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College Quarterly
Winter 1994 - Volume 2 Number 2
Loss in the Workplace: Effects of Change Upon College Support
by Wayne D. Milroy

Change has always been a disruptive dynamic for human beings and many seek the comfort of activities that are familiar. There seems to be, for many, a sense of security in treading known paths and, for even the most adventurous, at many times sanctuary is sought in the habitual. The workplace of yesterday often proved to be such sanctuary because the parameters and standard operating procedures were familiar and safe. The demands were well-known and responses practised.

However, nearly constant change to the work environment has become an everyday fact in the life of the modern worker as institutions in all sectors are racked with convulsive-like mutations. The everyday observer cannot mistake the aura of mistrust and anxiety throughout much of our modern workplace. The fundamental nature and extent of the changes that have transpired lately have been unprecedented and have left both management and labour leaders ill-equipped to assist workers through these troubling times.

The community college is like any other organization operating within a milieux that demands lightning-fast responses to a myriad of new demands and faces the same profound human resource dilemmas in wrestling with the demands of the current economic climate. The college is a labour-intensive organization and, traditionally, has emphasized the importance of face-to-face interactions as fundamental to the education process. However, the funding restrictions imposed upon the colleges are forcing many painful decisions about the nature and size of its workforce.

The work atmosphere of any organization the size of a college is a mixture of many contributing factors, and is a product of numerous complex interactions. Continual change coupled with external threats may have aided the creation within the colleges of an atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust. In order to effectively manage such an atmosphere, both management and labour must take steps to understand the effects that these changes are having upon the worker. To ensure that the human aspects are factored into decisions, it is imperative that the dynamics and characteristics of the effects upon the individual be understood. Bridges (1992, p. 8) talks of surviving corporate transitions and managing the entire process and reminds management that the very goals the change is meant to produce are totally dependent upon those affected by those changes.

This study is an attempt to gain understanding of the perceptions of significant numbers of staff which would assist in the planning, development and delivery of assistance programs. This knowledge, it was hoped, could help create an atmosphere in the college which would assist the implementation of change. It is no longer sufficient Bridges (1992, p. 21) contends to allow employees to be buffeted about by the winds of change but rather careful consideration must be given to the human aspects before contemplating any corporate changes. Organizations can no longer afford not to change and neither can they leave employees to fend for themselves.

To assist those employees it is first necessary to identify those having the greatest trouble and then try to develop strategies which will assist those experiencing difficulty. In order to formulate such strategies it is necessary to ask: What are the characteristics of those college support staff who are having the greatest difficulty dealing with change? Is the sense of loss, which surrounded past life changes accumulative making the adaptation to future change more difficult? Is there a perception of losing control over one's life situation compared to five years ago? What are the barriers that support staff perceive as preventing achievement of their goals?

The population for this research was the full-time support staff of Sir Sandford Fleming College in June 1994. All support staff represented by Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Local 351 were sent a survey instrument and asked to respond. The local represents 201 members which, accordingly to the most recent membership roster, consists of 145 females and 56 males or 72.13% and 27.86% respectively. A survey instrument of 36 questions was designed to obtain responses in five general categories: (1) demographics, (2) sense of multiple loss, (3) degree of difficulty in dealing with change, (4) sense of loss of control and (5) perceived barriers to success. The instrument was designed to obtain individualized interpretations of the questions in keeping with the subjective nature of situational perceptions.

The response rate to the survey was 108 out of a possible 201 or 53.73%. Within that survey respondent population there were 90 females or 83.33% and 18 males or 16.67%. This indicated that male support staff were under-represented in the respondent population when compared to the male/female ratio of 27.86% within the entire support staff population.

While this research endeavoured to identify specific groups, it failed to produce a profile of those who were experiencing greater difficulty but rather the data indicated great homogeneity among all such support staff. There was no significant statistical difference among the perceptions of support staff based upon gender, age, job classification, or campus location. Difficulties did exist among the target population but such occurrences seemed to pervade the entire population and it was not possible to specify groups accurately. This may be an indication of an environment which has been created by macro-level threats which may have over-ridden more localized concerns. This homogeneity of the perceptions of college support staff is, in itself, significant. The study's failure to produce a profile indicated that a global organizational environment was evident among this group and they appeared not to be susceptible to fractionalization. Any strategies determined for assisting the support staff should therefore be applied to all support staff equally and not targeted at any particular grouping. This outcome provides a significant direction to leaders for the creation of supportive strategies in that they must address the entire population represented within college support staff. But this homogeneous nature should be closely monitored as it may be subject to rapid change. It may be that external threats of recent years have changed the current nature of this profile. With the passing of time or the removal of such threats, more localized concerns may begin to surface. It is imperative that the leaders of various groups encourage the frequent updating of such a profile.

Bridges (1992, p. 31) indicated that many employees invalidate their experiences by saying that they are “only personal” and fail to realize how those personal events impact upon job performance. Brad (1984, p. 15) pointed out that it is many of these events that make coping difficult and add a great amount of stress to lives. Kubler-Ross (1964, p. 12) said that man cannot protect himself from pain by denying its existence, but rather to resolve loss one had to process it through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Kubler-Ross believed that it was impossible to resolve any loss without such a process taking place. But Doka (1989, p. 21) points out that modern society disenfranchises many such activities because these fail to meet pre-determined social roles for such grieving. Doka (1989, p. 39) also felt that it was this “loss upon loss” and the inability to totally resolve them that combined to produce reactions of grief which affect the workplace.

