Managing Change

Change and stress are major causes of incidents. Here are some effective strategies to improve EHS and personal performance in turbulent times.

Most people are familiar with the question, "Who's the only person who loves change?" The answer being, of course, "a wet baby!" In lectures and workshops, I ask people their thoughts upon hearing the word change. Most respond that they tend to think negative thoughts ranging from "Will I lose my job, my seniority, my security, etc.?" to "Will this result in more work for me?" to "This isn't fair."

The impact of change on most employees, both line and management, and on safety, health and environmental performance is typically negative. Results include increased worry, frustration, resentment, stress and distraction. These lead to lower productivity and an increased possibility of accidents, injuries and environmental incidents.

Most of us resist change rather than welcome it. We fear that we will lose something. We resist change because we don't like it, don't want it, don't agree with it, don't know what the future will bring and what will happen, are afraid of it, and just don't know how to deal with it.

When change results in downsizing or reorganizing and the loss of jobs, those who are left often resist change because it leads to increased responsibilities. Others feel guilty that they are the survivors and others have lost out. Their guilt and remorse adds more stress. Some, though, may see change as an opportunity to advance. How they handle change depends on perspective, self-image and a belief in their ability to handle it constructively.

Often, what underlies resistance is the belief that if we resist something enough, it will disappear or change. However, it doesn't usually happen that way. Rather, the resistance creates tension, doubt or uncertainty, resentment and fear, and stress. Resistance also is a distracting factor. When distractions occur, so can incidents.

The sources of stress are many, from downsizing to upsizing, re-engineering, incentives, the future, job security, work conditions and environment, restructuring, production pressures or quotas, internal and external competition, personality conflicts, and personal issues and concerns related to organizational or outside issues.

Change and Stress

Resulting challenges for the safety professional and other safety leaders are many. Change and stress are major causes of incidents today, both on and off the job. Fear is rampant! Key questions to determine preventive strategies: What are people afraid of? What supports a fear culture? Are people afraid to bring up unsafe conditions? Are people afraid to report incidents? How does fear effect your EHS culture?

Responses to these questions can help leaders eliminate the kinds of reactions that can increase stress and distractions, cause people to lose focus and open the door to accidents and incidents. Clear, concise and accurate information can help stabilize the atmosphere, even though people may not like the outcomes. It is essential for effective change management to communicate frequently and effectively.

Among the effects of change, fear and stress are fatigue and lowered response time, loss of focus and attention, tight and tense muscles, and conscious choices to take shortcuts or bypass procedures.

Research conducted by Richard Lazarus, Ph.D., showed that stress relates to a person's cognitive appraisal of the perception of a threat of loss and one's capability to cope with that threat or loss. Thus, stress results from what we tell ourselves about our reality or circumstances. Do we accept that reality and believe we can handle our situations constructively?

A study by Kobasa & Maddi on why some people deal well with stress while others do not focused on the question: When an event occurs, am I:

  • Challenged or threatened?
  • Alienated or involved?
  • In or out of control?

The answer is that people who see new situations as threats, who are alienated or who are out of control have a 50 percent greater chance of getting sick! People on the challenge end get involved, feel in control and tend to stay in better health!

So, we ask, if illness can be predicted by these attitudes, can incidents? We believe so, and it is our assertion that organizational changes, often poorly managed, increase the probability that people will feel threatened, alienated and out of control. This, then, contributes to a greater possibility that accidents, incidents and negative health consequences will occur.

Today's safety leadership needs to be sensitive to these issues at all times, but especially during times of organizational change. They need to look for early indicators of attitudes and behaviors that can lead to accidents:

  • Decline in job performance
  • Sloppy work habits
  • Poor housekeeping
  • Irritable, quarrelsome behavior
  • Frequent distractions
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Uncooperative attitude
  • General negativity

Even in growth periods, stress and distractions can be high, so incidents can occur. In a positive sense, stress can help us stay alert to danger or trouble, as well as give us the energy and strength to respond quickly to a stimulus or real threat. Goals and obstacles to overcome help us to achieve.

Today, more than ever, effects of change and stress play a continuing role in EHS performance. Attention and effective interventions are needed. Safety leadership can encourage management to provide resources to assist all levels of personnel in learning to accept and deal constructively with change.

Ask yourself these questions: Am I developing effective strategies to deal with change? Am I allocating the time I need to deal with these issues? Is management allocating the time I need? If not, how can I get the needed support?

During times of change and heightened stress, safety leaders need to be sales people and change agents.

You are in a key position to educate, guide and persuade key decision-makers to take actions necessary to ensure the effective management of this turbulent time.

Some key strategies for effective change management and the minimization of accidents, injuries and environmental incidents:

  • Hire outplacement services when downsizing.
  • Provide EAP services for work and personal problems.
  • Involve employees in identifying and solving unsafe and unworkable situations or conditions.
  • Give people control and power to make EHS improvement changes. (Make sure the structure to approve and implement changes works. Also, make sure there is complete feedback on approval or disapproval of recommendations.)
  • Provide leadership, management, coaching, counseling and interpersonal skill training.
  • Ensure that incentive systems or quotas are not supporting unsafe behaviors and stress.
  • Obtain upper management and corporate support and resources to improve unsafe or stressful situations.
  • Have frequent communication meetings that relate to changes in the organization. Tell people the truth!
  • Train accident investigation teams to handle incidents constructively.
  • Provide holistic stress management skills to all employees that emphasize stress reduction and relaxation, physical fitness, nutrition, time management, self-observation and management, and assertiveness training.

Finally, take care of yourself so you can remain balanced and effective during difficult and stressful times.

Contributing Editor Michael Topf, M.A., is president of The Topf Organization, which can be reached at (888) 41-SAFOR or on the Web at

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