Managing job insecurity during times of restructuring

Restructuring, and in particular downsizing, has been found to have negative consequences for employee health and wellbeing, in part by workers experiencing job insecurity.

Job insecurity concerns both losing your job but also insecurity concerning changes to the job itself; having to do other work tasks and working with different people, for example. It is therefore important for organisations to manage workers’ job insecurity to minimise the negative effects of restructuring on employee health and wellbeing.

In a newly published study with colleagues from Denmark and Sweden, I examined whether it is possible to manage job insecurity during a time of restructuring. The study took place in the Danish postal service, which is undergoing major changes due to the reductions in mail. These reductions have led to high levels of job insecurity, both in terms of fears of losing the job but also insecurities related to changes in postal workers’ daily work.

In the postal service, geographical areas are merged, meaning workers have to work with new colleagues from other areas. Flexible postal routes are being introduced to account for the fluctuating levels of mail while postal workers in one team are lent to other teams when there is a need.

We suggested that a participatory organisational intervention may help workers and managers address the problems associated with restructuring. In participatory interventions, workers and managers agree what the main problems are and together they develop and implement changes to the way work is organised, designed and managed, that is, they make changes to work practices and procedures.

These type of interventions typically go through three main phases: Identification of the problem and development of possible solutions; implementation of solutions, and evaluation of whether the solutions implemented were successful, in this case whether job insecurity was reduced.

The impact of job insecurity was analysed in a study on Danish postal workers. Photograph: Postal worker, Odense, Denmark

In the first phase, we interviewed postal workers and managers about their working conditions and developed a tailored questionnaire about the problems they experienced. This tailored questionnaire made it possible for us to ask very specific questions about the challenges concerning restructuring.

We found that postal workers identified problems in four areas. First, problems with the re-planning of postal routes. This re-planning was performed using a software programme that did not consider practical challenges, such as crossing the road at a certain point could be dangerous due to heavy traffic.

Second, problems were identified concerning communication about changes to the work in general; different work teams were given different information from different managers, which led to insecurity and rumours.

Third, problems related to the lending of workers to other teams, because workers whowere being transferred were unfamiliar with the practices and procedures in other teams.

Fourth, workers were insecure about what was required from them in the future. It was not clear to them what the criteria for laying off staff were and what was required to keep their jobs.

Workshops were conducted by an internal occupational health consultant who facilitated the development of action plans to address the problems identified.

Four action plans

Four action plans were developed – first an action plan concerning re-planning. It was agreed that when re-planning occurred, a meeting should be held where workers would have a chance to discuss the planned changes and how practical the new routes were. Post-meetings adjustments would be made.

Another action plan addressed the communication. To ensure that everybody who played a role in disseminating information about changes knew what and how to communicate about a change, an Excel sheet was developed which included managers, union representatives, health and safety representatives and the wellbeing coordinators; an internal worker whose role involved keeping an eye on colleagues’ health and wellbeing should have.

Clear communication about changes helps to control levels of job insecurity. Photograph: iStock / asiseeit

Frequently asked questions and answer sheets were created to ensure those who played a key role in communication could provide uniform answers about the change.

An action plan to address the problems related to workers being lent to another team was developed. This was to ensure that they had the necessary information and knowledge about the work practices and procedures to work in other teams.

A change in performance appraisals. Each performance appraisal would include a discussion of the qualifications needed in the future, including a plan to obtain these qualifications.

All these actions should have been taken in the implementation phase. When asked whether action plans had addressed the most pressing problems experienced by postal workers, 87% of them agreed this was the case. However, action plans were not fully implemented and not all workers reported being aware of them.

For example, only 22% of workers were aware of the action plan that concerned the practices and procedures of being lent to another team. We found out that part of the reason was that not all workers would be affected by this, and therefore the action plan was not relevant to all of them.

Finally, we evaluated whether the intervention had led to a reduction in job insecurity. This was not the case. Job insecurity did not decrease among the group of postal workers who participated in the intervention. We compared our intervention group with a group of workers who had not participated in the intervention, (we used a control group).

When comparing with the control group, we found more encouraging results. In the intervention group, job insecurity concerning changes to the job had remained stable, whereas in the control group job insecurity had increased, for example, workers in the control group were now more insecure about the content of their jobs.

These results mean that it is possible to stabilise job insecurity during times of restructuring, even if it may not be possible to reduce insecurities about what the job in the future may entail; it is possible to control job insecurity in a way that, at least, it does not increase. We did not find any differences when looking at insecurities about losing the job.

This result may be specific to this study because our action plans mostly addressed procedures and practices related to the content of the job, not as to having a job or not, and secondly because it was clear to everyone in the postal service that lay-offs were inevitable.

In conclusion, our study indicates that a participatory organisational intervention where workers and managers work together to identify key problems associated with restructuring, and subsequently, developing and implementing changes to the work practice and procedures to address them may successfully stabilise, but not reduce, job insecurity concerning the content of the job.

Karina Nielsen is director of the Institute for Work Psychology University of Sheffield

This study was developed by Johan Simonsen Abildgaard, Karina Nielsen & Magnus Sverke  and published in 2017.