Change fatigue is a condition characterised by lingering mental and physical tiredness associated with organisational change. The sufferer feels neither excitement nor optimism about the change. Change fatigue is increasingly prevalent and it’s a cause of much unhappiness, unnecessary stress and productivity loss. It’s commonly caused by ineffective leadership and poor management of organisational change. Of most significance to professionals and managers is that it is entirely avoidable.
Whether your focus is the personal effect or if you are managing others who are suffering the effects of change fatigue, knowing the symptoms is a prerequisite for dealing with it. Understanding the causes allows you to be proactive in reducing the risk of change fatigue or if it’s already taken hold, taking steps to treat it.
Causes and symptoms of change fatigue
Change fatigue refers to the physical and psychological responses that occur when a person feels burdened by change and powerless to address their circumstances. It is often brought about by feelings that a workplace has become one unending change initiative with staff spending an increasing proportion of their time reacting to change instead of getting the job done. It is commonly associated with increased workload resulting from downsizing and layoffs.
Some of the observable signs that change fatigue is taking hold are:
- managers hold meetings to explain change initiatives and nobody asks any questions but there is plenty of chatter outside those meetings;
- cynicism abounds and expressions of optimism and excitement are absent (apart from those made by change initiators in their attempts to generate enthusiasm);
- absenteeism increases, workplace relationships deteriorate and morale plummets; and
- productivity of workers who are known to be high-performers falls off.
It’s important to know that change fatigue is not the same as resistance to change though they are commonly treated as if they are the same thing. Resistance is a normal human response and resistance to organisational change usually manifests in questions about the rationale for change and challenges to the likelihood of it succeeding. Skilled change leaders and managers know that change resistance is inevitable and support people to work through their own resistance, knowing that people who are engaged with organisational change are committed to its success. Skilled change leaders also recognise and deal with their own resistance to change.
Change fatigue can be more challenging to deal with because it saps people’s energy leaving little in reserve for responding to change. The detrimental effects on people and on the organisation can be severe and long lasting.
Reducing the risk of change fatigue
Change fatigue not only exerts a toll on individuals but also comes at significant cost to organisations. The good news is that, for the most part it’s almost entirely avoidable when change leadership and change management are done well. Change leadership/management that averts change fatigue has the following characteristics:
- there is a rationale for change that makes sense to everyone in that they can see their contribution and the benefits;
- people have been involved in designing the changes which will affect their work responsibilities;
- implementation planning is given enough attention;
- the change initiative is adequately resourced (given implementation plans);
- people are treated with respect and supported to make needed adjustments;
- communication is ‘with’ employees not ‘at’ them; i.e. communication is engaging, informative and genuinely inspiring.
There is a list of additional material available on the Professionals Australia website, about how to lead and manage change well, at the end of this article.
Tackling change fatigue as an individual
Many professionals have found themselves in a situation where change fatigue is setting in around them and despite their wish to remain upbeat, they feel powerless to swim against the tide of increasingly negative sentiments. Whilst moving on to another workplace can be tempting, the ubiquity of change initiatives means it’s likely you will find yourself in a similar situation in the future. So it makes sense to first apply some tried and tested coping techniques:
- look after yourself before you attempt to support colleagues. This includes paying extra attention if necessary to basic health and wellbeing such as getting enough quality sleep, eating healthily and making sure you don’t neglect your exercise routine;
- invest some time in reflecting on what exactly is tiring and what would improve your situation at work – in preparation for taking the initiative to deal with the situation; and
- initiate a constructive conversation with your manager about the causes of change fatigue as you see them including your thoughts about what would ameliorate the situation.
For example, a mid-career, public health professional was appointed to a new role following a restructure; the third in as many years. The new role incorporated many of the functions of his prior role as well as a range of new responsibilities. Once again he found himself having to hand over half-finished projects in order to take up new responsibilities. Whilst he recognised the career development potential of the new role he realised that, as someone committed to seeing projects through to conclusion, he was increasingly frustrated about constant change. Stress was taking its toll and he recognised that he was in danger of burning himself out.
In a constructive conversation with his manager he negotiated an interim set of responsibilities and a hand-over plan that helped the team overall and helped him to regain his energy and enthusiasm for the department’s work.
The article ‘Avoiding burnout’ provides practical tips for professionals who suspect they are in danger of burnout from too much imposed change.
Avoiding change fatigue: tips for managers
Research has shown that certain leadership and management behaviours tend to generate change fatigue and each is easily modified:
1. Choice of language
Whilst change is always about endings and beginnings, be respectful in the language you use to refer to the past. Expressions like ‘move on’, ‘forget the past’ and reference to how things have been done to date as if everything has to change are dispiriting for people who are being asked to embrace change. Language that recognises what has been achieved and expresses genuine belief in people is far more likely to be experienced as inclusive and respectful.
2. Implementation planning
Change of any kind calls for big picture thinking but change doesn’t happen without adequately resourced implementation plans. The risk of change fatigue increases dramatically when wholesale change is foreshadowed but people are left in the dark about how it will be achieved.
3. Staff engagement
Managers should not expect anybody to be committed to change that they feel has been imposed on them. Of course there are big picture change decisions that can only be made by the most senior people in an organisation but for change to be successful, people need to be involved in the changes that will affect their work. The article ‘Staff engagement. What’s the bottom line?’ explores this topic further.
Organisations must adapt and change in order to survive and thrive, making ongoing change inevitable. Managed well, change can be inspiring and energising. It is part of contemporary life as a professional to be aware of the potential for change fatigue and to know how to deal with it proactively.
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in further reading about topics covered in this article, the following articles and guides are available on the Professionals Australia website.
About the author
Dr Janet Fitzell, a director of FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au), is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational and professional development.