Imagine running a marathon on a hot day…

Just as a marathon runner starts the race with energy and enthusiasm, individuals and organisations often begin change initiatives with high levels of excitement and commitment. However, as the race progresses, the heat and the distance take their toll. The runner’s energy dips, muscles ache, and each step becomes more challenging, similar to how ongoing, multiple changes in an organisation can lead to dwindling enthusiasm, increased resistance, and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

In both scenarios, the initial optimism can be overshadowed by the sheer endurance required to keep going. Just as the marathon runner must find ways to overcome fatigue, stay hydrated, and stay motivated, individuals and organisations facing change fatigue need to find strategies to maintain momentum, address challenges, and keep their teams engaged and motivated to reach the finish line.

change leader talking to their employee

In this article we’ll delve into:

What is change fatigue?

Change fatigue is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals or organisations experience an overwhelming amount of change in a short period of time. It’s a form of mental and emotional exhaustion caused by constant adaptation to new situations, procedures, or expectations. This fatigue is often the result of continuous change without adequate time for people to adjust or see the benefits of these changes.

Let’s take a closer look at what change fatigue looks like in real life.

COVID-19 and Change Fatigue in the Workplace

Think about it: we, as human beings, might have had a collective experience of change fatigue when COVID-19 started to unfold and throughout its course.

COVID-19 has significantly heightened change fatigue in the workplace, primarily due to the need for continuous adaptation to shifting work models. Employees have had to oscillate between remote, hybrid, and in-person arrangements, often with little notice, adding to the stress of the already uncertain pandemic situation. This uncertainty, coupled with frequent organisational changes, like restructuring and adapting new business strategies, has further strained employees. Additionally, the rapid adoption of new technologies for remote work has been challenging, especially for those less accustomed to digital tools, contributing to a sense of being overwhelmed and fatigued.

Moreover, the pandemic has blurred the boundaries between work and personal life, particularly in remote work settings, leading to increased workload and potential burnout. Health and safety concerns have remained a constant source of stress, as employees juggle their professional responsibilities with concerns about their own and their family’s well-being. The lack of in-person interactions and increased social isolation have also contributed to a sense of disconnection and mental fatigue. Collectively, these factors have created a complex and often exhausting environment in the workplace, marked by prolonged stress and the need for continuous adjustment.

What are the causes and effects of change fatigue?

There are many factors contributing to change fatigue. Here’s a breakdown of the major causes and their effects:

  • The pace and volume of change: When changes occur rapidly or in large volumes, it can be overwhelming. Employees might struggle to keep up with the new demands, processes, or expectations. Constant adjustments without adequate time to adapt or consolidate learning from previous changes can lead to a sense of being in a perpetual state of transition, which is mentally and emotionally exhausting.
  • Lack of clarity or communication about the changes: If the reasons behind changes or the details of what is expected are not clearly communicated, it can create confusion and uncertainty. This lack of clarity can lead to employees feeling unsure about how to proceed, doubting the purpose of the changes, or feeling disconnected from the organisation’s vision and goals.
  • Minimal support or resources to adapt to the changes: Adapting to change often requires new skills, knowledge, or resources. Without adequate support, such as training, mentoring, or access to necessary tools, change recipients may find it difficult to adjust. This can lead to frustration and a feeling of being ill-equipped to handle the new requirements.
  • A feeling that the changes are not meaningful or beneficial: When employees do not perceive the changes as beneficial or meaningful, either to the organisation or to themselves, it can lead to disengagement and resistance. This is especially true if changes seem arbitrary or counterproductive, or if they contradict the values or culture of the organisation.

A recent study published in Public Money & Management (de Vries & de Vries, 2023) further distils these factors into two key mediating elements: workload and uncertainty.

First, job-related aspects of organisational change, such as reorganisations, increase the workload of employees. This happens because the usual day-to-day work continues alongside the additional effort required for the change process. Changes in work conditions, such as new routines, rules, performance demands, work roles, and hierarchical relationships, contribute to this increased workload. As employees try to adapt to these changes while managing their regular work, they may become overworked and fatigued​​.

