Restructuring such as company closure, outsourcing, off-shoring, sub-contracting, merging, delocalisation, internal job mobility, or other complex internal reorganisations is commonplace to address the challenges of globalisation and cuts to public spending.
Traditionally, the research on restructuring focused on those workers who are laid off and studies showed detrimental effects on their health wellbeing. Those keeping their jobs were seen as “survivors”. Over time, it has become clear, that workers keeping their jobs also experienced negative consequences.
Restructuring has severe consequences in the form of increased sick leave, reduced self-rated health, but also increased use of prescription drugs and alcohol among those keeping their jobs. Other consequences have been reported to be difficulties sleeping and increased cardiovascular mortality. Why is restructuring bad for you? The reasons behind the negative relationship between restructuring and workers’ health and wellbeing can be worsened working conditions.
One of the most significant factors that lead to poor health and wellbeing is job insecurity. Job insecurity manifests itself in two ways. The obvious type is the fear of losing your job. But job insecurity also concerns fears of changes even of you get to keep your job. These are fears about having to work differently, working with colleagues you may not know well or have worked with before, getting a “new” manager or having to do tasks that you are not familiar with, you may have to move to a new department entirely.
Other negative consequences are increased workload if there are fewer hands to do the same job. Restructuring can also lead to reduced trust in management, perceptions of less control over your job and those supervisors and colleagues are less supportive. What can be done to minimise these negative effects? It is not all bad news though.
Much can be done to alleviate the negative consequences of restructuring on well-being. A project carried out in four European countries, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Poland identified three key aspects of a healthy change process. These three key aspects are communication, participation, and support. First, communication refers to being open and honest about change. It involves also being honest about what has yet to be decided. It is better to say “we don’t know yet but will tell you as soon as we know”.
If management does not say anything it is likely to lead to rumours and hearsay. Two-way dialogue is important: give workers the opportunity to ask questions and raise their concerns. Second, participation refers to the active involvement of workers in decision making and deciding how the organisation is going to look like in the future. Of course, workers cannot decide or have a say in everything but it is important to give workers a say and involve them in making changes – and be clear when it is not possible to involve them in decision making. Finally, support is important.
Although some workers have been in the organisation for many years, restructuring means that they may in many ways experience their job and tasks as new. New colleagues and new job tasks can cause worry and it is important to make sure that workers are equipped to deal with the job and any new job tasks. An example of a healthy change process The Danish postal service is no different from any other postal service in the modern world. Fewer letters are being sent and this results in demands to changing the way the postal service works, with rationalisation, frequent reorganisation of postal routes, offering novel services and merging of postal areas.
The decision was made to understand and address the challenges better of the mail delivery workers. A participatory intervention was therefore initiated that aimed to improve working conditions and employee wellbeing through changing the way work is organised, designed and managed, that is changing work practices and procedures. Workers, supervisors and managers decide together how the intervention process should be designed and what work practices and procedures should be changed. In this case, a research team interviewed workers, supervisors and line managers about the most important aspects of their job and on this basis developed a questionnaire that was tailored to the postal worker context.
Restructuring was identified as a major issue and as a result four action plans were developed to address the job insecurity linked to restructuring. The first action plan concerned better communication. The second action plan focused on mail delivery workers who would be temporarily transferred to other delivery.
The third action plan was aimed at giving workers a voice in re-planning of postal routes while the fourth action plan included changing performance appraisals to also include discussions of what the requirements would be of mail delivery workers in the future. The evaluation of the intervention revealed that workers felt less insecure about changes being made to their job compared to workers who did not participate in the intervention but the intervention did not reduce fears of losing their job.
The writer is Director of Institute for Work Psychology, University of Sheffield, UK