Samantha Nichols* was actually relieved when her doctor told her she had breast cancer five years ago. An electrical engineer at an Ottawa-based technology company, she’d lived through five rounds of layoffs, and coping with the changes was becoming unbearable. “I would vent and rehash everything with my husband every night,” Nichols says today. “I was stressed out all the time, even when I was on vacation.”
It was just after the high-tech bubble burst after the turn of the millennium that Nichols’s co-workers began to disappear. “It was nerve-racking to see H.R. come downstairs and take people from their cubicles,” she says. “When the people who’d been laid off came around to say goodbye, you felt guilty because you were staying.”
At first, the company’s senior managers held town-hall meetings to explain what was happening, and even let employees take the afternoon off to help them adapt. But by round three, after all of Nichols’s friends had been handed pink slips, the corporate empathy had stopped. Eventually, her department was cut by 80 percent, and she went from supervising a couple of junior employees to running the entire lab. Morale tanked. “People started just doing their jobs and no more,” says Nichols, “because working overtime definitely didn’t mean job security.”
Then came her diagnosis. Nichols was terrified. She was facing surgery, plus seven months of chemotherapy and radiation. And yet she couldn’t help feeling a sense of release. “I had a legitimate reason to stay away, and no one could call me at home,” she says. “I’m not convinced that the stress at work didn’t contribute to my illness.” Nichols’s case may be extreme, but her reaction isn’t. For those lucky few who actually thrive under stress, change at work can be exciting, a chance to move up the ladder or take on a new project. But for the rest of us, change can cause resentment or even outright panic, says Karen Seward, a workplace health expert at Toronto-based Shepell.FGI, which runs corporate-wellness programs. “We’re creatures of habit, and upheaval at work means we have to start doing things differently,” she says. “It’s the fear of the unknown.”
But change in the workplace is practically unavoidable. So how do you make sure you’re prepared? First off, give yourself time to get your bearings, says Andrée Mercier, a principal with Hewitt Associates in Montreal. Going through an upheaval at work is like grieving. “Initially you feel angry, because the change is upsetting your world,” says Mercier. Then, people often experience phases of denial, understanding and, finally, acceptance. “You’ll start to cope and roll with the punches,” says Mercier.
Savvy employers know that the more they do to help ease the transition, the better. “If people feel that change has been imposed on them and they have no input into the process, that can damage their loyalty to the organization and cause them to disengage from their job,” says Graham Lowe, a consultant in Kelowna, B.C., who specializes in helping companies implement change in healthy ways. “Companies need to be open and honest so that everyone knows what’s coming, even if what’s on the horizon is unpleasant.”
Angela Lee* cringes when she recalls how she handled a major upheaval at work three years ago. She had a job she loved, working as a business manager of two popular TV channels in Toronto. Then, the company restructured. Lee was reassigned to a struggling station and told to deal with a new office, new team and a supervisor who was renowned as a bad manager. She admits she’s partly responsible for what happened next: Try as she might, Lee couldn’t let go of her anger, and she stomped sullenly around the office for months. To compound her problems, Lee’s new manager barely acknowledged her. “We had a standing biweekly meeting, and she missed it 90 percent of the time,” says Lee. “To be fair, though, I wouldn’t have wanted to meet with me either.” Eventually, Lee snapped out of her sulk, but it was too late. “The lack of attention from my boss drained my enthusiasm,” she says. “One negative thing became all-encompassing.”
When things get this bad, don’t be afraid to quit. “Keep remembering why you joined the organization,” says Mercier. “Ask yourself whether, given all the changes, you’re still getting something of value out of the job, even if the context has changed.” If not, polish up your resumé and hit the pavement. Lee did just that. But at her new job, she faced yet another upheaval: Both of her bosses quit within a week of each other, leaving Lee and a colleague in charge. Luckily, she was prepared. “One thing I’d learned from my old job was to keep an open door,” she says.
“I was always available to my employees.”
As for Samantha Nichols, she returned to work in January 2005, after completing her cancer treatment. One month later, HR handed her a pink slip. However, the company was soon begging her to come back. Now Nichols is coping with still more change: Last year, her employer merged with another company, and the layoffs have started again. This time, Nichols is not stressed about her future. Instead, she’s hoping for a severance package and a summer off. “What I’ve learned is that your job isn’t your life. If one doesn’t work out, there’ll be another one to take its place sooner or later,” she says. “I’ll never let a job suck my soul again.”