This study attempts to determine if this sense of multiple loss was a perception held by college support staff. There were strong indications that the support staff had a significant feeling of having suffered a multitude of losses. This sense of multiple loss was felt in many aspects of the lives of support staff and subsequently directly impacts upon the workplace. The organization has to, as Bridges (1992, p. 27) said, make use of every scrap of personal information available to them to assist the employee to cope with changing workplaces. Leaders must be prepared to utilize and enhance the information systems which assist them in keeping abreast of such human considerations within the organization. It is only by the full cooperation and utilization of the human components that the technology will ever reach its full potential. This study points out the sense of multiple loss that exists among college support staff. These facts must be taken into consideration when formulating assistance programs.

Maslow (1954, p. 35) conceived a hierarchy of needs which he contended all human beings try to ascend provided lower survival and safety needs are met. Bowlby (1980, p. 85) said that human attachments are grounded in such security and safety concerns and they remain imbedded within us all our lives. It seems that change then makes the higher level goals difficult, if not impossible, during a transition period. Bridges (1992, p. 21) describes periods of change as a prolonged no-man's land in which everything is meaningless. It is here that management must be prepared to give clear, meaningful, competent leadership which will reduce the uncertainty and provide a transparent vision of the necessity of changes and the desirability of organizational goals.

The loss (or post-ponement) of higher order needs contributes to the difficulty experienced in coping with change. The re-alignment and re-defining of immediate goals seems to bring an air of confusion and failure to one's life plan. This disarray is often enhanced by the lack of clear goals and leadership shown by most organizations during periods of transitions. Individuals, having had personal goals thwarted, seek guidance from their organizational leaders in an attempt to re-introduce some comprehensible direction. When unclear or confusing messages are received from the organization, the disarray within increases as does the difficulty in dealing with subsequent changes. To reduce these difficulties, leaders need to provide clear leadership, concise directions, consistent goals, and a genuine feeling for the difficult nature of such transition periods.

This study indicates that there is a significant degree of difficulty in dealing with change among college support staff. In order to assist those having difficulty, and to actualize organizational goals, both management and unions must conceive of a leadership process that will reduce the difficulty and ease the transition to new orders. Such a process must be grounded in a clear understanding of the nature of loss and transitioning. Leaders, to be effective in such times, must be appreciative of the process which accompanies loss and the emotions which become evident during uncertain times. Loss and transitioning skills do not always come naturally to all (because so many actively avoid such situations), but they can be effectively taught. It is the realization that development of these skills should be included within the professional development programs of supervisors at all levels, that will provide an effective first step in developing the necessary leadership process.

Shepard (1972, p. 305) indicated that one creates both here and now, as well as the future, by exercising freedom of choice. He went on to point out that planning is a part of a life worth living, and that the investment in time and energy in yourself can bring great joy but also the pain of grief (p. 311). This study seeks to determine if support staff thought that the control that could be exercised in their life situation today was less than five years ago. If that was so, then one could draw the conclusion that a degree of grieving was taking place within the support staff. Such indications could then suggest strategies for assisting those staff members.

This sense of control loss reduces the pursuit of higher level needs among support staff and has a detrimental effect upon the working atmosphere. The sense of losing control over one's life adds to the cumulative effect of loss within the individual and results in a feeling of loss that is greater than the sum of individual losses. Feeling that one is losing control seems to strike at the fundamental fabric of human nature. Within North American culture, individuality and self-reliance are encouraged and rewarded from an early age. Coming upon the realization that these are slipping from one's hands is difficult and cause a great many concerns. Therefore, strategies must be designed to assist the satisfaction of safety and security needs and allow for the pursuit of goals which support staff feel they have lost. One might ask how much of this sense of loss of control is imaginary and how much is actual. For the purpose of this research it is the perception held by the respondent that contributes to one's milieux that is deemed important and not necessarily a careful measurement of actual contributors of control.

This study indicates that there was a significant difference in the sense of control five years ago and the sense of control that support staff have today. This sense of control is less today than historically and one can draw the inference from those indicators that grief reactions are at play within the work context.

Kearl (1989, p. 269) stated that the pace at which skills become obsolete is making the workplace void of considerations beyond those of efficiency. It is more imperative than ever that an employee maintain an up-to-date set of skills and Brad (1964, p. 92) points out that discovering those training needs seems paramount to many employees. This study is intended to find out if there was a correlation between perceived barriers impeding career goals and difficulty in dealing with change. It also seeks to determine the nature of major perceived barriers.

Data did indicate that there is a significant correlation between the perception of barriers that are standing in the way of career advancement and the difficulty in dealing with change. The major areas in which perception of barriers occurred were: - macro-economic forces, lack of skills, restricted opportunities, lack of long-range career plans and an absence of a clear vision of the future. Management and labour leaders would be wise to heed what Bridges (1992, p. 72) pointed out when he indicated that managers will have to assist employees to realize that they have abilities and resources which will help in coping but that they must become entrepreneurial in seeking non-traditional types of work.

