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Linking Change Readiness to Employee Wellbeing – An Evidence Based Review

We’ve been working with UWE Psychological Sciences in Bristol for a number of years now. One of the most recent research projects we’d like to share (by David Peters as part of his MSc in Occupational Psychology) considers the link between change readiness and employee wellbeing. Given recent events, wellbeing at work has come into sharp focus (rightly so in our opinion) so this research is especially relevant for these times. We do hope you find it useful and many thanks to David for a great piece of work.

“The members in organisations can be either key for accomplishing change implementation success or the greatest hindrance to its success” (Smith et al., 2002).

What is Change Readiness?

Change readiness is how prepared an organisation is to experience change. This can be change of any level, of any size and with any goal. What change readiness assessment aims to do is examine how prepared an organisation is for the change they wish to implement. This allows for more appropriate processes to be put in place to effectively implement the desired change. For example, the assessment may help in identifying certain negative perceptions or beliefs about the change that are widely held by groups of employees, thereby causing them to disengage or resist it in some way. The insights gained can then be used to establish ways to mitigate the effect and therefore increase engagement, making the change process easier for everyone involved.

This report aims to help its readers understand the impact change readiness assessment can have on outcomes and goal achievement in organisational change. In particular it will discuss employee wellbeing and how this can impact both the success of organisational change and also be impacted by its successful implementation. Employee wellbeing is fostered by a number of factors including communication, sufficient training and social support. This report will answer two key questions: how is employee’s wellbeing linked to positive outcomes after organisational change? And how can change readiness assessment help improve outcomes by improving wellbeing?

A global trend – in the wrong direction?

First of all, it is important to understand that there is a global trend of organisations implementing change the wrong way. Mosadeghrad and Ansarian (2014) conducted a review of over 56 studies investigating what barriers block successful change implementation. Human resources problems were the most frequently mentioned barrier to successful change implementation. This included insufficient education and training, lack of employee involvement, employees’ resistance to change, lack of recognition for success and fear of losing jobs. What this study highlights is that when employee wellbeing is not made a priority there are many potential barriers stopping successful change implementation. The opposite is found in organisations where employees have higher levels of wellbeing. Battistellu et al. (2014) found that employees who have higher levels of wellbeing are more likely to be equipped with the tools to help their organisation change successfully. Simply put, organisations where employees report positively when questioned about their wellbeing tend to have more positive outcomes after change.

Studies suggest that organisational change is often associated with negative impacts. Bryson, Barth and Dale-Olsen (2013) conducted a study investigating the impacts of organisational change on 13,500 employees from over 1000 organisations. They found that organisational change was associated with increased job-related anxiety and lower job satisfaction. This was replicated by Smollan (2015) who found that organisational change was experienced alongside an increase in psychological demands, a higher workload, uncertainty and a loss of social support from supervisors and colleagues- particularly during the early stages of organisational change. In concordance with this, Di Fonzo and Bordia (1998) found that one of the most difficult parts of the process of organisational change is the uncertainty associated with the experience and the outcomes. This uncertainty was found to be firmly linked to employees’ wellbeing and security in themselves and their role. Many other studies have found organisational change to be linked to a sense of uncertainty which can lead to a lessened sense of control and in turn psychological discomfort, intention to leave their organisation and job dissatisfaction (Bordia et al., 2004; Paulsen et al. 2005; Rafferty & Griffin, 2006). What these studies show is that organisational change can be damaging to employees when they are not prepared for the change. Pollard (2001) found that uncertainty is at its highest levels during the anticipation stage of organisational change, being linked to an increase in cardiovascular diseases and psychological health problems. Pollard also discusses how employees are often informed about the change but only vaguely, with little detail formally communicated by management. This poor implementation of change can have significant negative effects on employees because organisations aren’t taking the time to support their employees through the process.

Wellbeing and successful organisational change outcomes – a true win-win?

So, there is evidence for a link between poorly implemented organisational change and employees’ wellbeing. What seems to be especially clear from the research above is that there needs to be a focus at the individual level to support employees through change. Hafar (2014) discusses how Individual Readiness for Change (IRFC) is one of the most significant factors for the successful implementation of organizational change. This was also found by Armenakis et al. (1993), Weeks et al. (1995), Clegg and Walsh (2004), Jones et al. (2005Holt et al. (2007) and Sikh (2011). This large volume of studies showcases how change readiness at the individual level has a great impact on the success of organisational change. This is something that is impacted by employee wellbeing. Ignoring the vital role of individuals in the change process as well as low levels of IRFC, causes difficulties and in some cases failures in implementing many change initiatives. This has been found in total quality management (Meirovich et al., 2006), knowledge management (Rusly et al., 2012) and management information systems (Jones et al., 2005). As stressed in the Smith et al. (2002) quote at the start of this report the members of organisations are key to the hinderance or success of change.

The issues raised above illustrate the impact of employees’ wellbeing on organisational change. Human resources issues act as barriers against successful change and employees’ uncertainty about the change leads to a number of anxieties and negatively impacts implementation. How ready employees are for the change at an individual level is particularly impactful and employees change readiness is associated with successful change implementation (Jones, Jimmieson & Griffiths, 2005). Change readiness assessment can help organisations understand how prepared they are for change and assess what the wellbeing needs of employees are. In doing this the needs of individuals can be met helping make the change process a success. For example, studies have found that support from supervisors sustains more positive attitudes towards change and aids psychological wellbeing during organisational change (Fuchs & Prouska, 2014; Martin et al., 2005; Neves, 2009; Rafferty & Griffin, 2006; Swanson & Power, 2001). Day et al. (2017) and van Emmerick et al. (2009) found that social support acted as a buffer to change related stressors. By assessing what structures need to be put in place to best support individuals, change readiness assessment can improve outcomes after organisational change- prevention being better than the cure. It was also highlighted by Mosadeghrad and Ansarian (2014) that insufficient training and education of employees was a frequent barrier to successful change implementation. This is another area that change readiness assessment can help resolve by helping organisations target, at an individual and more global level, where training is necessary.

A particularly interesting study by Spence (2015), discusses the success of the workplace wellbeing programs, finding that change readiness impacted individual participation in these programs. These WorkWell programmes seek organisational change outcomes in staff behaviour. Spence found that if they are to be successful, they need to explore any ambivalence employees may feel about the change. In this case, change readiness assessment can address this and prevent a lack of participation in change. This is particularly interesting because even something that is set up to improve staff wellbeing can be less successful in its outcomes if they don’t first make sure staff are supported in that change. The studies discussed in this review demonstrate that there is a symbiotic relationship between employee wellbeing and successful organisational change. Often change has the intended consequence of improving employees’ work life, but when change isn’t carried out in the right way it can end up having damaging effects. Change readiness assessment can identify the steps that need to be taken in order to make employees feel prepared for the change. And in doing so, improve their wellbeing, which can then be further improved by the positive impacts of the ultimate change.

Bringing it all together, it seems clear enough from the evidence that the link between employee readiness for change and wellbeing is strong. It’s also clear that improved employee wellbeing is strongly correlated to successful change outcomes and vice versa, so it really is a win-win.

Our intuition and our personal experience tells us that none of this should be a surprise and yet the research also shows us that we find ourselves all too often not paying it enough attention.

Click here for more information on change readiness.