When we think about organizational change, it calls to mind sweeping transformations of an entire organization pulling together to alter something fundamental.
But the reality is that for many organizations, business is so competitive that it’s not just one transformation that’s necessary, but many different changes on a near-constant basis. That means a relentless stream of initiatives, from organizational restructuring and automating time-consuming activities to upgrading outdated tech systems and transforming corporate culture — all happening alongside a society-wide shift to hybrid work.
Indeed, the average employee experienced 10 planned enterprise changes in 2022, up from two in 2016, according to Gartner research. Although well-intentioned, the ceaseless wave of change initiatives is causing an unintended side effect of “change fatigue.”
Change fatigue is the sense of frustration, apathy, and resistance that can arise among employees subjected to frequent, ongoing changes in organizational structures and processes.
The irony is that many change initiatives are actually aimed at increasing engagement and reducing burnout. But as it turns out, change fatigue has real-world consequences for organizations in terms of disillusionment and lost productivity. Employees experiencing change fatigue are less engaged and less committed to the organization. Even worse, change-fatigued employees are more likely to quit, resulting in turnover that’s costly and disruptive.
It’s not surprising, then, that a recent poll revealed employee willingness to support change initiatives has dropped dramatically — from 74% in 2016 to 38% in 2022.
Good intentions, unforeseen consequences
Leaders often initiate change because they envision making the workplace more inclusive, innovative, and efficient.
But amid those positive intentions, it’s easy to forget that change can be daunting and disruptive. Change, by nature, involves venturing into new and unfamiliar territory — something we are wired to avoid since we crave certainty, structure, and predictability. That means even the most resilient employees struggle to maintain enthusiasm when it feels like the ground is perpetually shifting beneath their feet.
Beyond our wiring, a trust deficit causes change fatigue: Gartner found only 36% of employees report high trust in their organization. When employees don’t understand the purpose behind a change and are skeptical of the motives, they’re less likely to buy in. Unfortunately, the usual approach is for leaders to define a change and simply expect employees to get on board. If employees struggle, they’re advised to be resilient, adopt a growth mindset, and find their own ways to cope. That’s not a viable approach — which may explain why many organizational change initiatives ultimately fail.
Luckily, change fatigue isn’t inevitable — if organizations are willing to reconsider their approach to implementing change. The key is to focus on how employees experience change and devise strategies to provide certainty and minimize threat.
Lead with empathy
Instead of simply announcing a new vision and waiting for employees to fall in line, managers need to recognize that change is uncomfortable. Accept that employees may be exhausted by organizational initiatives, and acknowledge the stress and uncertainty that go along with being asked to adopt new behaviors.
To respect the impact this has on employees, consider limiting the number of change initiatives each employee is involved in by capping company-wide initiatives to a few per year — and rolling them out only to select teams. Employees are more likely to change when new behaviors are simple and easy to remember.
To help employees cope with change, communicate openly and often. Even in the midst of ambiguity, don’t leave employees in the dark; make a point to communicate what you know as soon as you can. Not only will this show you trust employees, but it also gives them time to mentally prepare for changes. Remember: Bad news can be better than no news.
Transparent communication also means explaining the reasoning behind changes. When employees have a sense of the big picture and understand why change is necessary, they’re far more likely to embrace it — and trust the organization. And when high levels of trust are present, employees’ capacity for change is 2.6 times higher than it is among employees with low trust.
Include employees in the process
Employees are more likely to support change initiatives when they feel their voices are heard. Create opportunities for people to express their feelings, offer feedback, and ask questions — and crucially, take the time to listen to their concerns. This could take the form of virtual town halls, executive Q&As, or an online form for submitting questions and sharing opinions. By ensuring you understand their concerns, you not only show you care, you also equip yourself to implement change in a way employees will accept.
Encourage a healthy mind
Because change is inherently tiring, it’s crucial that employees begin the process with sufficient reserves of energy and motivation. Physical resilience is the bedrock of emotional resilience, and encouraging employees to prioritize adequate sleep, regular downtime, and play can help them confront challenges and adapt to changes as they occur. Encourage employees to take breaks throughout the workday, disconnect during off-hours, and use paid time off. And whenever possible, give employees the flexibility to set their own work hours and work from home if they so choose.
By implementing these strategies, organizations can reduce change fatigue, cultivate a more engaged and resilient workforce, and maximize the chances that change initiatives will succeed. Change is inevitable, but with a thoughtful and empathetic approach, leaders can make it manageable, sustainable, and beneficial for everyone involved.