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Morale issues are major challenge when jobs change
Merger revealed staff chasm
One of the biggest obstacles to a successful clinical research unit merger is employee morale.
If CR employees are unhappy with the change, their attitudes and work habits suffer, and the organization's efforts will not be as successful as planned.
This is a difficult lesson to learn, says Linda Rice, RN, clinical operations director at the University of Kentucky Clinical Research Development and Operations Center (CR-DOC) in Lexington, KY. The CR-DOC is the result of the merger of two research units.
"We met many times as leaders, trying to make this merger as smooth as possible," Rice says. "I anticipated it going much smoother than it did because I'd under-estimated the staff's sense of professional value."
Whenever there's a merger or change, employees fear the unknown, and this fear should be acknowledged and handled.
"Employees were affronted by losing some of their duties, and they felt it was a loss of their identity," Rice explains. "They had very strong feelings about it, and it took them some time to get over it."
When these morale issues began to bubble over into the workplace, Rice and other supervisors arranged for the merged staffs to meet at a one-day retreat in which they'd learn about the powerful emotions of change and how to deal with them.
The retreat also served as an icebreaker event in which the merged staffs could get to know one another in a more casual setting.
"At the retreat, I intentionally mixed staff from the two units," Rice says.
Attendees were forced to sit next to someone from the other unit, so they couldn't segregate into their old unit cliques as they learned coping strategies for their work transformation.
"We had a human resources person come in and do exercises about change and facing the challenges of change," Rice says.
"We participated in a video about dealing with change that included breakout sessions to discuss the different topics the speaker was presenting," she recalls.
"The speaker used humor as a tool to make his points," she adds. "For the first time since the initial changes were made, many of the staff were able to laugh and internalize the process of change as it related to them."
The video was instrumental in helping the staff learn how to deal with change, Rice says.
"We tried to focus on the challenges of change, and we did team-building activities," says Marietta Barton-Baxter, CCRC, administrative director at the University of Kentucky CR-DOC.
For example, one exercise involved dividing the coordinator's duties task-by-task and placing job titles on a wall so that employees, who were divided into teams, could match job titles to tasks, Rice says.
The teams would decide who should wheel patients down the front lobby and who should ship off blood samples, she adds.
Since the teams included mixed disciplines, nurses who had been coordinators found they couldn't simply say that all of these tasks were their own to do, and eventually team members had buy-in for the job role changes, Rice explains.
"I was totally impressed by the teams as a whole," she says.
On another retreat, the staff watched a video of a motivational speaker who compared employees' reactions to work changes to the experiences of a cancer patient, says Roxane Poskin, BA, manager of participant recruitment and marketing at the University of Kentucky CR-DOC.
"The video was great," Poskin says. "It talked about all of the things a cancer patient goes through to reach the last stage of acceptance."
Although the retreat helped considerably, staffing and morale still needed tweaking over time.
"We have monthly staff meetings to keep people seeing each other face-to-face and talking things through," Rice says.
There have been some studies in which one nurse from each unit was assigned to work together, she adds.
"That's worked out very well," Rice says. "Also, new employees have come on board, and they've been very gregarious and have helped morale, as well."
It also helped morale and helped staff understand what each did when various employees were invited to give in-house talks about their jobs, Poskin says.
"I did a presentation on marketing, and it helped educate our department of what different units did," she explains. "We had each person do a presentation for the whole group."
The talks lasted 30 minutes, and coworkers asked each other questions about their jobs, sometimes revealing good ideas for improvements, Poskin adds.
Other talks came from an operations manager, nurses, and the education and training manager, she says.
These presentations led to more conversations and a greater understanding about what one's colleagues were struggling with and who to go to if one had a problem, Poskin says.
Morale has continued to improve since the retreat, and employees are becoming more accepting of the whole process, Rice adds.
Since the merger took place during the current economic crisis, some of the anxiety was related to fears of job losses, and now those fears are easing, she notes.
"Now they know the worst is over, and people feel a little more at ease now," Rice says. "We've had a lot of business come our way, and employees are seeing that progress, and they're much more positive."