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Managing stress in times of change

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 24 Mar 2022

Change can be both positive and negative but as we exit COVID-19 restrictions, the thought of more upheaval in the workplace can be unsettling for even the most stoic of employees.

The impact of workplace stress on employees has moved up the executive agenda in recent years. The pandemic has shone an even greater light on the issue, as people struggled to juggle work, home life and, in many cases, home schooling during the various lockdowns. 

As the world places its hopes on reviving the global economy, more and more leaders are looking to invest and transform their business models to adapt to an increasingly digital world. But with transformation comes great disruption and after two years of distraction due to the pandemic few relish the thought of yet more change in their lives.

Working on transformation projects can often involve extremely long working weeks over a prolonged period of time. For those within the organisation who will be affected by planned changes, but are not broadly consulted, that can give rise to uncertainty, feelings of a lack of control and confusion about roles and duties. Relationships with colleagues can become strained and often break down.

Kathleen Saxton Dip Psych, Global Talent Leader and MD EMEA at consultants MediaLink, says: “Our human ancestors depended as much on social belonging for survival as they did on food and shelter, and when a social environment changes, such as the workplace, it challenges the sense of stability and the brain sees it as a threat – activating the amygdala within the limbic system, more commonly known as our ‘fight or flight’ response. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between real or perceived danger and reacts the same way.” 

Recognising the tell-tale signs of stress at work and/or preparing for incidents of stress-related work can help avoid long-term staff absences and ultimately the failure of expensive transformation projects.

Daniel Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School, says top-down leadership in the context of digital transformation is outdated, and, more importantly, counterproductive. “By focusing too much on control and end goals, and not enough on their people, leaders are making it more difficult to achieve their own desired outcomes.”

Change projects can be precarious at the best of times. Often, they involve major disruption to processes and systems, and increasingly the introduction of new technological innovations. 

Mental health charity Mind recommends developing wellness actions plans as an easy and practical way to help leaders and employees support their own mental health at work. The plans also allow leaders to support the mental health of team members. Mind has three free, downloadable guides for staff in the workplace, working remotely and working in a hybrid environment.

“The key is to help people feel purposeful, motivated, and energised so they can bring their best selves to work. One of the best ways to do this is to adopt the humble mind-set of a servant leader. Servant leaders view their key role as serving employees as they explore and grow, providing tangible and emotional support as they do so,” says Cable, author of Alive at Work and Exceptional.

This type of leadership, Cable says, encourages “the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of followers – to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas”.

Communication matters

If a project is not well communicated, not just to the staff involved, but those who will be affected by the changes, then transformation can fail. Change is ultimately about people, not processes.

“Although the modern-day work manifesto requires leaders to be ‘always on’, particularly during a transformation project, there is a line where it can become mildly abusive. Transformation projects must be positioned to executional teams as short sprints, not marathons. This, in turn, will help psychologically prepare them to withstand the additional workload and strain for a fixed, pre-agreed period,” Saxton says.

Putting the psychology of people at the heart of a transformational programme isn’t necessarily a core aspect of the standard corporate model, but the benefits of doing so outweigh the investment

“Most important is for transformational project owners is to engage their collective team spirit, but also prepare themselves as individuals. During a transformational project, it’s common for a team of leaders to transition from experts to novices in a short space of time as new elements of systems/processes are introduced, and this can create discomfort as it requires a level of introspection and healthy rebalancing of the ego,” Saxton says.

The ultimate benefits of prioritising employee well-being won’t just be a happier workforce, but also the success of expensive transformation projects, leading in turn to improved customer satisfaction, better productivity, increased profits and less burn-out. Leaders will also ultimately benefit from a humbler approach as happier teams will be looking to problem-solve rather than worry.

Future of the finance function

Transformation within the finance function has been accelerated over the past couple of years. How is the role of the finance function changing? What technology is facilitating that change? And what skills are most in demand?

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