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10 Managing change

Change may require employees to take on new roles, relationships, behaviours, and new approaches to work, which can be stressful.1 On the other hand, when change is managed well it can promote mental health, facilitate innovation and increase productivity. Managers play an integral role in helping work teams adapt and respond positively to change.

Why it matters

Change is a key feature of modern workplaces. In a high performing public service, agencies are continually seeking better ways to do business.2 High performing agencies need to be flexible, adaptable and able to respond quickly to changes in Australian Government direction or in their operating environment so as to continue to deliver effective outcomes.3

Change may be distressing for some employees, especially if they are not informed about what the change means for them, if it is managed poorly4, or results in employees perceiving their job as insecure.5

When APS agencies were asked to assess the maturity of their organisation against its capability to manage change, only 37 per cent of agencies said that change was managed well. This finding is reflected in employees’ experience of change as being poorly managed.6

Workers’ compensation claims for psychological injury are often the result of poorly managed change.

Continuous change, including uncertainty over the future and rapid shifts in the direction of work, is one of the central challenges for maintaining mental health and well-being at work.7

How it’s done

Engagement with purpose

Often the toughest task for managers is helping their employees to adapt and respond positively to change. This includes constructively working with people’s resistance to change, which is a normal part of the change process.

Managers have an important job in communicating organisational purpose and connecting an individual’s work with this purpose. This includes communicating and providing employees with timely information to enable them to understand the reason for the proposed change.8

Research shows that 70 per cent of failed organisational change processes are attributed to poor organisational health, such as lack of adequate investment in leadership and the quality of team environments.9


A risk management approach to change is needed. Managers need to assess and manage risks to the physical and mental health of their employees and team. There are a range of tools in the ‘Useful Tools’ Section to help you do this. Engaging employees in the process is crucial.

Changes in work practices should be made in consultation with employees. The United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Management Standards on Change recommend that employees are made aware of the probable impact on any changes to their jobs, are given training to support any changes to their jobs, and are aware of timetables for changes.10 Most successful and cost-effective solutions are developed from within an organisation, in partnership with employees. Remember, you should also consult with any employee who has taken leave to manage a health condition.

Recognise when employees are struggling to adapt to change and intervene early

Tune in frequently to understand how your team is tracking. Use human resources data (e.g. absenteeism) and support, as well as recognising early warning signs of distress to identify employees at risk. This will help you to intervene early and support employees who are not coping with change.11

Manage the rate of change

To achieve change without harming employees, manage the pace at which new practices are introduced. This includes letting employees have constructive and respectful conversations about change, ensuring adequate employee consultation on the changes and providing opportunities for employees to influence proposals.

Provide support

Ensure employees have access to relevant supports during change. When an employee has a mental health condition, it is particularly important to communicate the change and provide necessary support. Employees on leave also need to be consulted during times of change.12

If employees’ resilience is low, they will be less likely to cope with change. Ensure employees are aware of support and assistance available, such as Employee Assistance Programs.

Risks to mental health

Change can be difficult, but poorly managed change can increase the risk of an employee becoming depressed, anxious or unwell. An employee may be eligible to claim compensation under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act) if employment caused, contributed to, or aggravated their illness. Poorly managed change may constitute a contributing factor.

Meeting adaptive challenges: 13

  1. Step back to get perspective
  2. Spot the emerging problems
  3. Pace changes and adaptive work
  4. Engage with employees
  5. Provide support

Useful tools

Other relevant information sheets:


1 Heifetz, R & Laurie, D 2001, ‘The Work of Leadership’, Harvard Business Review, December.

2 Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration 2010, Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra, p. ix.

3 Australian Public Service Commission, Agency Health: Monitoring Agency Health and Improving Performance, viewed 9 April 2013.

4 Heifetz & Laurie, op. cit.

5 Leach, L, Butterworth, P, Strazdins, L, Rodgers, B, Broom, D & Olesen, S 2010, ‘The limitations of employment as a tool for social inclusion’, BMC Public Health, vol. 10 p. 621.

6 Australian Public Service Commission 2011, State of the Service Report, 2010-11, APSC, Canberra, ch. 10.

7 Sinisammal, J, Belt, P, Harkonen, J, Mottonen, M & Vayrynen, S 2012, ‘Managing Wellbeing at work during 2010s – Expert Viewpoints’, Open Journal of Safety Science and Technology, vol. 2, pp. 25-31.

8 Comcare 2010, Keeping Health and Safety First in Mind: Looking after your employees during times of change, Comcare, Canberra, p. 2.

9 Keller, S & Price, C 2011, Beyond Performance, Wiley, New Jersey, p. 22.

10 Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Management Standards for work related stress, viewed 9 April 2013.

11 ibid.

12 HSE, op. cit.

13 Heifetz & Laurie, op. cit.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018