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Coping with work transitions
Life’s transitions can be exciting or troubling, but in either case they almost always produce added stress that can tax your energy level or your peace of mind.
Work transitions are high up on the list of periods in one’s life when care should be taken to be more aware of and proactive about dealing with the psychological impact of the changes you are facing. To learn more, BeWell spoke with Carolyn Mohler Wilson, PhD, talent portfolio manager in Stanford Learning & Organizational Effectiveness.
What transitions do employees experience in the workplace?
Organizations must change to survive and thrive. Naturally, this means that employees will face a variety of changes in their day-to-day work lives — ranging from starting a new work schedule, adapting to new technology systems, cooperating with redesigned policies and procedures — to even more significant changes such as reporting to a new manager, negotiating a change in strategic direction, or moving to a different work location. Other changes that are driven more by the employee’s stage in their career might include navigating broader responsibilities, building new skills, becoming a manager for the first time, or even transitioning from part-time to full-time, or from employed to retired.
What types of emotional, psychological, or physical reactions can employees experience during work transitions, and what work change is the most stressful?
Every person responds to change in a different way: some of us thrive during ambiguity and look forward to new challenges, while others become paralyzed with fear of the unknown. When a significant change occurs, there can be many factors contributing to increased feelings of stress and pressure — including perceived unfairness of the change, frustration due to a lack of communication by leaders, or fear of future changes. In many cases, these thoughts and concerns can lead to a lack of engagement — including lower productivity, distraction, and decreased team cohesion.
Research suggests that the most stressful work transitions include losing one’s job or transitioning to retirement. However, even a conflict with one’s manager or a change in responsibilities at work have been shown to have a negative impact on overall well-being.
If work-related stress is prolonged and goes unaddressed through proper self-care and social support, the likelihood that a person will get sick or exacerbate an existing health condition increases. Seeking out support from colleagues and friends and prioritizing self-care when stressed are two important skills that promote resilience at work.
Since everyone is different, we all experience change in a variety of ways. For many employees, the anticipation of future changes can be very distracting, while others may find that the promise of future change is exciting and may be just what is needed.
So there might be an upside to a work transition? Can people actually thrive during these transitional periods?
Even though it sounds like a cliché, with change comes the opportunity for creating something new. Remembering to keep your mind and heart open to embrace changes can go a long way in helping you cope. Kelly McGonigal, PhD (health psychologist and Stanford lecturer) has published research indicating that our perception of the negative impact of stress is more harmful than experiencing the stressor itself. In other words, if you believe that stress is harmful, stress will have a negative impact on your health. Conversely, if you view responses like a racing heart or sweaty palms as natural biological responses that occur in order to perform a meaningful task, stress can help you become energized during a challenge or a change.
What can the individual employees do to better manage these transitions?
Navigating change at work is to be expected. However, even when you have anticipated certain changes, the uncertainty and stress of exactly how the transition will manifest can influence the way you think and feel about your own productivity and contributions.
You can help yourself by:
- knowing what situations trigger your stress
- actively managing your health with good self-care
- seeking support through your co-workers
- taking advantage of the many resources available to Stanford faculty and staff, some of which deal specifically with work transitions and others more generally dealing with how to cope with change:
Managing Individual Change in the Workplace (Learning & Organizational Effectiveness course)
PSY 39 W – The Upside of Stress (Stanford Continuing Studies)
Lynda.com – log on using your SUNet ID before clicking on course links below:
What is the best way that managers or the administration can communicate that change is coming?
During times of significant change, employees value transparent and frequent communication and the opportunity to share their perspective. Authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath, in their book Switch, highlight that people are influenced by rational, emotional, and situational factors. To follow their guidance, leaders should:
- create communication plans that give clear direction and rationale
- motivate through emotional appeals and visions of the future
- shape the environment to support the change
- involve employees in the identification and roll-out of changes — example: create cross-functional teams or task forces that help to socialize ideas early on to get the buy-in that is needed to start and continue a new direction.