Minimising the stress of organisational change

26 November 2019 - 3-4 minute read

If you’re reading this at work, you may well be sitting at your desk - the same one you sit at routinely every day, unless, of course, you work in an organisation that has adopted a new way of working, such as Agile or Activity Based Working (ABW). In which case, you could be working remotely from home or your preferred café or working as part of a small cross functional agile team.

These new ways of working are being adopted by many businesses and have many advantages, except for one significant hurdle. People instinctively don’t like change; in fact it’s a major cause of workplace stress1. So how can you introduce flexibility and agility  into the workplace in ways that enhance rather than hinder employee wellbeing?

Reasons for workplace stress are well documented in the latest Workplace Wellness Report from Southern Cross and Business New Zealand - and it’s clear that businesses need to do something to address them. The greatest cause of work-related stress for businesses large and small was reported as workload, while for businesses with under 50 people, ‘relationships at work’ was the second greatest stressor. Given those findings, it’s not hard to see the attraction to businesses of trying a whole new organisational approach, such as Agile and ABW, where flexibility and outputs are valued over routine ways of working.

Which brings us back to the Workplace Wellness Report, where ‘flexible working arrangements’ was rated second only to Employee Assistance Programmes as the most common way to support the mental wellbeing of employees.

However, the Workplace Wellness Report also found that for businesses of 50 people and more, the second greatest cause of workplace stress is ‘change at work’. And therein lies the tension. On one hand, flexible work practices can reduce workplace stress by giving employees more control over where and how they work. But on the other hand, it can mean changing their work style, patterns and often desk partners.

Someone who’s well qualified to comment is Vicki Caisley, Chief People and Strategy Officer at Southern Cross Health Society - the country’s largest health insurer and an innovator with its own approach to workplace wellbeing. I suggested we met in her office to interview her for this article, but she no longer has an office, a desk, or paper files; she has a laptop, locker and a mobile phone, and hot-desks around the building as required. In short, she’s walking the ABW talk.

Vicki uses the term ‘agility’ to capture the transformation she’s helping to drive. ‘We need to have agility and flexibility in both our mindset and the way we work, to be able to adapt and move more quickly for our customers. Agile and ABW practices can deliver greater customer value, but the only way to do that is to deliver employee value first.’

The culture change she’s referring to is a three-year journey, which will culminate in a move next year to new premises that are being specifically designed to encourage more agile and flexible ways of working. So how do you go about making such a significant change without stressing your employees? While she points out that every organisation is different and must adapt Agile and ABW to their own unique circumstances, she is willing to share some of her insights into how they’re going about it at Southern Cross.

Having a robust plan: In order to manage the transition, it’s critical to begin by having a really robust plan, then take people on the journey. As Vicki says, ‘it’s the difference between doing it with your people and doing it to your people. It’s natural for people to feel a range of emotions with change; uncertainty, loss, anxiety, disruption. So, it’s a matter of creating space and allowing those feelings to surface.’

Walking the talk: In his paper Agile Management and Employee Wellbeing, Dr Willy A Sussland points out that ‘stress is caused by the distance between the official and unofficial corporate culture.’2 Mindful of that pitfall, Vicki has chosen to lead her team of 60 by example. She started by abandoning her traditional desk and paper filing system, in favor of being 100 percent digital and mobile. So, how did she find the change? Mostly, by breaking old habits - like going to the same desk every day, or printing documents to read them. Her advice would be to take the time to set yourself up properly for success. It takes a bit of effort, but it should be treated as part of your work, and it's time well spent.

Creating new rituals: Rather than policies and procedures, Vicki talks more about ‘rituals and rhythms’. One new ritual that she’s established with her team, is for them to all use Skype Location, saving constant updates whenever their location changes. Given that working remotely is welcomed and embraced, the new ritual reflects an underlying culture of autonomy that favours outputs over hours. By the same token, a regular team check in each morning, which can be done via Skype, is one way to ensure that the upside of being co-located in a physical official space is not lost.

Keeping in touch and connected is vital, so team members can look out for one another and be quick to offer help and support if someone is, in fact, offline due to illness or some other issue outside of work.

Fostering trust: ‘We live with too much guilt in our lives,’ says Vicki. And she’s right. The guilt of being an employee and a busy parent as well. Of having to leave work early to pick up your kids, or work from home if a family member is ill. Instead, Vicki drives a culture of trust, where it’s OK to manage your work around your life’s commitments. Returning to the Workplace Wellness Report again, the second largest cause of absenteeism is ‘caring for a sick family member’. While in any circumstances that’s stressful, having to negotiate with an unsympathetic employer will only compound that stress.

Taking small steps: Vicki recommends taking it slowly and steadily when it comes to embracing agility. ‘It’s about making incremental, long-lasting change through a series of measured steps’.

Avoiding jargon: Workplace change doesn't inherently need to be stressful, argues Vicki, if it’s communicated clearly, and with the right level of consultation and engagement. So, when it comes to Agile, she recommends being clear and consistent on the language you choose. Scrum teams may sound attractive to devotees, but other staff may imagine themselves with their head down, pushing hard against a large and stubborn force - as is the case in rugby. It’s hardly an enticing analogy and may create completely the wrong impression. Being clear about what a scrum team is for example means everyone has consistent understanding.

So, what are the results of the culture shift at Southern Cross? Productivity is up, and Vicki’s team is happy. The greater flexibility provides better work-life balance. The Workplace Wellness Report also identified that outside of work, the greatest cause of stress was relationships. By allowing employees more freedom to manage their work around their lives, it stands to reason that their relationship health, as well as their own physical and mental health, could be significantly enhanced.

But what about those who would prefer to stay at their desk, doing the job they’ve always done, in the same way as they’ve always done it, surrounded by the people they know who are doing the same? They’re often the ones most likely to be stressed by change.

Rationally, they understand the benefits of the change, but they’re more cautious and want to see it working first. Often among them are senior leaders of the business. Why? Because they’re use to the more traditional ‘command and control’ approach to management, and it’s often their roles and working styles that are affected the most.

To Vicki Caisley, it’s natural for some to be more anxious about change in their workplace. But there’s nothing to fear, and a lot to embrace. Perhaps the best example of this is her email signature. Below her name is a line that reads

‘Take life back & make flexibility work – if you receive an email from me outside of normal business hours, I’m sending at a time that works in with my day. I’m not expecting you to respond until it fits in with your day.’

In summary, the Workplace Wellness Report has identified that workplace stress is on the rise. Changing to a new organisational culture that embraces agility and flexibility is an effective way to respond, as it provides employees with more control over their workload - which is their greatest stressor, and more flexible ways of working. While changes at work are also a significant source of stress, the impact can be mitigated if the changes are well planned, well communicated, and well led.

For more information on staff wellbeing, contact Southern Cross and find out about our BeingWell programme.


  1. Southern Cross Workplace Wellness Report 2019
  2. Agile Management and Employee Wellbeing: Dr Willy A Sussland, September 17, 2018
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