Then, organisational change leads to psychological uncertainty among employees. This uncertainty stems from the inability of employees to predict the nature of their future job, their position within the organisation, and the expectations from them following the changes. Lack of knowledge about the details of the reform and the potential change in the nature of their job contributes to this uncertainty, which leads to anxiety and exhaustion.​

It’s unsurprising that when individuals face change fatigue, they may become less effective at implementing new changes, show resistance to further changes, or feel demotivated and disengaged. This can lead to a decrease in productivity and morale, as well as an increase in errors or oversights.

What’s more concerning is a study published in Work & Stress (Bernerth, Walker & Harris, 2011) found change fatigue has negative consequences as too much change can lead to employee exhaustion, which in turn can decrease their commitment to the organisation and increase their intentions to leave their job. This is an important insight for organisations and change leaders, as it underscores the need to manage change effectively and support employee well-being to maintain a committed and stable workforce.

What are the signs of change fatigue?

It’s only logical we first look at the impact of change fatigue on direct change recipients or employees. When change leaders are aware of possible emotional, mental, and behavioural responses to change saturation, they can better equip themselves to address the human element during the change process.

  • Decreased engagement and productivity: When employees experience change fatigue, their interest in both their work and the ongoing organisational changes diminishes. This lowered engagement is often visible in their reduced productivity and lack of initiative. They might start doing the bare minimum, showing little to no enthusiasm for new projects or ideas. And that’s what quiet quitting exactly is.
  • Increased resistance to change: This is characterised by a growing reluctance or opposition towards new initiatives or changes within the organisation. Employees may start to question the necessity and benefits of continuous changes, showing resistance either openly through vocal opposition or subtly through non-compliance or passive-aggressive behaviour.
  • Higher burnout and stress levels: Excessive change can lead to heightened stress and burnout among employees. This manifests as physical and emotional exhaustion, irritability, and a sense of being overwhelmed. Such conditions arise when employees are required to continually adapt to changes without adequate support or time to adjust.
  • Lowered morale and job satisfaction: As change fatigue sets in, employees often experience a decline in their overall morale and job satisfaction. They may feel disconnected from the company’s vision, undervalued, or unsupported, leading to a sense of disillusionment with their job and the organisation.
  • Communication breakdown: Change fatigue can lead to poor communication within the organisation. Employees might misinterpret new policies or goals, or they may show a lack of interest in discussions about changes. This breakdown in communication can further exacerbate misunderstandings and resistance to change.
  • Increased absenteeism and turnover: A direct consequence of change fatigue is an increase in absenteeism and staff turnover. Employees who seek a more stable and less demanding environment may choose to leave the organisation. This not only disrupts continuity but also places additional strain on remaining staff and resources.
  • Cynicism and negative attitudes: Prolonged exposure to change can cultivate cynicism and negative attitudes towards the organisation, its leadership, and the change initiatives themselves. This often goes hand in hand with a decrease in trust and can lead to a toxic work environment.
  • Lack of adaptability and flexibility: Last but not least, change fatigue can result in a decreased employees’ ability to adapt to new changes or procedures. Employees might cling to old habits and show a lack of flexibility, hindering their own performance as well as the progress of organisational changes.

a woman experiencing burn out at work

Broader signs of change fatigue

However, it’s imperative for change leaders to take a step back for a better perspective, as external perceptions and the responses of leadership themselves and resources may also indicate a broader organisational and strategic impact.

Beaudan (2016), who wrote an incredibly insightful paper on how managers can make mid-course adjustments to give new life and momentum to change initiatives, pointed out six ‘symptoms’ of change fatigue to look out for. These are worth sharing as they go beyond – as we listed above – obvious, unmistakable signs that employees often manifest when experiencing change fatigue.

