Change fatigue among employees is becoming a problem for significant numbers of organisations. In extreme cases, it can even end up derailing a transformation.
Large-scale change projects undeniably remain a strategic priority for many businesses. But a key threat to their success is that people can only take so much upheaval, particularly since the Covid crisis. Research by Gartner suggests that the tolerance of most employees for further disruption has already been stretched to the limit.
The HR consultancy conducted two employee surveys, in 2016 and 2022, that asked a similar set of questions. It found that the average respondent had experienced two planned workplace changes in 2016. Such changes included departmental reorganisations and the introduction of new working methods. In 2022, that total shot up to 10. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of respondents to the 2016 survey had expressed a willingness to embrace change. In 2022, that total plunged to 38%.
A survey of almost 1,000 US workers by online marketplace vendor Capterra last year produced similar results. It asked them: “How much do you agree or disagree with the statement ‘I’m overwhelmed by the amount of change that has taken place at my job’?” Only 23% said that they disagreed to any extent.
Nearly half (48%) of the respondents reported being stressed and tired at work as a result of change fatigue, while 32% felt that it had made them less productive. Of those who reported experiencing such fatigue, 54% were considering a change of employer.
Clearly, such outcomes are the opposite of what most business transformation projects are trying to achieve. What’s going wrong and, more crucially, what feasible measures can employers take to combat change fatigue and its pernicious effects?
Academic definitions of change fatigue
A 2011 US research report entitled Change Fatigue: development and initial validation of a new measure characterises the condition simply as a “perception that too much change is taking place”. But Karen Jansen, professor in leadership and change at Henley Business School, offers a more nuanced definition.
“This is about high-intensity, urgent and frequent change, with very little downtime to recover,” she says. “There was so much of it during the pandemic. When we came out of the Covid crisis, people were suffering from burnout. That was followed by a lot of geopolitical and economic instability, so it’s been a perfect storm.”
Sophie Seex, managing consultant at talent management specialist Talogy, agrees. She says that change fatigue is becoming more and more of a problem because the world has entered “a permacrisis situation. People are already in a high-threat state owing to what’s happening externally, so they’re likely to experience change fatigue more quickly than they might have done in the past.”
The symptoms of change fatigue
The syndrome usually manifests itself in two ways among those affected. The first is the onset of weariness and lethargy. The second is a decline in engagement with work, often resulting in a deterioration in performance and the withdrawal of discretionary effort. Sufferers will also tend to become more resistant to further change and cynical about their employer’s stated intentions.
Case study: making change less of a right hassle
One of the essentials of combating change fatigue is for employers be clear about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and what their priorities are.
“There’s some commonality with burnout in the fact that they’re both about overload,” says Seex, who is also an occupational psychologist. “Some of the symptoms might therefore be similar, such as people feeling stressed, withdrawing and going off sick. But the causes are different.”
The main difference between the two is that burnout concerns physical and mental exhaustion at a personal level, usually resulting from the individual’s prolonged exposure to excessive stress. Change fatigue, on the other hand, is generated at an organisational level – although it can lead to burnout too, as Seex explains.
“Our brains love stability. We may struggle if conditions are disruptive and psychologically unpredictable, because that feels threatening. It takes more energy to do things differently and deal with whatever may come as a result of change. That’s when burnout can occur,” she says.
Ben Collins, partner at business transformation consultancy Oliver Wight EAME, highlights some other telltale signs that change fatigue may be sweeping an organisation.
“A common one is that employees start asking the same questions over and over, as they don’t understand why certain changes are taking place and can’t buy into them,” he explains. “Another is that you’re ending up with more long, painful projects that go on well past their deadline as people lose commitment and become less productive.”
The importance of clear leadership
One way to make business transformations more sustainable is to ensure that everyone knows why a big change is occurring and what’s ultimately in it for them. That’s the view of Pat Lynes, founder and CEO of change consultancy Sullivan & Stanley.
Successful business leaders work hard to ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction, from board members to front-line workers, he stresses. “They’re all aligned with the organisation’s vision, purpose and intent. Everyone operates as one team.”
Business leaders therefore have a key role to play as “storytellers of change”, Seex says, because how they position a narrative can make the difference between “people wanting to join the party or leave the business”.
They would also be wise to encourage people to share their views (anonymously, if necessary) about the planned transformation, at the very least to understand possible hidden flaws in the plan and potential areas of resistance to it from employees.
Another way to mitigate the risk of change fatigue is to ensure that all the company’s change projects are considered in the round rather than treated in individual silos, as is typically the case. They should also be clearly aligned with the overall corporate strategy.
“Change projects need to be looked at holistically, through the hard lens of ‘will these move the needle of business performance?’” Collins stresses. “If they will, they should then be evaluated centrally to better understand whether the right resources and capabilities are in place to ensure success.”
Projects that are deemed unlikely to move the needle should be scrapped so as not to put extra pressure on a change-weary workforce for little chance of meaningful gain. They should also be prioritised, so that employees don’t become confused by conflicting requirements.
Seex notes that “people are more likely to feel excited and see your inspiring vision if you put more resources in to help, but many organisations ask a lot of them without creating the right conditions.”
Creating the right conditions includes ensuring that employees are given the guidance, training and coaching they need. It also entails forming the appropriate psychological foundations to ensure that they have an “open rather than defensive mindset, which is all about fight-flight”, she adds.
The Scarf approach
A widely accepted model for influencing and collaborating was proposed in 2008 by David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute. It’s known by the acronym Scarf, which stands for five key “domains” that influence people’s behaviour in social situations. These are: status (how valued you feel by the group); certainty (your ability to read the future); autonomy (your sense of control over what’s happening); relatedness (how comfortable you feel with others); and fairness (your sense that people are interacting equitably). Change can have an impact on any of these five domains, potentially making you feel anxious or even threatened.
Is there ever a case for pausing a project?
Unless a temporary break has been planned into a business transformation initiative upfront, they can be tricky to implement.
Seex explains: “People like a bit of change if they’ve chosen it, as they generally enjoy a little variety and freshness. But, in an ongoing change situation, leaders must find ways to manage the disruption that can generate by minimising threats using emotional intelligence to create feelings of psychological safety.”
This entails being empathetic, reliable and consistent in your behaviour, offering a point of continuity and “stability in a storm”, she says.
The power of energy management
Another important consideration for those trying to prevent change fatigue is to manage the amount of effort required across the whole workforce to adapt to an ongoing transformation. It can help to create what Jansen calls “energy maps” based on aggregated input from employees to understand where any problems might be occurring.
These maps can be used to visualise fluctuations in energy at the individual, team or wider organisational level and so pinpoint where and when recovery time needs to be factored in. Energy maps can also be used in conjunction with heat maps, which depict how much change is going on in various parts of the organisation.
“Once you can see what’s happening in different teams, you can start to say ‘we need to build in downtime there every fourth week’ or whatever,” Jansen says.
Adopting this kind of sustainable approach to risk mitigation is vital, given that another tech-driven revolution has started to sweep the business world, Seex warns.
“We’re facing the biggest potential change we may experience in our lifetime with the emergence of generative AI. This will cause a lot of disruption and anxiety,” she stresses. “With that in mind, the time to get good at managing this is now.”