Overcoming the overwhelm that change can bring

The subject of mental health and wellbeing has been discussed more widely than ever in the last twelve months. Our constantly changing world of work – with more technology, people being asked to more with less and an ‘always on’ culture, can lead to overwhelm and stress for many people. When change hits in the workplace – introductions of new ways of working, redundancies or even the accumulation of constant change, the impact can create mostly negative overwhelm and stress for people across an organisation.

Image from energepic, Pexels

Image from energepic, Pexels

From what I’ve seen (and personally experienced), people can be overwhelmed by one or more of a number of emotions such as sadness, frustration, anger or fear. The feeling that things are not in their control or the uncertainty that change can bring for example, can trigger these responses.

The sad realisation is that in many organisations, this response has been normalised as the way to do things. If you can do more and try to ‘manage your stress’ over long periods of time, then it’s often a badge of honour. Sounds old school but it’s definitely still out there.

If people do not feel brave enough to speak up or get help to change their responses to the situation, there are three ways left to deal with it – fight it (face it), flight (walk away from the problem, either by leaving the organisation or making themselves absent) or freeze (doing nothing). None of these is a great solution – and definitely not what anyone wants.

What does overwhelm mean for you – and your organisation?
As the brilliant Ann Hawkins says, you need ‘re-creation time’ to be at your best, so literally time to re-create and give your emotions some air and give your brain some space to think. If you have no opportunity to re-create, you’ll have no room for new ideas and potential ways of tackling the problems that might be causing the overwhelm in the first place.

For organisations, this means that poorly managed change - where there is little or poor communication, or long gaps between communication messages being shared - can quickly create what I call a ‘lockdown’. This is where I see people individually or in small groups, trying to absorb and make sense of facts and information about change, without the space to think about what’s happening and how to process it all. They have no room for ideas or innovation as they are subsumed with their responses to change.

I’ve also seen this in projects, where new programmes begin or there is a change in strategy or tactics. Without strong leadership and direction – even in the absence of facts or information – you can see overwhelm kicking in.

And, let’s not forget whatever people might have going on in their personal lives.

What can trigger it?
In my experience, negative overwhelm in a work-related context comes about in response to an overload of work or a change such as how things are done or something completely new such as a new job or project. For me, adapting to new or different environments can also be a trigger – so working in teams that rely heavily on email for example, can create overwhelm. People will try to respond, read and absorb information and clear out their email to keep up with the latest information. Smart phones don’t help.

So, what can we do to help with overwhelm?
Over the years, I’ve added big – and small – things that can make a difference to individuals and organisations looking to introduce change, to my toolkit. Here’s a few things that I’ve seen work, on repeat:

  • Plan effectively for change with a robust communications plan. The greater certainty you can give people about when you are going to communicate (even if you don’t have all the information) so they have a level of certainty and control, will help. Remember – whatever your change is bringing to someone’s work life will spill into their home life, especially if we’re talking about job or location changes. People can’t just leave these feelings and emotions at the door.

  • If you’re setting up a project or programme – spend some time thinking about wellbeing in your own project or change team. Often, these teams are brought together to deliver but perhaps not knowing each other very well or the way they work. It’s still rare but I’d love to see more teams make time to talk about this this in the early days of the project – how are you going to look out for each other? How are you communicating between each other so you can avoid ‘floods’ of emails for example? How do you help one another get up to speed? How do you make it OK for people to talk about stress or overwhelm if it comes up? Do you know what signs to look for and how to listen well? The more we can normalise this, the better.

  • In the same vein… establish rules of engagement, especially for larger project teams. I’ve developed these when I’ve worked with project teams, giving guidance around how the team uses email for example – in the same way you’d have brand guidelines. Keep them in your shared project space and work to keep one another accountable

  • Think about what’s needed so that people feel they have the opportunity to voice concerns in a safe environment

  • For yourself… Focus. Fire up Asana, Trello or write down what’s happening so you’re not trying to hold it all in your head. But, try not to get overwhelmed by your ‘to do’ list. I split things into urgent and important and ‘the rest’. Switch off email, put your phone away to resist the temptation to check social media. Focus on one thing at a time – we can’t multitask (according to David Meyer at the University of Michigan, jumping between just two tasks increases the time taken for completion by up to 40%). Say no. Switch on your out of office and give yourself some space and time.

  • Talk about priorities. This is sometimes seen as a weakness – that you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing. But sometimes it helps to see the wood for the trees.

  • Think about getting your own control in whatever is going on. Whether that’s making yourself get up from your desk or agreeing with your colleagues that you’ll eat out together for lunch. It can all help create a feeling of control. But don’t go overboard.

  • Give yourself a break. If you’ve been through a period of overwhelm, whether it’s at home or work, you need some time to recover (remember, RE-CREATE).

  • Talk to people. Ask for support. If that’s at work or at home, find your own tribe who are on your side and who you can talk to about what’s happening. They can give you honest feedback and help to put things back into perspective.

I’d love us to focus more on normalising talking about mental health and wellbeing and building healthy cultures inside organisations rather than making heroes of those who try to normalise stress and overwhelm. I’m confident we can do it.

If you’re a leader, project team lead or communicator who wants your organisation to improve wellbeing and reduce overwhelm for your people during change, I’d love to talk. I can help using people-focused communications, coaching and engagement tools.