Let’s face it, many of us have experienced more change this past year than we may have ever expected or prepared for. Whether it be a loss of a job, a postponed wedding, or a new addition to our daily routine, our lives are always shifting and evolving alongside us. But when dealing with personal change coincides with dealing with organizational change, it can all feel very overwhelming.
Within the workplace, change can be beneficial and even necessary to the well-being of the company. A new system or a new team can be all the difference to a successful organization. But when the changes keep coming and are not properly managed, employees can experience what is known as change fatigue.
A survey by McKinsey found that the pace of some digital-strategy projects has accelerated from years to a matter of days or weeks due to the pressures and rapid restructuring generated by the pandemic. Simultaneously, the demands of these personal and organizational changes have compounded to become more than many people can handle without becoming overwhelmed. It is evident that during the time when changes are inevitable (working from home, office closures, new systems), employees' ability to adapt to these changes without being fatigued is minimized.
If change is not managed appropriately, it can impact the workplace culture, job satisfaction, and even employee retention. Change fatigue can manifest itself into not only employees’ workplace behaviour, but as well as their personal lives. Feelings of burnout, frustration, and being overwhelmed can seep into the cracks of employees’ well-being.
But how can organizations work to avoid change fatigue or learn how to identify and minimize it before it becomes unmanageable?
Is Everything Important?
Have you ever worked on a project or initiative that didn’t explicitly highlight the project priorities? It was likely frustrating, vague, and hard to know when you were truly accomplishing anything. This can be the same case for organizational change in which the priorities and areas of importance are not stated. If executives communicate the message that “everything is important”, employees may be left flailing, investing ample time and energy into a change without seeing substantial results. If an employee is being stretched too thin over multiple areas within a change, then the results will be lackluster.
A clear focus on priorities and key areas of change would allow for employees to have targets, goals, and an idea of what is expected of them. When executives narrow the project focus and create attainable success metrics, it allows for more efficient resource allocation. If time and people are managed more efficiently, change fatigue can be minimized. When leaders take the time to signpost the priorities, it allows for targeted success and prevents change fatigue. It is also critical that stakeholders at all levels in the organization clearly understand “first, next, then, after that...”
Identifying Brittle Systems
If employees are resisting change in response to experiencing change fatigue, then there needs to be a deeper dive into the systems that are brittle, to uncover what is causing them to be this way. Identifying an employee’s barrier to change can be the first step in unpacking the system. Does the employee need more education or training for the skill they are stuck on? Maybe there is a problem with ability — many parents with children whose schools are experiencing shutdowns have limitations in their job performance due to the increased demand for childcare at home.
Ultimately, people may simply have limits to how they can adapt to new changes in an organization. By identifying an employee’s barrier to change, the unique mix of activities and support that needs to be brought to that person to “unstick” them can begin.
From Reactive to Proactive
Surviving a big change undoubtedly feels like an amazing feat. While we know that change never really ends, making it through the thick of it and coming out the other side feels like a win. But leaders often assume that their organizations are change resilient simply because they have survived the change. They see this survival as a measure of success. But is making it through a change truly the best form of measuring prosperity?
Surviving is being reactive. Thriving is being proactive. An organization that can move from a reactive mindset to one that is proactive when facing change is one that will be better equipped to handle change and prevent change fatigue for employees. To be proactive requires clear communication channels within all levels of an organization, ensuring alignment with company values and clear outcomes expected from a change. Further, it is crucial that an organization ensures that people have the skills necessary to navigate a complex change environment as part of their standard toolset. Rather than having employees scramble to learn or understand their functions within a change after it has already been implemented, understanding their role, or receiving training in the specific toolset they need before they need it can be the difference between a reactive and proactive approach to change.
Change fatigue can be emotionally and physically draining on an employee and can result in change resistance, diminishing quality of work, or even a rise in the frequency of employees leaving the company. By creating clear and tangible goals and identifying employees’ barriers to change, organizations can work towards minimizing change fatigue experienced by employees. By shifting from a reactive to proactive mindset, organizations can not only survive, but thrive, in the face of change.