What You Can Do to Lessen Employee Anxiety During Changing Times

Studies have shown that employees who are protected from change are especially stressed when change does occur, which creates a less open work environment.

Companies that have a history of good communication with their employees have higher retention, positive morale, and greater productivity than those who remain tight-lipped. Further, companies that expose employees to measured change over time foster the ability for employees to better handle more significant changes down the road.

Are you thinking about what your employees are going through?

Now is the time to consider your communication with employees. How can you be more supportive, honest, and upfront with your team members? Engage your employees so that they are motivated and secure and therefore increase the company’s profitability, morale, and reputation.

Communicate with your people. Recognize stress. Teach adaptation.

* There are four stages that represent employees’ reactions to change, and there are tips that leaders can use along the way:

  1. Shock. Good managers prepare employees long before shock hits (therefore reducing its impact on the organization):
    • Change work processes whenever you see real opportunities for improvement
    • Give people periodic reassignments that force them to learn new things and to deal with new situations
    • Use stretch goals to encourage flexibility and greater effort
  2. Defensive retreat. Even with preparation there will be denial and potential shut-down when change occurs. Here are some pointers for addressing this:
    • If people have had the anchors of their work lives yanked away, find new ones for them to latch onto in new roles or in new work groups.
    • Provide opportunities for people to vent their feelings. Respond non-defensively, keep your cool, and do your best to smoothly handle the pressure.
    • Be a good listener, but avoid trying to sell them on the idea that things are actually better for them since they are not ready to hear this.
    • Find creative ways to solve problems and help your employees manage stress:
      • Help people connect to others under new circumstances: group activities, lunch meetings, or outings.
      • Be willing to take risks and try out new ideas.
      • Be willing to adjust priorities to changing conditions.
      • Demonstrate enthusiasm for and commitment to long-term goals.
      • Actively participate in the change process.
      • Make clear-cut decisions to keep people moving forward.
  3. Acknowledgement. Once employees accept that change is inevitable, they may gain a difference perspective and approach the situation with objectivity and more clarity - and that’s your chance to take more risks as those employees are more open to exploring the pros and cons. You can help in several ways:
    • Continue to be a sounding board for complaints and questions. Ask “how do you feel about this?” to get a read on an employee’s emotional state. Now you can begin to talk about the benefits of the new state.
    • Build further on the “anchors” and group cohesion that you established in State Two. Talk about what will remain the same.
    • Encourage people to try new things and to take some risks. Ask “what could we do about this?” Each risk that succeeds will build confidence and lead people toward Stage Four.
  4. Acceptance & Adaptation. Most employees will eventually accept the new situation and adapt to it. Others may transition to different jobs. Still others will not adapt, and their performance will suffer. As a leader, you can:
    • Keep working on group dynamics. Keep in mind that people are generally more concerned with how they fit in with the group than with the tasks they’re given.
    • Try to understand what each person needs to feel a sense of accomplishment. For each person, find that special talent and give him or her an opportunity to use it and to earn recognition.
    • Shift the focus from feelings to action.
    • Be prepared to “outplace” people who cannot or will not fit into the new situation. These individuals will slow performance and breed negativity throughout their team.

* We summarized and modified the four stages and their corresponding pointers from a Harvard Business School work called Managing Change and Transition, with content drawn from Chapter 6, “Helping People Adapt: Strategies to Help Reduce Stress and Anxiety.”

What we’re suggesting may seem overly simple and obvious, yet these are the actions that leaders often overlook.

Take some time to evaluate how well you’ve communicated and created a culture that helps employees embrace, adapt, and deal positively with chance and uncertainty.