Home » Business Monthly » Major change at work can trigger loss and grief. Organisations must accept this

Major change at work can trigger loss and grief. Organisations must accept this

There is hardly an organisa- tion in the world – big or small – that doesn’t have to adapt to changing circum- stances. the  pace  of  development in technology, the quick pace at which new rivals come on the scene, even the rapid turnover of leaders, all require shifts in the way things are done.

But it’s never easy to steer peo- ple through change. and, inevitably, there’s resistance.

so how can organisations man- age it in a way that gets them the outcomes they want?

the default when things don’t go well is to blame employers for being resistant to change.

this  may  be  convenient,  but  it doesn’t deal with the real issues.

Over the last few decades organ- isations around the world have been pushed into large-scale changes, such as downsizing, outsourcing, mergers and acquisitions, or restruc- turing.the success rate in large scale changes is around 20%.

Change is inevitable. But forced change is emotionally more intimi- dating and disturbing than is gener- ally assumed.

this  predisposes  employees  to be negative about it. What’s very often missing when organisations announce major change is that they don’t recognise this.

In fact, they should be concerned with issues such as loss, emotional trauma, grief and mourning.

Leaders, managers and change consultants have a great deal to learn about the ways in which employees’ experience change and the sense of loss they suffer. Change has little chance of success unless the severity of loss is acknowledged, grief is enfranchised and mourning is encouraged.



Work is central to many people’s lives  and  their  identities. therefore,

forced changes to jobs or work struc- tures are experienced particularly intensely.

People become emotionally attached to things, the more import- ant these things are, the more indi- viduals want to hold onto them. the awareness of loss is therefore much more profound and creates more anxiety.

any change involves some sort of   loss.  there   are   tangible   losses like loss of income when a person is retrenched or downgraded. and

there are abstract losses such as loss of control, status or self-worth.

For the most part, the deeply felt emotional losses are ignored when dealing with change or in debates about resistance to change.

Most studies about corporate rationalisation, focus mainly on costs and the performance of the survivors.

Where emotions from change are studied, the focus tends to be on the loss of a job. But the subjec- tive losses and subsequent emotional experiences of individuals tend to be underplayed.



Profound loss is associated with grief – a deep sorrow that causes piercing distress. although the expe- rience of grief is common, there are marked differences in how intensely and for how long people grieve.

It’s more intense when there’s greater degree of attachment to what was lost.

Wthe  rational  size  of  the  loss isn’t relevant – merely the emotional intensity with which the individual experiences the loss.

Organisations tend to be indiffer- ent and reluctant to acknowledge the intensify of loss felt by individuals.

Often demonstrating, or talking about emotions is taboo, and when it happens it’s interpreted as resistance to change.

the   indifference   and   careless- ness of executives can compound the experience of emotional trauma. In the minds of many, grief is associated with weakness, cowardice or even hysterical exaggeration.

as a result, many employees fear that they’ll be seen as weaklings or disloyal if they show their hurt and pain. When grieving is denied or dis- couraged, repression or suppression is the only alternative.

this  leads  to  individuals  being unable to engage with change, and can even cause other pathologies.

Research has shown that restruc- turing, especially downsizings, instils in affected people intense fear, anxi- ety, distrust, perceptions of betrayal and rejection.

these tend to transpire into lack of focus and higher rates of absentee- ism and turnover. and occupational injuries and illnesses are much high- er at workplaces that goes through transformations.

a study titled “Healing emotion- al trauma in organizations” describes how a group of executives were negatively affected. this is after they went through a restructuring that logically should have caused no dis- tress. But they were unable to look forward to plan their strategy as they remained stuck in emotional trauma of the restructuring.


What can be done

Executives can’t expect employees to leave their emotions at the door when they come to work. they must embrace people’s sense of loss and help them adapt to it if they want change to be successful.

Organisations must build sys- tems that ensure grieving and mourn-

ing are allowed so that employees can heal and move on through and past the change.

to   ease   the   pain   that   comes from change, loss and pain must be publicly acknowledged and mourned in the organisation. sharing destig- matises the loss and grief as the bereaved employees find validation from peers and managers through their narratives.

this   must   happen   in   a   safe space, without logical explanations, platitudes or superficial suggestions. In the case study, a group of execu- tives felt healed and prepared for the future after the opportunity to tell and share their stories.

the anomaly is that nothing has changed rationally or logically to their situation, but psychologically they would be able to move on.

If safe and constructive environ- ments are created, employees won’t find it necessary to vent their emo- tions in the passages, around the water cooler or in tea rooms.
The author, Mias de Klerk, is Professor: Organisational behaviour, human capital management, leadership development, Stellenbosch University