Protecting the mental health of business change managers

Protecting the mental health of Business Change Managers

There has been a lot in the media lately about mental health in the workplace. A recent government report states that around 15% of workers in England have symptoms of a mental health problem. Mental health charities such as Mind and Time to Change are focusing on awareness raising and support for workers who are struggling.

As business change managers, our job is to focus on the wellbeing of our stakeholders during change. However, I wonder whether we always give our own wellbeing the same care and attention? A recent survey from PM Summit reported that 40% of project managers suffer from prolonged stress and I am sure the figure is similar for business change managers.

In some respects, business change management belongs amongst the caring professions. We focus on stakeholders’ feelings and emotions and engage closely with them when they need support. This can be difficult and draining, particularly during changes which generate strong emotions. Therefore, we need to protect our own mental health during challenging times.

We can only change what is in our control to change

It is important when we work with people during change that we to recognise our limits and set boundaries around what is in our control to change. Much of our work involves supporting stakeholders through a long journey towards acceptance and adoption of change. This is difficult to measure which makes it hard for us to know when we are being successful. There may also be times when a positive outcome is beyond our control. Working in this uncertain environment can lead to negative emotions such as self-blame or anxiety. These can be magnified when project colleagues, leaders and stakeholders struggle to understand the value and limitations of our profession.

I was recently introduced to a great tool, the Gibbs Reflective Cycle, which can help us manage negative emotions and self-doubt during stressful change. It is often used by those working in the caring professions, such as nurses and therapists, who can also struggle with success measures and boundaries of responsibility. The tool enables us to reflect on difficult situations objectively, using the principle that “one can only change what is in their control to change”. We can also use it to develop practical interventions to help with challenging situations.

Reflecting on difficult situations

The tool involves reflecting on difficult situations using six distinct steps. I particularly like the fact that it splits out what actually happened from feelings surrounding the incident. Often, we can feel we handled something badly which leaves us with negative emotions, when actually the situation was more successful than we realised. This way of reflecting helps us to identify positive outcomes rather than focusing on the negative.

The tool also asks us to compare what happened with relevant business change theories. This helps to objectify situations and can remove feelings of personal blame. The theories often give us ideas of how to handle difficulties, which helps with the last step of the model – developing an action plan for how to handle similar situations in the future.

I describe the model below, together with a simple example of when I used it to reflect on a difficult stakeholder meeting early in my career:

eg of Gibbs reflective cycle for mental health

The tool shows the situation was not caused by me “not being good enough to do my job”. It also develops practical actions to improve similar situations in the future. The exercise took 10 minutes and put me back in control. It reduced my self-doubt and clarified what I could control and what I could not. It gave me confidence to continue with the change and also improved my business change skills for the future. I can highly recommend it to anyone facing similar feelings of stress and anxiety during difficult change.

4 Thoughts on “Protecting the mental health of Business Change Managers”

  • Nicola, what a great article about self care, and challenging one’s own thinking, whilst in the midst of dealing with the emotions of others going through change!

    • Many thanks, Tracy – and thanks for introducing me to the model. I find it really helpful in managing difficult situations, so hopefully others will too.

  • Nicola, I think that this is paramount and one of the best pieces of advice that I have every been given around situations like this is “don’t take it personally”. This is something that I talk all of the change teams that I work with through and it is difficult when challenged and met with anger because they invest a significant amount of emotional energy in the change. It is important to remember that everyone has a view and all views are valid as that is what people think and feel. Take a deep breath, step back and listen.
    Venting is, as you point out, part of the change cycle but listening (really listening) and acting to change those things that keep to the vision whilst demonstrating that their voices are heard does wonders (both for those venting and those making the change) for engagement. We find time and again that these nudges enforce more effective change.

    • Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions, Ted, they are very useful. As you say, one of the key issues is how much emotional energy we invest in the change. Too much, and it can be difficult to manage anger and hostility from stakeholders. Most business change managers I meet have entered the profession because they genuinely want to make a difference for people, which makes it difficult not to become emotionally involved. My partner trained as a doctor, and was taught very early on that “the patient is the one with the disease”, in order to balance caring with objectivity. Perhaps this is something we should also learn as business change managers to help us manage our stress.

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