Tips to help employees cope with constant change

Coach walking wounded’ back to productivity

By Sue Boever, RN, PhD
The Benfield Group
St. Louis

Has your hospital undergone any changes lately? If so, look around. You might find an employee like this:

Once enthusiastic on the job, she now spends her shift going through the motions, emotionally disconnected from patients and co-workers. She seems not so much unwilling to connect as unable to. Changes are met with looks of skepticism or resignation. To her, any news is bad news.

Don’t think employees like this don’t want to care about their jobs; they just can’t. After an unending barrage of mergers, cutbacks, and ever-increasing performance expectations, they’ve lost faith in their institutions. They are depleted, powerless. Like a chronically ill person hit with another virus, they have no reserves left to call on.

Can these employees be saved? Is it possible to help them rediscover their power? It is possible if they can be approached like any other chronically ill person, and given the help they need to understand and take control of their condition.

Here are some specific ways to help:

1. Acknowledge the changes your institution has undergone and candidly ask employees what they want from their jobs. Realize, however, that you may not get much of an initial response. Many of these employees have already unplugged their emotions. Their creativity sapped, they may no longer know what they truly want.

However, they may be able to express anger. They have survived by not thinking about their situations, and now you want them to let down their defenses and be vulnerable. The best thing is to be nonjudgmental.

With gentle prodding, many will remember what they want. Some will long for a return to the days when they had the time and the resources to do their jobs "the right way." Others want to know where the organization is headed and what their place and purpose is.

2. Don’t be paralyzed by your own limitations. What can you do to improve employee working conditions and morale? Without the attention and support of top administrators, you may feel powerless to effect change.

If this is the case, you can’t give a colleague what you don’t already have for yourself. But remember, everyone has choices. You may not be able to stop the hospital from merging with another or changing patient protocols, but you can make decisions about the role you want to play in implementing these changes.

Ask yourself the same questions you’re asking other employees. What do you want from your job? Do you want to be in control of your response to change, or do you want to be controlled by it? You can turn anger and numbness around — even your own — when you see that you can make a difference by what you do and how you choose to view a situation.

3. Carve out achievable goals. If you had a patient with a stress-related illness, you wouldn’t expect an overnight cure. You would examine their sleep habits, their diet, and their lifestyle, and then focus on specific goals — perhaps beginning an exercise program — to improve their condition over time.

Take the same goal-focused approach to helping your employees. For example, say morale is low. You can’t give everyone the 20% raise and four-week vacation they might like. However, working together, you can take steps to improve the way they look at and feel about their job. What employees really need is a great coach.

4. Become a coach for cultural change. If you’ve ever played a sport, you know the difference between a so-so coach and a great one. So-so coaches know all the rules and techniques of the game, and think that by teaching them, they’ll produce a winning team. In a hospital setting, they’re the kind who expect great service from employees even as they hammer on the time constraints and cost restrictions that prevent employees from providing it.

The truly masterful coach doesn’t demand anything. The great coach unearths your passions and abilities to do what seems difficult or impossible. The great coach expands your capacity to produce the results you desire.

No matter what your rung is on the corporate ladder, you can become that masterful coach. Invite employees to think outside the box and find their way around constraints. Get them to work together on solutions, and motivation and morale will improve. Suddenly, they have a purpose, again connected with what’s important to them. They have a role in producing the results they desire.

By regaining power in small ways, employees move from the survival mode to one focused on growth, creativity, and red-carpet service.

5. Practice preventive medicine. The healthiest institutions — like the healthiest people — practice preventive medicine. They approach the cultural impacts of a change with the same scrutiny they apply to the legal and financial aspects.

The better an institution can communicate about change and involve employees in the process, the better it can ward off the stress-related problems associated with it. Unfortunately, just as many of us neglect our own health until illness hits, hospitals also often wait until "emergency care" is needed.

Remember this the next time you see one of your "walking wounded" in the hallway or in your occupational health service office. It’s human nature for people to resist change if they feel threatened by it, but change does not have to be destructive and traumatizing. In fact, when framed as opportunity, people embrace it.

It’s never too late for an organization to improve its "health habits" for dealing with change, and you can play an important part.

(Editor’s note: Sue Boever, a former hospital administrator, is a consultant and speaker on how the health care industry can effectively plan, implement, and reinforce change, based on a model she developed to explain the physical, emotional, and physiological effects of change on employees.)