Our people are our greatest assets. So, how can we, as business leaders, make sure we’re continuously supporting and protecting our employees’ mental and physical health throughout times of rapid business change and uncertainty?
We spoke to business psychologist Sue Firth, to explore this idea and find out what impact business change has on employee stress levels, why it’s important to manage this, and how businesses can go about doing that.
Sue is a professional and business psychologist, performance coach, and professional speaker. She’s also been one of our fantastic, knowledgable and experienced Vistage Speakers for almost three decades - and is hosting a Vistage webinar on strategically managing change on October 12th.
“My talks are largely targeted at executives and emerging leaders,” Sue says. “People in the audience often get a light-bulb moments where they want to come to talk to me and ask me to come into their business.”
What’s driving business change right now?
The cost of living crisis, pandemic, labour shortages, and political/economic uncertainty, are all having a significant impact on businesses right now. But what are the key drivers for business change?
“There are several. But mostly what we’re seeing is this post-Covid impact - which probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise,” Sue explains.
“It’s fantastic that we want to let Covid go and that we go back and flood straight back into business and do our best to get back to normal. But the impact of it, unfortunately, is still being felt everywhere.”
The key drivers for change that businesses are facing in a post-Covid world fall into three camps, according to Sue:
- Staff shortages
- Skills shortages
“These things have always been a bugbear for any leader,” says Sue, “but they’re particularly profound at the moment and we’re seeing a lot of business change around them.
“Being in business can feel like being on a roller coaster, and you can get very fed up of having the same difficulties,” Sue says. “So, this is where enabling an understanding of what helps some people tick and also spending time gauging the staff as much as possible is going to pay off.”
Why it’s important to look after your people during times of change
“Businesses who adopt very fast and rapid change aren’t doing anything wrong,” Sue explains. “Fundamentally, that’s what their culture is about.
“But the difficulty is, that puts people under pressure when they’re likely already going through a lot of personal and probably professional changes of their own.”
For example, workers today - having just been through a global pandemic, witnessed a war beginning in Ukraine, and are likely worried about or experiencing the impacts of climate change - are now facing what’s likely to be the biggest cost of living crisis of their lifetime. That’s without the pressures of everyday life added on top.
And business change, when managed badly, only adds to that stress.
“Business change tends to bring even more stress into an individual’s life,” Sue explains. “This then pushes people out of their comfort zone and they often have to operate there for prolonged periods of time - which can have adverse effects.”
First, this stress can exacerbate any physical or mental conditions an individual already suffers from. Second, it can greatly impact an individual’s performance and ability to do their role well.
“As a result, some people might struggle to meet expectations or don’t really know what ‘good’ looks like. Others might be working extremely hard or at risk of burnout. Others still might struggle to meet all sorts of targets that have been set for them.”
But change doesn’t always have to be a negative and stressful experience.
“Stress and business change are two sides of the same coin,” Sue says. “If you get the one right, you’ll reduce the amount of discomfort in the process.
“And that’s really the reason why strategically managing it and understanding people better usually enhances the process.”
What should businesses do to help employees?
“People need three things: security, stability, and consistency,” Sue says. “And change, by its very nature, is likely to upset all three of those.”
But that doesn’t mean businesses should lose hope and think that they need to avoid change just to keep things stable, or that they can’t give people security because they can’t promise that they’ll be in business forever.
“It isn’t so black and white,” Sue says. “Instead, it’s about tweaking, adapting and adjusting your processes and systems and the way you handle people so they can be brought along the ride.”
So, how can businesses do that?
According to Sue, tweaking processes - especially particularly large and significant ones - into bite-sized chunks will help minimise the impact of change on employees and help give them more stability and consistency.
“It’s the size of the bite-sized chunks, to be frank, that makes all the difference,” Sue says. “If you bite off too much, then people have to wait too long to know where they’re at or how well they’re doing. That tends to mean they’ll drift and get stressed.
“It’s also important to consider how frequently you’re communicating with employees, how collaborative and inclusive you are, how transparent you are with where you’re at - and the difference that’s making, and how often you’re thanking and rewarding people.
“As a result, people will be able to see those bite-sized chunks being achieved.”
Who’s responsible for helping employees manage change?
“The responsibility falls to leadership - and it always will,” Sue says.
Leaders are responsible for making strategic decisions about what the business needs to do, the steps it needs to take, and in what kind of timeframe. And, as the people that are driving change, they should be aware of how to strategically manage it for the benefit of those below them.
“The problem is, leaders in the executive team tend to be very naturally resilient people who are driven and in control of the situation. This enables them to pivot and flex very quickly.”
The same isn’t always true of each and every employee in the business. Because of this, it’s important for their communication strategy to follow through and trickle down to the rest of the business.
“Managers further down in the business need to really get what those key messages are and enhance the way those are expressed. This is to enable the rest of the workforce to pick them up as quickly as possible and run with them.”
When that doesn’t work well, businesses are likely to start getting lots of resistance from disengaged employees that are going along with the change just because they have to - rather than being engaged and included throughout the process.
“That’s always going to be the case, to be frank, and you can’t stop that completely. But you can reduce it, Sue says. “The leadership and management team at all levels are really the people who drive it.”
Why should you tune into Sue’s talk?
Sue’s upcoming talk on October 12th will explore everything that we’ve covered here in further detail.
“I’m going to talk about the psychological processes that are really part of the way people tick.
“To some degree, the ‘psychological contract’ - which is an unspoken, unwritten set of rules around what it means to come to work - has changed. First, I want to talk about what that contract is now, how it’s being influenced, and how that is then affecting businesses.
“Second, I want to talk about the size of the bite-sized chunks I mentioned earlier, so that people are helped to come along on the journey.
“The third thing is to say that it’s ok for leaders to struggle and not have the answers. But in the process of helping people hear that message, how you express that is always the best way to keep them on board - rather than to unreasonably scare them.
“I would love people to tune in,” Sue says. And she’d also love for audience members to come prepared.
“I suggest that you have your biggest challenge in relation to change in mind when you join the webinar. I can then personalise the talk and do my best to help you tackle that challenge.”
Thanks to Sue for taking part in this interview.