Coping with Drastic Changes in Modern-Day Workplace

By Atlas, Steve | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 22, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Coping with Drastic Changes in Modern-Day Workplace

Atlas, Steve, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

In some point in our working lives, we may have to go through change, whether corporate reorganizations, mergers, downsizing or layoffs. Even if we don't lose our own jobs, co-workers and friends may be fired; we may be transferred or reassigned to a lower-level job. How can we preserve our sanity during these difficult times?

Instead of panicking or lashing out with blind emotion, perhaps we need to accept the reality that any type of change results in feelings of grief and loss. By acknowledging these feelings and finding ways to navigate our way during this challenging period, we can begin accepting our loss and move on gradually to a new life (on the job or outside of work).

John Shep Jeffreys, a Columbia, Md.-based psychologist specializing in treating grief-related problems, is the author of "Coping With Workplace Change: Dealing With Loss and Grief" (Crisp Publications, 1995).

Because of Mr. Jeffreys' experience in helping organizations and individuals (both displaced employees and survivors) deal effectively with their loss and grief during reorganizations and other workplace changes, I asked him to answer six questions confronting many readers of this column.

Q: When I hear there will be downsizing in my organization, how can I deal with my own fear and uncertainty and avoid blind panic?

A: First, get the facts. Don't rely on rumors. You'll get upset - and maybe for no good reason.

Understand that the traditional psychological contract between employer and employee - which was based on loyal, devoted work rewarded by job security and promotion opportunities - is dead.

The new psychological employer-employee contract is based on economy and efficiency. The employer's goal is getting a specific job done within a specific time, as inexpensively as possible. People are expendable, and nobody owes anybody anything.

This new attitude may mean reorganizations, outsourcing and other organizational changes that may disrupt continuity or our expectation of ongoing work in a particular job.

Begin looking at yourself as an occupational specialist, not an organizational affiliate. [For example,] instead of thinking, "I work for Bell Atlantic," tell yourself, "I am a training specialist."

By changing your belief system to identify with your occupation, you can change your picture of yourself and realize that you can do this work for a different employer.

[The formula in Mr. Jeffreys' book is change equals loss equals grief. But you can also add growth.]

Q: How can I help co-workers who are being laid off or downsized, without going to pieces myself?

A: Listen without giving advice.

Talk about what they bring up.

Ask about their feelings.

Stay connected. Don't avoid co-workers who are leaving.

Help co-workers start the change process in any small way. Help them with moving things, putting new names in a Rolodex, obtaining new organizational charts, and saving some visual part of the old system as they move on (such as an old logo or photos).

Q: If I am being affected by downsizing, or either being transferred or demoted to a lower-level position, how can I use Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of loss to cope and come out OK? What should I expect and what can I do?

A: First understand that it is essential to complete the normal grief process. This requires addressing each of the "Four Tasks of Mourning," as described by Harvard psychologist J. William Worden. Here are the four tasks of mourning, and a few suggestions for effectively managing them.

Task 1: Accept reality.

Task 2: Give yourself permission to cry and be angry.

Task 3: Adjust to your new status. Assess your skills and determine which ones are marketable and which require new training.

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