Leadership

What Is the Cost of Change Fatigue in the Workplace?

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I once had a coworker who could occasionally be found slumped motionless in their chair in front of their computer. When I asked what was up, their reply usually ran along the lines of, “I just can’t care anymore” – not “I don’t care,” but rather, “I can’t care.” When I explored further, I learned that they had not misspoken. They wanted to care but were tapped out – overwhelmed, defeated, weary in ways that felt insurmountable. Ouch!

There is a growing body of workplace research  indicating that more people than ever are feeling something like that. We’ve even given it a name – change fatigue.

What Defines Change Fatigue?

Change fatigue is a general sense of apathy or passive resignation towards organizational changes by individuals or teams. It happens when too much change takes place, or when a significant change immediately follows an earlier one.

If you are wondering if you’ve ever experienced this, try considering how you feel about the word “pivot.” If you’re all “pivoted out,” You might be dealing with change fatigue.

How Does Organizational Change Affect Us?

There’s nothing new about organizational change. It’s often necessary, and it can even be helpful. However, when the frequency and density of change gets too high, it can begin to erode our resiliency and negatively impact our ability to positively engage in the change process.

As humans, we tend to be drawn toward stability, predictability, and order. These are experiences that can help us feel as though we understand the world we’re in; they help us make meaning of our surroundings so we can cultivate some sense of agency. Too much and too frequent change can cause us to become disoriented, unable to discern what is status quo, and vulnerable to burning out.

Too much and too frequent change can cause us to become disoriented, unable to discern what is status quo, and vulnerable to burning out.

What Is Surge Capacity?

Robust organizations and healthy people both have some resources available to handle change. We generally even have some buffer for extraordinarily demanding circumstances, often referred to as surge capacity.

Science Writer Tara Haelle describes surge capacity as “a collection of adaptive systems – mental and physical – that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” If the demands shoot up (as they often do when we are facing challenges or change), we can rise to the occasion . . . but only for a while. Surge capacity isn’t meant to be sustained over long periods of time – it’s designed for sprints, not marathons. We’re wired to push hard when we need to, and then to rest and replenish.

Between a global pandemic, a grinding and ongoing season of pandemic recovery, the constant uncertainty of what returning to work might look like, and the uphill climb of costs outrunning income, we can feel stuck in a loop of long-term uncertainty. Opportunities to restock our surge capacity are limited, and we’re experiencing change fatigue as a result.

Surge capacity isn’t meant to be sustained over long periods of time – it’s designed for sprints, not marathons.

What Can We Do to Manage Change Better?

A recent Gartner   offers some helpful input, beginning with what might seem like a counterintuitive insight. The initial (and perhaps unsurprising) finding was that employees generally remain highly resistant to change. About half as many employees were okay with changing how they work (in 2022) compared to the number that would have been on board with an employer-initiated change in 2016. The surprise was that the survey found smaller changes created more fatigue than large ones. Viewed through the lens of the way surge capacity works, this makes sense. We’re better equipped for dealing with a big, demanding change followed by a time to regroup than we are for an endless parade of small changes that just keep on coming.

As leaders, we can take steps to help reduce change fatigue. We can begin by dividing our change process up into well-defined steps. This includes intentional opportunities for recovery and the restoration of equilibrium as part of the flow. Communicating clearly about both the necessity of change and the facilitation of rest and recovery can help everyone feel less overwhelmed in the process. This will provide a greater sense of psychological safety, as well as more hope.

Gartner also identified two factors that differentiated employees who had a high capacity for change from those who had a low capacity for change: trust and team cohesion.

We’re better equipped for dealing with a big, demanding change followed by a time to regroup than we are for an endless parade of small changes that just keep on coming.

The Importance of Trust and Team Cohesion During Change

Trust

Trust is more like an onion than a light switch: it grows layer by layer, and we can’t strategically switch it on. One of our leaders at ACHIEVE likes to ask their business coaching clients the question, “What do you want for the people you are responsible for?” He says that in his experience, almost everyone wants others to thrive.

If others are to trust us to lead them well through change, we need to demonstrate that we have their best interests in mind, that we’ve considered the impact the change(s) will have, and that we are communicating with integrity and following through on what we say. In other words, they need to have experiential knowledge that we have listened well and can be trusted to care, and they need to have that care consistently communicated and demonstrated.

When we’re awash in change, a trusted, caring leader can help provide a dependable anchor. The data says that employees who believe they are experiencing change in a high-trust environment have 2.6 times the capacity to absorb that change, compared to those with low trust.

Cohesion

Team cohesion is what we experience when we feel like we belong, we can connect with others on the team, and we share a common goal and purpose. Gartner’s research shows that when our personal “why” aligns with both that of others on the team and with what we are working at together, our change capacity can increase up to 1.8x. When “we’re in this together” sounds like good news.  We know we’re not alone in facing change, and we feel confident that our leaders and team members will have our backs when it comes to taking needed time for rest and recovery.

We may not be able to control the circumstances that make change necessary, but we can still mitigate change fatigue. We need to provide time for recovery in our change planning, listen well, and communicate early and often. Then we can focus our time and energy within the change process on building trust and team cohesion.


You can find more blogs by Tim Plett on our website. For additional FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author

Tim Plett

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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