When Morneau Shepell vice-president Paula Allen set out to research the link between organizational change and absenteeism, she thought the big events – mergers, downsizings, restructurings – might have the most profound impact on employees. Instead, she discovered that more commonplace events such as job redesign can lead to even greater distress.
The human resources consulting firm reported that while an accelerated pace of change is "the new normal" in most Canadian workplaces, it is also a major source of anxiety – to the point that 46 per cent of 1,018 Canadian employees recently surveyed by the firm had taken time off work or noticed other employees booking off sick following workplace changes.
Mergers, layoffs and team restructuring can all take a toll on employee well-being and productivity. However, Morneau Shepell found that job redesign is the change most likely to lead to sick leave. Employers generally recognize the need for communication and support around the major moves, but not so much the need for support around changes that directly affect employees' day-to-day work lives, the firm reported.
"The interesting thing about job redesign is that very often it feels out of somebody's control," Ms. Allen, Morneau Shepell's vice-president of research and integrative solutions, said in an interview. "You signed up for something, [now] it's something else."
While change in job function can be positive if it's the employee's choice, Ms. Allen said, "a job redesign typically means that someone else chose the change, how you function, what you do, how you are measured, how likely it is for you to be successful … it's a very personal change," Ms. Allen said.
Employers need to understand that "the more personal the change, the more likely employees are to react to it." That said, a supportive workplace culture can have a strong buffering effect, she added. Clear communication about what the changes will entail, training to equip employees for evolving job requirements and support for those who are struggling can prevent a spike in sick leave when change is introduced.
"We also found that employees were less likely to indicate negative impact to their job performance, [their] view of the company or their own health and well-being after an organizational change when they report a positive and supporting work culture," Ms. Allen said in presenting her research results at a recent mental-health forum in Toronto.
Ideally, mental-health support should be "part of the fabric" of corporate culture, said Sonia Boyle, vice-president of human resources at General Electric Canada.
"We have always had change-management training that we provide to almost all of our employees," said Ms. Boyle, who was also one of the panelists at the mental-health summit. As well, GE Canada has traditionally provided extensive professional development opportunities to help employees stay on top of emerging market demand.
Despite those practices, Ms. Boyle was concerned that "stress was the No. 1 reason for people using our employee and family assistance programs."
So, in the past four years, GE Canada has introduced a number of initiatives. These include specific training for all managers on how to help employees suffering from stress and depression get the support they need without fear of being stigmatized. Managers across the organization also share best practices on how to create a psychologically healthy work environment, Ms. Boyle said.
Their efforts are bolstered by employees who have volunteered to serve as "mental-health allies." They don't act as counsellors, but can provide peer support to colleagues who request information on where to get help with any particular issues they are struggling with, Ms. Boyle said. Employees also have access to resources on "resiliency and coping" strategies.
"We are really seeing a difference. We are seeing a demonstrable increase in the skill level of our managers in being able to deal with employees," and there has been a decrease in the number of people away from work due to psychological claims, she said.
Bill Wilkerson, executive chairman of Mental Health International, a not-for-profit organization he co-founded to promote workplace mental health, said there is growing recognition that "the key elements of a healthy economy and successful business – productivity, competitiveness, service and innovation – rely on the mental health and wellbeing of our people.
"In this digitized economy, most new jobs will demand cerebral not manual skills. This is an economy that puts a premium on cognitive functions and mental performance at every level of the organization," Mr. Wilkerson said in a presentation to the mental-health summit.