on the purpose. People who have a deeper purpose are more resilient and satisfied. Open communication will ensure that your employees feel like valued members of the organization. And on that note…

Listen. Listen. Listen.

Once more for the folks in the back… Listen! You hired each and every one of your employees because they are smart, capable, and bring unique skills and perspectives to the table. So, reap the benefits of your impeccable hiring skills. Just as you should hold a meeting prior to implementing change, continue to hold regular meetings to follow up, so your employees have a better understanding of the progress that is happening. Get up close and personal. Encourage employees to share their frustrations and concerns, listen to and evaluate those concerns, and find solutions. Show empathy, show that you hear and understand them and always! have face to face meeting. Ask them what matters for them and make them feel involved in the decision making process. Make them feel valued and appreciated in the organizations. Your employees are your main assets for a successful change. Let them know that. Make them feel that. Show them why they matter.

Give your employees opportunity for growth

Use the time of change as a great opportunity to put together forums, project teams, seminar, workshops to help your employees grow and learn throughout the process. Get them involved in shaping the future. This can be a good chance to observe skills in your employees that maybe you were not aware before. Reward you champions of change. Adapting to change isn’t easy. But it’s made a little bit easier by champions of change, encouragers and leaders, within the team who step up to the plate when the going gets tough. Have you noticed certain employees going above and beyond to help others adjust to a new transition, share their knowledge, and support their teammates? Publicly reward those employees with work-from-home Wednesdays, lunch with the C-Suite, kudos at your all-hands, or however, you see fit. The reward is not what matters; expressing genuine gratitude to your employees is.

Encourage Mental Health Days and Vacation

Any major change in the workplace can mean significant stress for your employees (which often leads to poor performance and employee burnout). In fact, stress over business changes has been found to lower the average employee’s performance by 5% Having a manager who understands the burden change places on their employees and who encourages them to cope with that stress in healthy ways can not only prevent employee burnout but can also promote company loyalty and a sense of camaraderie during transitional periods.

Encourage your employees to take advantage of their vacation and mental health days. Although it can sometimes be hard to step away from your work, set an example by doing the same. You will be amazed by the positive results that a clear mind can bring to the workplace.

Delegate Tasks

In the midst of a major workplace change, the need for new roles to ensure a smooth transition will likely emerge. You don’t have to face that beast of burden alone. In fact, you shouldn’t. Evenly distribute the delegations of tasks associated with change among your colleagues, and publicly announce these new roles. This will give everyone a personal investment in ensuring the success of the change and create a shared sense of having some skin in the game.

Publically Post Metrics and Goals

Change in the workplace is hard enough without having to waste countless precious hours tracking down information, instructions, and resources necessary to successfully adjust. Some technologies, such as knowledge sharing platforms, can even enable your organization’s leaders to post directions, processes, and helpful resources to ease into new transitions, conduct surveys, ask and answer questions, and easily identify and reward champions of change. When your goals are easy to find and centralized, your team doesn’t have to waste time searching for important documents.

As your organization evolves, the technology and processes your organization relies on evolve with it. It’s easy for leaders to get so caught up in the excitement of this evolution that they forget to bring everyone on board with them. So don’t forget to pause, communicate, and effectively manage change within your organization. Your employees and your business will thank you.

And last but not least… Always come back to the organizations’ core values

Why did you started in the first place? How is the change that you are about to do align to your initial mission and values? How will the change impact on your culture? Why did your employees chose to come and work for you? Why should they still do? How can this change create a career path for them in which they can bring more value to the organization and do more of what they are good at doing? What can you do to build trust and credibility during the process of change so that people will follow your lead? Take time to answer all of these questions before, during and after any transitional change that your company is undertaking. They can make the difference between a successful change process or a very painful one.

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