It is by understanding that one possesses the abilities and resources to be the solution to someone's problem that one begins to adapt to the changing workplace. Leadership has to be prepared, in such times, to reward new ways of tackling problems, not punish possible errors. It is the creative approach to the realization of personal goals that will translate into practical and innovative interpretations of organizational goals. In order for the individual to realize that abilities and resources are adaptive to the future one has to be allowed to give such possibilities a try. Trying will only occur within a supportive, non-threatening environment.

This study points out that the perception exists in the mind of college support staff that many barriers are standing in their way of such utilization of abilities. Any program established must assist support staff in conceptualizing the direction and nature of future changes so that they can determine a vision of the workplace of tomorrow.

Recommendations

This study was unable to substantiate a profile of any sub-groups among college support staff that were having more difficulty than others in dealing with change. However, it did indicate that considerable problems existed in dealing with change, multiple losses and perceived barriers to goals. Based upon the data collected through this study the following actions are recommended.

Recommendation I

Any and all programs established to assist support staff in dealing with organizational change should take into consideration the entire spectrum of the demographic nature of college support staff. Any assistive measures should be designed with the problems of the entire group in mind and should not be based upon gender, age, job classification or campus location.

Recommendation II

A series of seminars should be implemented for college support staff which allow them to gain insight into the nature of loss. Support staff must be helped to realize that many of life's experiences are traumatic, and left unresolved, can accumulate and bring additional stress into their lives unnecessarily. Such seminars should provide an understanding that losses of any nature may proceed through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This will help support staff to realize the length and nature of the grief process.

Recommendation III

In addition, training should be implemented for managers and supervisors in loss management techniques. It is difficult for someone to stand by and watch another in pain, and as a result, management of such transitions is often left lacking. Leaders must be trained in the nature of loss and provided with the opportunity to develop leadership skills to deal with such situations. Leaders must understand that the need to grieve, to manage the transition sensitively, and to prepare for the future are three distinct tasks, and each needs to be fully accomplished before the organization can truly reach its goals. By understanding these dynamics and by adapting some tools from counselling, organizational leadership could provide the direction necessary through times of loss. The training of administrative and supervisory personnel would aid in the establishment of the appropriate organizational climate necessary for transitioning.

Recommendation IV

An increase in the use of ritual would prove useful in the resolution of the sense of loss. Leaders should be trained in the use of rituals in managing loss and be encouraged to make full use of their benefits. Rites of passage are common place in our lives and the encouragement of gatherings to recognize the contribution of old ways and to welcome new realities would serve a most valued service by providing closure for many employees.

Recommendation V

Training should be provided for support staff about the changing nature of work. Such training should deal with the need to detach oneself from a job and look for meaningful work within an organization. Such training should assist support staff in looking at the concept of intrepreneurship or finding work that needs doing and making it your own. By gaining insight into new ways of looking at the workplace, support staff may be able to satisfy lower-level security and survival needs and continue to seek higher-level needs for which everyone strives.

Recommendation VI

Management and labour leaders both must investigate ways that a sense of control can be regained in the perceptions of support staff. This entails the development of a more participative process of decision making regarding the management of transition periods. Committees made up of administration, support staff and union representatives should be called upon, prior to any change being implemented, to determine the best manner of assisting support staff members in coping. These committees should be empowered to insist that due consideration be given to the human aspects of the change prior to the commencement of any activities bringing about that change.

Recommendation VII

Training which deals with future trends should be provided for the college support staff. By encouraging support staff to look into the nature of the future workplace and examine the implications of macro-economic forces which are likely to impact them in the future, fear of that future will be reduced. A training program which allows them to take a glimpse at the most likely future would allow for the identification of skills required, the opportunities that are likely to be there, and the formulation of a long-range plan which could assist in reducing many of the aforementioned variables and their related fear. Such training should assist support staff in formulating a reasonable vision of what the future may hold and allow them to respond appropriately.

Recommendations for Further Research

This research has asked many more questions than it answered. It is recommended that any research which helps assist in easing the human aspects of transitioning brought about by organizational initiatives be supported. Too many people place the dynamics of loss and grieving into special categories and reserve grief processes for events that meet very narrow interpretations. Study of the dynamics of loss in a much wider definition which affect everyday settings everyday should remain a continuing interest of all modern organizations.

References

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Brad, Craig. (1984). Technostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Bridges, William. (1992). Surviving Corporate Transition. Mill Valley, CA: William Bridges & Assoc.

Doka, K.J. (ed.). (1989). Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing the Hidden Sorrow. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Kearl, Michael. (1989) Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: MacMillan.

Maslow, Abraham. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Shepard, Herbert A. Life Planning. In Bennis, Warren G., Kenneth D. Beene, Robert Chin and Kenneth E. Corey, (eds.) The Planning of Change (1976). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


Wayne D. Milroy teaches in the Organizational Behaviour Department at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario. Copies of the complete study upon which this article is based are available from the author.