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Major change at work can trigger loss and grief. Organisations must accept this

  • Written by Mias de Klerk, Stellenbosch University
  • Published in Articles

Major change at work can trigger loss and grief. Organisations must accept this

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Employees are often unsettled by change in their organisations. Shutterstock

Mias de Klerk, Stellenbosch University

There is hardly an organisation in the world – big or small – that doesn’t have to adapt to changing circumstances. The pace of development in technology, the quick pace at which new rivals come on the scene, even the rapid turnover of leaders, all require shifts in the way things are done.

But it’s never easy to steer people through change. And, inevitably, there’s resistance. So how can organisations manage it in a way that gets them the outcomes they want?

The default when things don’t go well is to blame employers for being resistant to change. This may be convenient, but it doesn’t deal with the real issues.

Over the last few decades organisations around the world have been pushed into large-scale changes, such as downsizing, outsourcing, mergers and acquisitions, or restructuring. The success rate in large scale changes is around 20%.

Change is inevitable. But forced change is emotionally more intimidating and disturbing than is generally assumed. This predisposes employees to be negative about it. What’s very often missing when organisations announce major change is that they don’t recognise this. In fact they should be concerned with issues such as loss, emotional trauma, grief and mourning.

Leaders, managers and change consultants have a great deal to learn about the ways in which employees experience change and the sense of loss they suffer. Change has little chance of success unless the severity of loss is acknowledged, grief is enfranchised and mourning is encouraged.


Work is central to many people’s lives and their identities. Therefore forced changes to jobs or work structures are experienced particularly intensely.

People become emotionally attached to things, the more important these things are, the more individuals want to hold onto them. The awareness of loss is therefore much more profound and creates more anxiety.

Any change involves some sort of loss. There are tangible losses like loss of income when a person is retrenched or downgraded. And there are abstract losses such as loss of control, status or self-worth.

For the most part, the deeply felt emotional losses are ignored when dealing with change or in debates about resistance to change. Most studies about corporate rationalisation, focus mainly on costs and the performance of the survivors.

Where emotions from change are studied, the focus tends to be on the loss of a job. But the subjective losses and subsequent emotional experiences of individuals tend to be underplayed.


Profound loss is associated with grief – a deep sorrow that causes piercing distress. Although the experience of grief is common, there are marked differences in how intensely and for how long people grieve. It’s more intense when there’s greater degree of attachment to what was lost. The rational size of the loss isn’t relevant – merely the emotional intensity with which the individual experiences the loss.

Organisations tend to be indifferent and reluctant to acknowledge the intensify of loss felt by individuals. Often demonstrating, or talking about emotions is taboo, and when it happens it’s interpreted as resistance to change. The indifference and carelessness of executives can compound the experience of emotional trauma. In the minds of many, grief is associated with weakness, cowardice or even hysterical exaggeration.

As a result, many employees fear that they’ll be seen as weaklings or disloyal if they show their hurt and pain.

When grieving is denied or discouraged, repression or suppression is the only alternative. This leads to individuals being unable to engage with change, and can even cause other pathologies. Research has shown that restructuring, especially downsizings, instils in affected people intense fear, anxiety, distrust, , perceptions of betrayal and rejection. These tend to transpire into lack of focus and higher rates of absenteeism and turnover. And occupational injuries and illnesses are much higher at workplaces that goes through transformations.

A study titled “Healing emotional trauma in organizations” describes how a group of executives were negatively affected. This is after they went through a restructuring that logically should have caused no distress. But they were unable to look forward to plan their strategy as they remained stuck in emotional trauma of the restructuring.

What can be done

Executives can’t expect employees to leave their emotions at the door when they come to work. They must embrace people’s sense of loss and help them adapt to it if they want change to be successful.

Organisations must build systems that ensure grieving and mourning are allowed so that employees can heal and move on through and past the change.

To ease the pain that comes from change, loss and pain must be publicly acknowledged and mourned in the organisation. Sharing destigmatises the loss and grief as the bereaved employees find validation from peers and managers through their narratives.

This must happen in a safe space, without logical explanations, platitudes or superficial suggestions. In the case study, a group of executives felt healed and prepared for the future after the opportunity to tell and share their stories. The anomaly is that nothing has changed rationally or logically to their situation, but psychologically they would be able to move on.

The ConversationIf safe and constructive environments are created, employees won’t find it necessary to vent their emotions in the passages, around the water cooler or in tea rooms.

Mias de Klerk, Professor: Organisational behaviour, human capital management, leadership development, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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