How to Support Employees Through Major Life Changes

4th March 2024
 minute read

Table of contents

It’s natural for employees to experience significant transitions that can deeply affect both their personal and professional lives. From the joy of parenthood to the challenges of relocation to the sorrow of bereavement, these major life changes are pivotal moments. In the workplace, they can be eased by understanding, support and flexibility from managers and colleagues. 

The workplace can also be a steady anchor In the whirlwind of life's constant changes. Leaders and HR teams can play a pivotal role in ensuring that work is a safe and secure space for people going through major transitions.

Understanding the impact of major life transitions

Life transitions can come in many forms, including:

  • Becoming a parent
  • Moving cities or countries for work
  • A change of role or team at work
  • Health changes
  • Divorce
  • Bereavement

All major changes in life can require significant periods of adjustment. For while shifts and transitions are normal, they can cause a wide range of emotional responses, from excitement and joy to stress and grief. 

The psychological impact of these transitions cannot be understated — they can profoundly affect a person’s mental health, sense of identity and performance at work.

Mental and emotional impacts of major life changes

  • Increased stress and anxiety: constant worry, restlessness and an inability to relax.
  • Mood fluctuations: mood swings, including bouts of irritability, sadness, or heightened emotions.
  • Depression: low mood, hopelessness, loss of interest in work and withdrawal from social interactions.
  • Overwhelm: seeming unable to cope with work responsibilities or breaking down at work. 

Behavioural changes

  • Changes in sleep patterns: difficulty sleeping, insomnia, nightmares or oversleeping.
  • Altered eating habits: changes in appetite, including eating more or less than usual, or skipping lunch breaks.
  • Substance use: an increase in the use of alcohol, drugs, or other substances.
  • Withdrawal from social activities: pulling away from friends, colleagues and work social activities. Not wanting to interact with colleagues or seeming quieter than usual. 

Cognitive and physical changes

  • Difficulty concentrating: struggling to focus on or complete work tasks, or seeming distracted at meetings.
  • Physical symptoms: headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, aches and pains, gastrointestinal problems, or any general shifts in health. 
  • Decision-making challenges: struggling to make decisions at work or making poor decisions. 

Changes in work performance 

  • Decreased productivity: missing deadlines, taking longer to complete tasks, or performing tasks to a lower standard than usual. 
  • Absenteeism: increased sick days, frequently coming to work late or leaving early.  

Stages of adjusting to change

We all go through a natural adjustment process in response to changes in our lives. This process involves several stages, each characterised by different feelings and behaviours as we adapt to new circumstances or environments. 

Understanding this process can help individuals — and those supporting them — to recognise that experiencing a range of emotions and challenges during periods of change is normal and expected.

  1. Shock and denial: people may react to a new situation with shock or disbelief, leading to denial. This is a protective response, giving the person time to adjust to the emotional impact of the change.
  2. Anxiety and stress: as the reality of the situation sets in, individuals may experience increased anxiety and stress. Concerns about the unknown or their ability to cope with the change are common.
  3. Testing and exploration: during this phase, individuals begin to explore the implications of the change more fully. They may test out new behaviours, seek information, and start to understand what this change means for them personally and professionally.
  4. Anger and bargaining: people can also experience anger or frustration as they confront the challenges associated with the change. ‘Bargaining’ behaviours may also occur as a way to negotiate the change or minimise its impact.
  5. Sadness and grief: acknowledging what has been lost due to the change can lead to feelings of sadness or grief. This is a crucial step in the adjustment process, as it allows for emotional healing.
  6. Acceptance: over time, individuals come to accept the change. Acceptance doesn't necessarily mean being happy about the situation, but rather recognising it as the new reality and feeling more prepared to deal with it.
  7. Adaptation and growth: the final stage involves adapting to the change, finding new ways to cope, and often experiencing personal growth in the process. Individuals may develop new insights, strengths, or skills as a result of navigating the change. This 2020 study offers insights into how employees adapt to organisational change.

Factors Influencing the adjustment process

The ease with which an individual moves through these stages can be influenced by several factors, including:

  • The nature of the change: voluntary changes might be easier to adjust to than involuntary ones.
  • Support systems: having a strong network of friends, family, or colleagues can provide emotional support and practical help.
  • Coping strategies: already having effective coping mechanisms, such as problem-solving skills, which can help to make adjustments easier.
  • Personality and resilience: individual differences in personality and levels of resilience can affect how people experience and adapt to change.

Comprehensive support strategies for managing change

  • Flexible working arrangements: significant transitions often require a reassessment of time and priorities. By offering flexible working hours or the possibility of remote work, HR can help employees balance their evolving personal responsibilities with professional commitments.

  • Mental health and wellbeing support: workplaces are increasingly providing access to mental health resources via offerings like EAPs. This includes therapy services, mental health days, and stress management programs. All can be essential for navigating the complexities of significant life changes. Whether dealing with the stresses of parenthood or the challenges of managing physical health issues, workplace support can provide a lifeline during times of need.

  • Leave policies: having access to parental leave, personal leave and mental health days are crucial for employees undergoing major life changes. Workplaces should clearly communicate these policies, ensuring that employees feel comfortable taking the time off they need.

  • Relocation assistance: organisations can ease the transition of relocation by providing logistical support and resources to adjust to new environments. This can help employees and their families settle into their new communities.

  • Training and development: as employees adapt to new situations in life, they may also seek growth in their professional roles. HR can support this development by offering training opportunities that align with the person’s changing needs and aspirations.

  • Personalised check-ins: regular, personalised check-ins by the HR team and leaders can make a world of difference. These check-ins offer a platform for employees to voice their concerns, request adjustments to their support needs, and feel genuinely seen and supported by their organisation.

  • Creating support networks: the presence of peer support groups, buddy schemes and mentorship programs at work gives employees the chance to share experiences and coping strategies. These support networks can reassure people that they’re not alone in their journey.

  • Celebrating transitions: when appropriate, celebrating major life transitions can positively influence the workplace atmosphere. Recognising people’s milestones fosters a culture of community, highlighting the organisation's commitment to everyone’s personal growth and happiness.

Building a resilient workforce

Supporting employees through major life changes both benefits the individual and also strengthens the entire organisation. Robust workplace support builds a resilient, loyal and productive workforce, capable of navigating challenges with grace and emerging stronger on the other side. This investment in employee wellbeing pays dividends in reduced turnover, enhanced job satisfaction and creating a positive employer brand that attracts top talent. Embracing a compassionate and mental health-focused approach to employee support means that people will be better equipped to navigate the complexities of major life changes. By prioritising empathy, flexibility and comprehensive mental health resources, HR can ensure that employees feel valued and supported, no matter what transitions come their way.

How to Support Employees Through Major Life Changes
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