  1. External questioning of change value/objectives: When people outside the immediate change team (like other departments, stakeholders, or customers) start to question the value or objectives of the change efforts, it’s a sign that the purpose and benefits of the change are not clear or convincing. This scepticism can stem from a lack of visible progress, poor communication, or failure to align the change with the broader organisational goals.
  2. Stressed or departing change leaders/coordinators: Change leaders and coordinators are often on the front lines of implementing change. If they are showing signs of stress or choosing to leave the organisation, it may indicate that the change process is overwhelming, lacks support, or is not being managed effectively. Their departure can also lead to a loss of valuable knowledge and momentum.
  3. Reluctance to share data on change efforts: Transparency is key in change management. If there is a reluctance to share data or comment on the progress of the change efforts, it may be because the data shows unfavourable results, or there is uncertainty about the change’s direction. This lack of openness can breed mistrust and scepticism among team members and stakeholders.
  4. Diversion of budget and resources: When resources, including budget and personnel, start being redirected to other initiatives, it may signal a loss of faith in the success of the change effort or a shift in organisational priorities. This can severely hamper the change process and demotivate those involved.
  5. Customer impatience with change duration: When customers become impatient with the duration of change efforts, it usually means the changes are affecting the quality of products or services, or they are not seeing the promised improvements. This can lead to a loss of customer trust and satisfaction, which is critical for any business.
  6. Key leaders not attending progress reviews: The absence of key leaders in progress reviews can be a sign of waning commitment or interest in the change process. Leadership support is crucial for successful change management; without it, teams can lack direction and motivation.

How to overcome change fatigue?

Employees obviously don’t want pizza parties. To effectively combat change fatigue, it’s best to adopt a strategy rooted in clear communication, adequate support, and a well-paced implementation of changes.

A team looking at graphs in an office

Practice clear communication

This ensures that everyone understands not only what the changes are but also the reasons behind them and how they align with the organisation’s goals. Clear communication helps to reduce uncertainty and confusion, which are key contributors to change fatigue.

Emotional intelligence in leadership plays a really crucial part here in both communicating a clear and united change vision and direction of travel and being able to tune into and understand the emotional and psychological factors that underpin people’s change acceptance and commitment.

It’s also important that change leaders don’t assume the change communications they have delivered were heard by employees exactly as intended. This is because different employees may interpret the same communication in different ways based on their perspectives, experiences, and current state of mind. What is clear and straightforward to one person might be confusing or ambiguous to another. And this is where empathy becomes really important.

Provide adequate support

Providing the necessary resources, training, and emotional support can significantly ease the transition process. Regular check-ins, open-door policies, and creating a safe space for expressing concerns can help employees feel more secure and less overwhelmed. When employees feel supported, they are more likely to engage positively with the change, reducing feelings of being overwhelmed or ill-equipped.

Most importantly, change leaders need to continue to use the skills of empathetic leadership to understand where different team members are in the change process and how they can be best supported throughout that change journey.

Implement a thoughtful pace of change

Implementing changes at a pace that allows employees to adapt without feeling rushed or pressured is crucial. A thoughtful pace helps prevent the accumulation of stress and workload that can lead to fatigue.

What change leaders can do to make a difference here is to recognise and celebrate the individual roles that each member of their team has played in moving the group forward towards the change success and, in particular, highlighting and giving that sense of purpose that individuals are playing in supporting that change success.

Change leaders meeting in a sunny office

Managing change effectively with ChangingPoint

Ultimately, overcoming change fatigue requires a holistic approach. Change leaders need to train themselves to recognise the signs or symptoms of change fatigue, either in individuals or at an organisational level, and take a proactive approach to address them. This way, leaders can facilitate a smoother transition and foster a more resilient and adaptable organisational culture.

Our Universal Change Leadership Programme is a comprehensive solution designed to help leaders effectively navigate the complexities of organisational change. By leveraging the latest insights from behavioural science, we help equip leaders with the skills to engage, align, and inspire their teams during times of change.

Book a discovery call today to see how we can help you build a thriving change culture, foster trust through open communication, and encourage cross-functional collaboration to overcome change fatigue and drive successful transformation in your organisation.


References

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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at ChangingPoint. To find out more about how ChangingPoint can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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