Combatting Change-Fatigue: Preparing Employees for a Dynamic World
— August 8th, 2023
Consider the time in your life when you felt most stressed. Physically and mentally exhausted. Unable to motivate yourself.
Chances are that instance coincided with or was caused by a particularly challenging change or a series of changes.
HR and Communications leaders, underestimate the impact of change on employees at your peril! Change stands as one of the very few certainties that both employers and employees will inevitably have to deal with—consistently and perpetually.
Preparing employees for a dynamic world is a crucial undertaking for organizations seeking to thrive in today's rapidly evolving landscape. As industries undergo constant transformation driven by technological advancements, global shifts, and changing customer expectations, employees must possess the skills, mindset, and adaptability to embrace these changes as opportunities rather than obstacles.
According to a Capterra survey, "Here’s why businesses need to pay attention. When asked how change fatigue affected them, 32% of change-fatigued employees said they’re less productive, and close to half (48%) said they’re more tired or stressed at work. But the most alarming finding of all is that a majority of change-fatigued employees (54%) are considering looking for a new job."
By investing in their professional development and well-being, organizations can foster a resilient workforce capable of embracing change, driving innovation, and contributing to sustainable success in an ever-changing world.
(Note: In this blog, we will assume that both the decision to implement the change and the project plan have already been made—our focus will be on addressing the change effectively to avoid or prevent change-fatigue.)
Understanding the Onset of Change-Fatigue in the Workforce
Change-fatigue is broadly defined as resistance, apathy, or passive resignation to organizational changes on the part of an employee.
We have become used to our fast-paced, often stressful lives. When someone asks us, “How is work?” Our default reply is usually “Busy.” And we are not just busy with our day-to-day workload. We are busy from adjusting and adapting to new ways of working, new software, new sustainability initiatives, restructuring, digital transformation, culture shifts, upskilling… the list goes on. It’s exhausting even thinking about it!
Throw in AI and the constant warnings every time you open a newspaper or check your LinkedIn feed. Are you truly harnessing the potential of AI? Are you on top of how to use this new tool, or will you be left behind? Is your job even safe?!
Change. Change. And More Change!
Every change demands our energy, time, and positive commitment to depart from the old behavior to the new.
From an HR and IC perspective, each change in your business requires a well-thought-out plan coupled with a fresh comms strategy. And though we may be accustomed to multiple, simultaneous changes, a phased approach is highly advised.
Otherwise, the result can be (and most likely will be) change-fatigue.
How then can you identify if your employees are experiencing change-fatigue?
Here are some common signs to look out for:
- Decreased Engagement: Employees who were previously enthusiastic and engaged may become disinterested and lack motivation. They may appear apathetic or disconnected from their work or the business' overall objectives.
- Increased Resistance: Employees might resist new initiatives or changes more than usual. They may voice objections, become defensive, or actively oppose the changes without being open to hearing why the change is planned.
- Decline in Productivity: Productivity levels may drop. Employees might struggle to meet deadlines or produce high-quality work.
- Higher Absenteeism Rates: Frequent absences, especially if not due to illness or other legitimate reasons, can indicate that employees are experiencing stress or burnout related to ongoing changes.
- Emotional Exhaustion: Employees may exhibit signs of emotional exhaustion, such as increased irritability, frustration, or feelings of being overwhelmed.
- Resistance to Learning: A reluctance or disinterest in learning new skills or adapting to changes.
- Lack of Collaboration: Employees may be less willing to collaborate or participate in team activities, preferring to work in isolation.
- Increased Turnover: Employees may leave the organization, seeking a more stable, predictable work environment.
- Loss of Trust: If employees perceive that changes are frequent, poorly communicated, or lacking clear rationale, it can lead to a loss of trust in leadership and the organization.
- Physical Symptoms: Headaches, fatigue, or trouble sleeping due to stress—obviously, these symptoms are not immediately apparent but may be discovered during well-being 1:1 sessions or similar conversations.
Examining the Relationship Between Rapid Change and Employee Fatigue
According to Gartner, 55% of employees took a significant hit to their own health, their team relationships, and their work environment to sustain high performance through the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some respects, this is entirely understandable. It was, after all, a seismic change that affected everyone and virtually all facets of work, arriving seemingly overnight.
But since the pandemic, employees say “the biggest sin by far has been employers changing their mind. When asked if their employer had backtracked on any changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic, 93% of change-fatigued employees say they have, with 42% saying it has happened multiple times,” says Capterra.
When change is introduced too quickly, too frequently, and without a clear purpose, employees may become resistant or fatigued by the constant upheaval. As we have already noted, this can result in burnout, reduced job satisfaction, and decreased commitment to the organization.
The psychology behind this is fascinating. “Because of our emotional brains—we assume the worst. We are wired to jump into action in case of danger. Our brain is more likely to assume failure than success in order to protect us from impending threats," according to Psychology Today.”
As such, change is often interpreted by the brain as pain. We don’t mean physical pain, but a kind of stress to our system due to “intense bursts of neural firing.” In some cases, this leads to emotional, impulsive outbursts.
Rapid change often leads to uncertainty and ambiguity, creating a stressful work environment for employees. Continuously adapting to new processes, roles, or technologies can contribute to heightened stress levels. Frequent changes can result in job insecurity among employees, who fear their roles might become redundant or that they might not keep up with evolving requirements.
