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Dealing with Change

Updated Wednesday, 31 March 2021
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about great change. In our Change and Work theme in our Applying Psychology to Work hub we have many rescources to help you make sense of change. 

Anxiety and change

Since the start of 2020, every individual in the world has been impacted by change to some extent. For many people the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a different way of doing things, whether that was simply by washing your hands for longer, not shaking hands with others, working from home, or not being able to work. This theme is about change, dealing with change and the aftermath of changing situations. There is also information about how change affects anxiety, the impact of change in the workplace, and what can be done about this.

In simple terms, change is the process by which something becomes different. It is an inevitable part of life, whether it is a change in a job (moving to a new job, changing to a new computer operating system, moving to a new desk), a change in a relationship (new partner or colleague, death of a family member) or a change in life circumstances (retirement, redundancy, birth of a child, changes to physical and mental health).

Changes can be positive or negative, expected or unexpected, planned or unplanned.

The impact of the change can sometimes be experienced in contrast to the nature of the change itself: a positive change can have negative impacts, and vice versa. For example, a positive change such as business growth and expansion, or changes to a job description, can lead to a negative impact of a massively increased workload, or feeling incompetent about a change of job description.

In contrast, a negative change, such as recession and redundancy, can sometimes have positive outcomes, such as taking up new opportunities to re-train or taking a step towards a new job or career. However, any kind of change (both positive and negative) can be unsettling and can be the cause of anxiety in the workplace.

The changing workplace

There are several forces to change in the workplace, including internal forces such as technological change and innovation, changing company values, the creation of new knowledge, new product development and changing workplace behaviours. There are also external forces driving change, including competition in the marketplace, consumer behaviours, availability of resource and knowledge, and social and political change. 

Change happens for many reasons. It can be gradual developmental change to make improvements to skills, technology or processes that already exist, or it can be transformational where the change is dramatic and is characterised by a radical change to things like the mission, culture, leadership and structure of an organisation.

Change is inevitable, but individuals tend to resist it. There are a few reasons why individuals are resistant to change:

  • Fear of the unknown: individuals want to maintain stability in their current status. While the outcome may be positive and result in an improvement, it is the uncertainty and fear of not knowing an outcome that can lead individuals to object to change. These feelings can be overcome with the use of good decision-making management techniques.
  • Need to learn to do something new: doing something new, or something in a different way, can be uncomfortable and requires effort. Individuals may have spent a long time building up their skills and knowledge and are not happy with the potential impact that this could become redundant and may also be a loss of identity to some extent (i.e., Jo was the expert in programme X, but a move to programme Y will change this).
  • Disruption of relationships: change can cause disruption to stable friendships and working relationships. In long-standing effective teams, change can destroy stable long-term interactions and create feelings of loneliness and isolation in the worst cases. This can be difficult to re-establish.
  • Mistrust: employees can feel that change is being introduced to make them work faster or produce more, or even with the intention of eradicating their job entirely. This can lead to a lack of trust over why the change has taken place, and leads to feelings of threat, defensiveness and reduced communication.

How does change cause anxiety?

Individuals are affected by change in different ways. For many individuals, change can be unsettling, disruptive and threatening. It can be physically and psychologically exhausting. By its very nature, it means that the way that we normally do something changes, and this can have a physical impact (I must travel a longer distance to get to work; I need to work for longer hours to carry out my job) or a psychological impact (I feel out of my depth with the skills I need for my new job; I don’t know who to ask for help; I need to build new relationships with people). Change can cause a feeling of being ‘out of control’ as a new way of doing things emerges. One way of dealing with change is to gain back control, and there are resources in this hub about this.

You can find more information here about wellbeing for work.

Different ways of managing change in the workplace

There are things that can be done to minimise the psychological impact of change on individuals in the workplace. These typically require good leadership skills and effective communication, and include:

  • Clarity and openness of the purpose and impact of change: being clear about the need for change, what will happen, and how it will affect everyone helps to minimise fear and uncertainty. Understanding the rationale for change, and the impact of the change, is effective in reducing ambiguity.
  • Support in acceptance and implementation of change: when change is forced upon an individual it can lead to feelings of anger, distrust, powerlessness, fear and resistance. Therefore, by gaining support for the reason for change, and so to the implementation of change, is an easy way to minimise these feelings, and to avoid resistance to change.
  • Ownership of change: people who take part in implementing change are more likely to make it a success. Participating allows people to discuss issues and ideas and recommend creative approaches towards the implementation of a new way of doing something. Taking ownership of a changing situation reduces the feelings that individuals might have of being out of control.

Change and work resources

The resources on Change and work will help you to understand the different circumstances surrounding change and the psychological impacts that occur due to change. There are also items on:

  • Why lack of control leads to anxiety and what can be done about it, including measures of employee engagement in the workplace and teamwork.
  • Effective leadership and communication in the workplace can help to overcome challenges in turbulent time.
  • Understanding how to deal with uncertainty.

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