The phrase “the only constant is change” may be an understatement for what our labor force has been experiencing since 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in dramatic changes to the ways in which we both work and live. Changes in the workplace were particularly stressful, with major transformations of business operations occurring practically overnight. Along with a disruptive work environment, added concerns about health, the health of loved ones, job security, and the economy created a perfect storm in 2020 that increased change fatigue in the workplace. According to Gartner, employees’ capacity to absorb change dropped 50% in 2020 compared to 2019.
To further complicate things, the rapid flood of COVID-related changes began at a time when companies were already shifting operating models to integrate digital technologies and stay competitive. As a result, most employees are operating in what could be described as a high-change or VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment. The need to be constantly evolving is a business necessity, yet most businesses lack the infrastructure to shepherd employees through the chaos of constant change.
While one might imagine that large-scale changes (e.g., mergers, acquisitions, new CEO, company downsizing, etc.) are the major driver of change fatigue in employees, this is not the case. Gartner analyzed data from over 4,000 employees across levels, regions, and geographies using measures of volume, exertion, and disruption to study the change load that different types of change exert on employees. The study revealed that the small, unexpected changes (e.g., budget changes, new remote policy, benefits changes, new teammates, change in responsibilities, workspace relocation, increased collaboration across silos, etc.) were the biggest contributors to change fatigue. What is important to note here is that these smaller disruptions account for the vast majority of all changes that employees experience, and these are precisely the types of uncertainties that have been rapidly escalating under the threat of COVID-19.
While a large scale, planned transformation effort offers ample time to build a supportive and intentional communication plan to facilitate employee awareness and buy-in, this luxury is usually absent during an avalanche of small and erratic changes. Even where time is not the issue, the ability to anticipate and address employee change experience is severely hindered when the rationale for the change, the scope of affected groups, and/or the change leaders are not fully known. Small changes made in reaction to a shifting work environment may seem insubstantial to the initiator, who likely lacks visibility into other, concurrent fluctuations being led by other parts of the business. Taken in aggregate, employees can easily feel overwhelmed as multiple aspects of his or her job are affected at once. By their very nature, these changes are unplanned and uncoordinated. Hence, a cohesive communications strategy and engagement plan is out of the question.
If an environment of constant change is our only certainty, the next best thing is to recognize the warning signs for, and learn to address, symptoms of change fatigue as they arise.
How to Recognize Change Fatigue in Your Employees and Organization
Change fatigue usually results when employees are forced to endure sudden, overlapping and/or successive changes in the work environment. An employee experiencing change fatigue can exhibit a variety of behaviors, including:
- Disengagement – Employees are quiet during group discussions and team meetings and seem to lack presence. They come to work, but their interest, commitment, contribution, and focus do not.
- Negative attitude – New tasks are met with cynicism and sarcasm. “Here we go again” becomes a common refrain.
- Burn out – Employees are overwhelmed with their responsibilities. As a result, their nervous system lacks the energy to move through new tasks and errors may be made more frequently.
- Anger and Stress – Interpersonal conflict within the workplace increases as tempers rise. Both the number and volume of worker complaints increase.
- Unproductive Churn – Confusion around job responsibilities increases, but employees either the lack the energy to seek clarification or second-guess themselves. To avoid embarrassment, workers try to appear busy but accomplish little.
- Lack of initiative – Employees are less likely to volunteer when participants are requested for special projects, committees or other extraneous activities.
The constant barrage of change in evolving organizations can take its toll on employees if not properly addressed. Once change fatigue has set in for your employees, overall performance can quickly deteriorate in a number of ways:
- Morale decreases – Morale throughout the organization plunges. Both managers and employees become dissatisfied, disillusioned and discouraged.
- Business risk rises – Employee focus and precision is replaced with a general sloppiness, resulting in increased business risk.
- Turnover increases – Key personnel move on, and the employees who remain tend to be the ones who are good at surviving change without really changing anything.
- Change resistance grows – Any type of change initiative is met with immediate resistance, or even worse, passive resignation. Change initiatives are ignored, actively sabotaged or approached with a mindset of certain failure.
- Profitability is reduced – Focus on day-to-day tasks that are essential to generate value and maintain profitability declines, with the customer being virtually forgotten.
- Productivity plummets – A sense of overwhelm permeates all activities and concentration declines, resulting in lower overall employee engagement and productivity.
- Innovation declines – Change fatigue crushes the energy, enthusiasm and sense of shared purpose that are the foundations of creativity and innovation.