The key to tricking the brain into accepting change is to break it down into bite-sized chunks. Introduce plans gradually and thoughtfully to avoid change overload. But more on this later.
The Impact of Change on Mental Health and Employee Fatigue
A little more science now, as we dive into the mental health consequences of change-fatigue. Cognitive Overload is the “constant processing of new information and adjusting to changing circumstances.” This can “overload employees' cognitive capacities, impair decision-making, and lead to mental exhaustion.”
We all accept that mental health is not a binary state of being either "healthy" or "unhealthy." It is a spectrum that includes various degrees of well-being. Nowadays, the majority of employers, too, understand that the mental health of their employees is dynamic and can fluctuate over time through being influenced by various factors such as life events, stressors, and coping mechanisms.
McKinsey has found that “Employees facing mental-health or well-being challenges report more negative experiences at work.”
What exactly are these negative experiences? Most likely, we have all endured one or some of the following; stress, anxiety, uncertainty, depression, moodiness, adjustment difficulties, fear, increased pressure, loneliness, and social isolation. Of course, it’s important to note that significant changes can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues or trigger relapses.
Practical Workforce Management Strategies to Counteract Change-Fatigue
According to the Harvard Business Review, “Only 57% of managers report having enough capacity in their day-to-day work to support their teams through change.” It is up to HR and Communications professionals to take the lead in change management by spearheading strategies to counteract change-fatigue.
Communication has to be number one on our list. All change management processes start and end with clear, crisp comms. For any chance of success, you must communicate transparently and regularly about the reasons behind the change, the benefits, the planned timeline, and how the project is progressing.
Be upfront, honest, and thorough.
Remember—we don’t all receive information in the same way—be inclusive of the neurodivergent community (consider these tips).
Keep the conversation flowing and open at all times…which leads us to our second point.
Create an environment that encourages two-way dialogue and feedback. Take the opportunity to actively involve your employees in the change process to engender feelings of ownership and support.
Really listen to what your employees have to say.
“When people talk, listen completely. Don't be thinking what you're going to say. Most people never listen.” —Hemmingway
The opinions and suggestions of the change recipients should be valued, and ideally, any worthwhile contributions should be integrated into the overall plan.
Create consistent feedback loops with employees. Employees should be given a continuous voice throughout the process, extending beyond mere before-and-after surveys, but a voice that holds significance and influence. This will enable you to stay up-to-date on how employees feel at any given point and allow early intervention to address any signs of change-fatigue.
Next, showcase how you have listened to employees and incorporated their perspectives. Employees will feel more appreciated and engaged and, in turn, will be more likely to adopt change.
Monitor employee well-being and job satisfaction regularly to identify fatigue signs and promptly address issues.
Ensure that changes are implemented in a well-planned, gradual manner to minimize the impact on employees. As we have discussed, too much change, implemented suddenly, is a fast track to change-fatigue.
And as you chart your progress, don’t forget to celebrate the milestones!
Naturally, leaders play a crucial role in fostering a change-positive culture. A successful leader sets the tone and remains visible and approachable throughout the entire process.
Two golden rules for communicators here. Firstly, when providing communications guidance to the leadership team, make sure the focus on people, rather than stats or data, shines through. Employees are primarily interested in how change will impact their own roles.
Secondly, advise leaders to keep coming back to the “why” as opposed to the “how.” Change is only successful when employees fully understand the rationale behind the decision.
Promote a growth mindset to view change as an opportunity for development rather than a time of uncertainty and doubt. Organizations should offer resources and support, such as training, coaching, or counseling, to enhance skills, help employees to navigate through transitions, and cope with the outcomes.
Recognizing and acknowledging employees' efforts and resilience during challenging times is also important.
Maintaining Employee Mental Health During Excessive Change
Employees demonstrate higher resilience and can better navigate change when they receive adequate support and maintain their well-being. How can you help build a strong, stable workforce?
Here are some ideas:
- Prioritize effective, authentic organizational values—to be lived, not just plastered on the walls!
- Promote a healthy workplace culture by offering good benefits and a wellness program.
- Encourage employees to take their Paid Time Off, enabling them to return to work feeling refreshed and re-energized.
- Set up peer support and mentoring programs to facilitate the exchange of knowledge, experience, and emotional support among colleagues.
- These are just some of the ways you can invest in resiliency - for more ideas refer to our blog on this topic or the CIPD guide.
To help employees who are already suffering from mental health issues, consider Employee Assistance Programs. EAPs are employer-sponsored programs designed to support employees' well-being and assist in dealing with personal and work-related challenges. EAPs offer a range of confidential services to help employees address various issues that may affect their mental health, emotional well-being, and overall productivity—such as access to mental health professionals, assistance for employees dealing with substance abuse or addiction issues, financial and legal counseling, relationship and grief therapy, and wellness programs.
“Our adaptability is the secret to our success as a species. The challenge is to harness our adaptability and use it toward positive ends, to make choices about who we want to be in our world.”
Embarking on a mission for change can be daunting, even for the most experienced leader or communicator. Cynicism, apathy, a lack of resources, traditionalism, the specter of past failures… the hurdles can make it feel akin to climbing a steep mountain. But by building a resilient workforce, by investing time in creating a comprehensive comms plan, by valuing and engaging with your people and by being consistent and open during times of change, it is possible to help employees embrace the process and to implement change successfully.