It’s not just you: Half of respondents in a new survey said they’re experiencing organizational change in the workplace—and it’s not going over well.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated May 30, 2017
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When it comes to our work lives, change is not good. That’s the bottom line from a new survey released by the American Psychological Association (APA), which found that people affected by on-the-job changes are more likely to report chronic work stress, distrust their bosses, and plan to quit their position within a year.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of change going around: Half of the more than 1,500 people surveyed said they have been affected by organizational changes in the last year, are going through changes currently, or expect to be soon. The poll was conducted among full-time, part-time, and self-employed adults across the United States.

And of those employees experiencing current or recent change at work, 55 percent reported chronic work stress and 34 percent said they experienced physical health symptoms at work. For those with no recent, current, or anticipated changes, only 22 percent and 8 percent experienced those problems, respectively.

People dealing with change were also three to four times as likely to say that their job interfered with their home and family life (and vice versa), to feel cynical or negative toward others during the workday, and to eat or smoke more during the workday than outside of work.

Not surprisingly, then, are the findings that employees affected by organizational change also reported lower levels of job satisfaction. They were less likely to trust their employer and more likely to say they intend to find another job within the next year.

But organizational changes at work aren’t always a bad thing, at least not in theory. So why do they so often result in negative effects? It’s simple, says David Ballard, PhyD, head of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence: Change is hard. “We get accustomed to the way things function, and when you disrupt the status quo—even if it’s for a positive reason—it throws a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity at us,” he says. “Humans don’t respond well to ambiguity; it stresses us out and makes it difficult for us to anticipate things and plan ahead.”

It may also be because people don’t trust their employers’ motivations or don’t have confidence that their company will succeed. Almost a third of survey respondents believed their bosses had hidden agendas and only 43 percent thought the changes they were going through would have the desired effect.

Age played a role in the survey responses, too, with younger workers being worse off: Millennials were more likely to report mental health issues, stress, and physical health symptoms during the workday. Generation Xers fell somewhere in the middle, and the Boomer generation reported the fewest work-related problems.

That’s not the only bad news about jobs and stress, either. Research presented last week at the Seventh International Commission on Occupational Health Conference in Varese, Italy, revealed that two undesirable work characteristics—low job control and job strain (defined as high-demand, low-control work)—have been increasing in the United States since 2002.

Work-family conflicts have also increased, say the researchers from SUNY Downstate Medical Center, reflecting increased burdens faced by working parents. These types of stressors have been linked to heart problems, they say, and their findings may partially explain why the years-long decline in cardiovascular disease has slowed.

There may be a silver lining to all this, though. Overall, 78 percent people in the APA survey reported average or better levels of engagement at work, meaning they had high levels of energy, were strongly involved in their work, and felt happily engrossed in what they do. And despite the high prevalence of change and uncertainty, most people were satisfied with their jobs and felt their organizations treated them fairly.

Ballard says that success (and happiness) in the workplace requires resilience. “We have to be able to adapt to changes and manage our stress in healthy ways,” he says. That means going with the flow when it makes sense, but it also means taking steps to reduce ambiguity and its negative effects.

“Effective communication is a shared responsibility between employees and employers,” he says. “If there’s uncertainty or concern about something, raise the question and talk to your supervisor about it. Being a part of the dialogue can help you as well as your teammates, and your entire organization, through any changes that are going on.”

It’s also important to take care of yourself during trying times at work, Ballard adds. “Making sure we’re eating right, getting enough physical exercise, that we’re sleeping well, and that we’re getting social support from our friends and coworkers and loved ones—those are going to help us handle stressful changes or any type of ongoing stress,” he says.