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Lead Your Team Managing

Change in the Workplace Stresses Your Employees Out Most

Change in the Workplace Stresses Your Employees Out Most
Credit: RawPixel/Shutterstock

While employers usually enact change to improve the workplace, new research shows it can actually have the opposite effect.

A study from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that organization changes, such as restructuring, budgetary modifications, new IT or human resources systems, or new leadership, can lead to employees who are overly stressed, have less trust in their employers and have a greater desire to find new jobs.

Change is quite common in most workplaces. Half of the U.S. workers surveyed have been, currently are or expect to be affected by organizational changes in the next year.

Employees impacted by change are more than twice as likely to suffer from chronic stress. Specifically, 55 percent of employees experiencing recent or current change reported prolonged stress, compared to just 22 percent of those who had no recent, current or anticipated change. [Looking for job with less stress? Here are the 10 least stressful jobs]

In addition, workers experiencing change were also four times as likely to have physical health ailments – which could be any symptom, including headaches, stiff necks, dizziness or shortness of breath – as those who didn't face any workplace changes. They also ate more and smoked cigarettes more during the workday than they did outside of work.

Mental and physical health issues aren't the only problems organizational change causes. The study found that U.S. workers who reported recent or current change were more likely to have work-life balance conflict, feel cynical and negative toward others during the workday, and have lower job satisfaction and significantly less trust in their employers.

The research also revealed that employees experiencing change are more than three times as likely to look for a new employer in the coming year compared to those with no recent, current or anticipated change. 
"Change is inevitable in organizations, and when it happens, leadership often underestimates the impact those changes have on employees," said David Ballard, head of APA's Center for Organizational Excellence, in a statement. "If they damage their relationship with employees, ratchet up stress levels, and create a climate of negativity and cynicism in the process, managers can wind up undermining the very change efforts they’re trying to promote."

The research found that the negative feelings could be attributed to a level of skepticism employees have in their employer when change is enacted. Nearly 30 percent of all the workers surveyed said they believe management has a hidden agenda for instituting change, with 31 percent saying they believe employers have different motives and agendas for enacting change from what they say publicly. Additionally, 28 percent believe organizations try to cover up the real reasons for changes.

A large number of employees also don't think the changes employers institute will have the desired outcomes. The research found that nearly 30 percent of employees doubted that changes would work as intended and achieve employers' goals.

Ballard said it is important for organizations to have resilient employees who can adapt to change.

"Disillusioned workers who are frustrated with change efforts, however, may begin to question leaders' motives and resist further changes," he said. "To build trust and engagement, employers need to focus on building a psychologically healthy workplace where employees are actively involved in shaping the future and confident in their ability to succeed."

To help employees deal with stress surrounding change, ComPsych, a provider of employee assistance programs, offered several tips:

  • Manage it. There are things you can't control, but you can control your reaction to them. Practice mindfulness and constructive approaches to change at work. For example, if you find yourself worrying, channel that energy into problem solving and planning.
  • Ask for clarification and feedback. If change has left you uncertain about your duties, set aside more time to meet and plan with your manager and others.
  • Surround yourself with positive people. Change in the workplace can bring out negative reactions in people. As much as possible, try not to get bogged down in conversations and interactions with those who may be complaining.
  • Look for opportunities. Change can often open up new ways to learn more skills in your job or to take on responsibility that can further your career.

The study was based on surveys of 1,500 U.S. adults who were employed full or part time or were self-employed.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.