In this article, Karina Nielsen, Professor of Work Psychology and Director of the Institute for Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield, shares her thoughts with the Society of Occupational Medicine on protecting employee mental health during restructuring.

COVID-19, Restructuring, Employee Wellbeing and Mental Health

Many organisations are being forced to make difficult decisions around workforce planning as a consequence of the challenges arising from the pandemic including restructuring, redeployment, furlough and redundancies.

It is widely acknowledged that often restructuring fails to achieve its intended outcomes in terms of increased effectiveness and performance. This failure may, at least in part, be explained by the fact that organisations often neglect to consider the impact on employees’ mental health and wellbeing. A recent survey from Mind revealed that half of adults in the UK reported their mental health had deteriorated during lockdown, making it even more important to focus on employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

Survivors are Not Surviving

Traditionally, workers who remain employed after a restructure that has included redundancies have been termed “survivors”. However, a review of the literature has revealed that even without redundancies, employees’ mental health and wellbeing suffer as a result of restructuring. Common problems related to restructuring include employees needing to learn new things as part of their job and higher workloads. Other challenges include an increase in bullying and adverse social behaviours. 

The links between restructuring and poor mental health and wellbeing are clear: Employees who remain in restructured organisations have higher levels of presenteeism, higher levels of sickness absenteeism and report poorer mental health and wellbeing and higher levels of job insecurity.

Managing Restructuring to Protect Employee Mental Health and Wellbeing

The negative impact on employees’ mental health and wellbeing calls for managers and Human Resources to integrate strategies for managing employee mental health and wellbeing in their restructuring processes. Findings from the European Survey of New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-2) suggest that the two major obstacles to managing risks to employee mental health and wellbeing are lack of expertise and lack of awareness among management.

Three key factors can mitigate the negative impact of restructuring on employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

First, communication is important. Employees need to know what is going to happen when and how. It is particularly important to facilitate a dialogue where employees can seek clarity of how the changes will impact their job. Ensuring consistent communication during restructuring is crucial. Line managers are often the first point of contact and providing these with “talk sheets” with Frequently Asked Questions may help ensure a coherent communication about changes. The most effective means to communicate must be carefully considered. In the current pandemic where many employees continue to work from home, information can be posted on the intranet, and communicated through emails and online meetings.

Key to effective communication is to be transparent, open and honest and to ensure consistent communication across all levels in the organisations: individuals, work groups, line managers and organisational levels. It may be necessary to repeat the same information several times, through different media.

Second, support is crucial. Support may include coaching and the identification and analyses of competencies needed to do a job, which has changed. Support includes good quality training that enables employees to take on new tasks, if necessary. As employees return to the workplace, social activities and teambuilding exercises may help employees get used to working more closely together again. Flexible HR practices that allow employees to combine homeworking and office working and paid leave to self-isolate are crucial to ensure work-life balance and reduce financial concerns. A recent report from CIPD shows that there are many forms of flexible working currently not being leveraged by organisations e.g. job shares, annualised hours. Such practices could be used to protect jobs, and have the benefit of protecting mental health.

Third, management need to actively involve workers. One way to do this is to introduce a participatory process where managers and employees jointly identify problematic risks and agree changes to existing work practices and procedures, which are seen to be detrimental to employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Research has confirmed that participatory processes can help minimise employees’ job insecurity. While it is vital that employers consider the mental health of those employees staying in the organisation, providing outplacement support that also equips redundant employees to protect their mental health will be of benefit both to those being made redundant, but also the remaining employees as they perceive departing colleagues have been afforded appropriate support.

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Karina Nielsen, Professor of Work Psychology and Director of the Institute for Work Psychology shares her thoughts on protecting employee mental health during restructuring.

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