Change is (sometimes) hard to swallow

When large changes in organisations are planned, the necessity of supporting Change Management activities is discussed more and more often. Reason being, that although the discipline of Change Management has been discussed for more than 50 years already, with an abundance of literature (Amazon lists over 69.000 books on Change Management), as well as numerous studies on this topic many change projects have not achieved the desired results. Critical voices argue that although all of this might be true, a “return on change management” based on full costing has not yet been calculated by anybody.

A study of the University of Aalborg in Denmark provides new insights to this question. It addresses the relationship between organizational change and employee health. In a long-term study, six years of data of 92.860 employees of the 1.517 biggest Danish organisations was examined. The number of stress-related medication prescriptions (to treat insomnia, anxiety, or depression) was put into relation to changes within organisations.

The results convey a clear message: The correlation between organisational changes and the prescription of stress-related medication is evident. Furthermore, the results depict increasing negative effects on the psychic well-being of employees with growing complexity and intensity of changes within organisations. Surprisingly, changes to improve cooperation/coordination proved to be especially “harmful”. The authors assume that the reason for this is the multi-dimensional spectrum of consequences for the employees, like the increase in demand for networking and additional communication channels between different and before less integrated areas / divisions of the organisation. This prolonged adjustment process could lead to frustration, uncertainty and decreasing productivity.

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It is argued, that change-related impacts of stress, as well as possible side effects of therefore taken medications lead to employees being less productive and less alert. Furthermore, this could bring about an increased number of das of sick-leave and even higher fluctuation.

Conclusion: Changes are generally difficult to digest for organisations, amongst others, because they can be hard to swallow for the employees. There is much to suggest that an active Change Management could at least mitigate these negative effects and thus reduce the “costs” of changes. It would be interesting to examine these correlations in other European countries. It could be suspected that similar, if not even more significant patterns would occur.

Dahl, M. S. (2011). Organizational change and employee stress. Management Science, 57(2), 240-256