As business leaders observe this downward spiral in employee performance, it is tempting to shift blame toward individuals. But when these characteristics are observed at scale, it is more likely the environment that needs to adapt. An investigation into how the extent of change experience correlates to patterns of poor performance may reveal that in fact these outcomes are the consequence of improperly managed, systemic organizational change.
Communication Strategies to Combat Change Fatigue
The Gartner study cited above found that employee willingness and ability to accept and adapt to change improved with both trust in leadership and a sense of team cohesion. Trust and community are built, in large part, through transparency. Communicating authentically and consistently and empowering managers to do the same will build this sense of shared commitment and strengthen employee resilience in the face of constant change. At a minimum, employees need to understand the specific behavior change(s) being requested and the rationale for this change, so that they can adequately prepare for and anticipate the “new normal”. Traditional change communications seek to achieve the following:
- Transfer needed knowledge to impacted stakeholders
- Solicit input and feedback from change stakeholders
- Explain how solicited feedback is being used
- Share information regarding the progress of the initiative
- Review key aspects of the change and seek input or approval for next steps
Traditional change communication works well for defined pre-planned initiatives with set goals. Most organizations are operating in a VUCA environment, however, with a high volume of small, unplanned changes with ambiguous change information (i.e., many unknowns) and pivoting objectives. As a result, conventional communication approaches are severely limited. The resource needs alone to identify and track all these small changes to provide timely communications to employees would be prohibitive. Given that these small changes are the major contributor to change fatigue, it is imperative to develop a strategy to support your employees and avoid a burned-out workforce.
To address the ongoing deluge of small, unplanned changes inherent to a high-change environment, communication leaders should implement an “always-on” change communication strategy that runs alongside the targeted project-specific communications. An always-on change communication strategy has two main components:
- Provides information at regular intervals about how the organization is operating in a high-change environment that contains concise, targeted messaging to help employees manage their expectations around workplace stability.
- Provides access to self-serve resources and networks that employees can use for just-in-time change support to help them build the resilience they need to thrive in a VUCA environment.
This approach can be very effective in providing employees with the support they need to tolerate the broader VUCA environment.
When implementing an always-on change communication strategy, middle managers are essential partners. Consequently, change communication professionals should reinforce the importance of open-door communications with team leads and make certain that the always-on change resources described below are also being reinforced in regular staff meetings and one-on-ones.
Recommended aspects of an effective always-on change strategy include:
Provide regular information about how changes affect job responsibilities. A steady stream of unexpected and unplanned changes in a VUCA environment leave many employees struggling to understand how their job responsibilities will be affected by cumulative changes. Change communicators can help by providing regular information about the consequences of changes on employee’s day-to-day responsibilities that are targeted to different employee segments based on how they are affected by the changes.
Help employees feel part of the organization’s change journey. The volume of unexpected changes in a VUCA environment can leave employees confused and lacking agency as they struggle to understand how and why everything keeps changing. Communicators can provide support by creating frameworks to help employees understand external market context and clarify that strategic decisions are being made in response that link back to the company vision and values. One idea might be to create a series of reflective questions in an eLearning training course that helps employees understand the market influences that drive corporate strategy.
Provide practical, ability-rebuilding support. Changes in VUCA environments can often erode employees’ confidence in performing their jobs. Communicators can support employees’ practical needs in these instances by designing and providing self-service platforms where employees can connect and help each other understand, integrate, and execute the required changes. This also helps to bring the change out of the shadows and into the open as a shared, community experience.
Provide psychological, emotionally reinforcing support. Employees immersed in a high-change environment can benefit from trained support that both validates the challenges posed by ongoing change and offers an outlet to help them cope with the resulting uncertainty. Communicators can help by designing programs (learning and development programs, culture hacking events, employee resource groups, expanded Employee Assistance Programs, etc.) that provide opportunities for mastery experiences that build employee confidence that they can meet challenges, navigate change, and complete tasks successfully.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital revolution, and shifting macroeconomic conditions, conducting business in a highly volatile environment is inevitable. Employees are bound to experience change fatigue at some point. Traditional change communications, which are designed to assist employees through big, pre-planned change initiatives, are unsuitable to support employees in this high-change, or VUCA environment.
To combat organizational change fatigue, change communication professionals need to stop managing change as if it’s simply a collection of projects. Instead, change professionals should view change as an interconnected journey and adopt an always-on change communication strategy that is focused on building a supportive and resilient environment in addition to addressing specific transformation goals. By providing appropriate just-in-time change information, along with practical and constructive change support, communication leaders can strengthen employee adaptability to help them thrive during the continuous organizational change that is necessary for success in today’s ever-changing world.