Workplace change fatigue is serious. Learn more about it — and how to help employees who are struggling with it.

Organizational change is ever present. Yet sometimes change happens rapidly — without regard for our mental well-being.

And that can be overwhelming and exhausting, especially for your employees.

Because change fatigue has the potential to impact your staff and their performance, it’s important to learn the appropriate steps to help employees address it.

In this blog, we’ll explore:

  • What workplace change fatigue looks like
  • The signs and symptoms
  • How to help employees cope with change fatigue
  • Methods for preventing its negative effects

When change is too much

In the workplace, change fatigue can look like confusion, stress, burnout or even passive aggressiveness.

Change-related fatigue is usually the result of top-down, management-driven change efforts — or where employees must adjust their behavior but don’t understand why it’s necessary.

Even when employees understand the rationale behind change initiatives, this weariness can set in when there’s an excessive amount of change that feels beyond their control (e.g., adjustments required during the COVID-19 pandemic).

The signs and symptoms of change fatigue

When your employees seem stressed or employee engagement has dipped, the cause may not be readily apparent.

It could be a bad manager. It could be personal life stressors. Or maybe it is, in fact, change fatigue that’s behind it.

Beyond just a general sense of apathy, here are some specific things you may notice when your employees experience change fatigue:

  • Overwhelming cynicism and skepticism during conversations regarding your change initiatives
  • Constant questioning of the intentions of your senior leaders
  • General distrust of your change management team (sometimes accompanied by mocking or backbiting)

If you recognize these attitudes when you are communicating with your employees, you can pick up on change fatigue early and address it promptly.

When left unaddressed, however, change fatigue can:

  • Spread rapidly to other employees
  • Create a toxic work environment permeated by distrust
  • Result in losing people — even seasoned, high-performing employees

Strategies for overcoming change fatigue

If it’s clear you lack buy-in for addressing organizational root causes, here’s how you, as a leader, can help employees who struggle with change.

1. Reach out and acknowledge employees’ feelings

When you have employees pushing back or if you know they’re not happy, reach out and show empathy for how they’re feeling.

Let them know that you realize the changes are going to be hard. Then, point them toward the desired goal, and help them imagine that future state through a positive lens.

2. Celebrate small wins

When leading change initiatives, small victories become big victories over time. With employees who struggle with change, you should reinforce even the smallest of successes as often as you can.

Point out when these individuals are on track with their work and attitude, encouraging them to keep the good momentum going.

3. Acknowledge contributions and nurture a sense of ownership

Sometimes it helps when you highlight employees’ contributions and the important role their feedback can play as you implement change.

Explain that you consider them to be key stakeholders and that your decision making is influenced by their insights.

When you make them feel included in the planning (and not just the implementation) process, your employees gain a greater sense of ownership and may reengage as a result.

When a more direct approach is needed

These positive approaches to dealing with employees’ change fatigue tend to work and get them back on track quickly.

After all, emotional intelligence, healthy redirection and future-mindedness can be just as contagious as the worst case of change fatigue.

However, there are times when a more direct approach is needed with employees who have become especially cynical or who happen to have a lot of influence over the rest of your team.

These situations merit having a one-on-one conversation with the employee where you communicate that:

  • You can see the employee is displeased with the change process or at least their portion of the work.
  • Their behavior is impacting the group.
  • You want to problem-solve and make adjustments that will help them reengage in their work in a positive way.
  • You need them to be a leader and a good role model for their co-workers.

When called for, this more direct response to employee change fatigue can be very effective as long as you continue to show empathy while being clear about your company’s expectations.

What can be done to prevent change fatigue

At the front end of implementing organizational change, you have the opportunity to lead in a way that prevents change fatigue and its negative effects from ever becoming a problem for you.

Here are some methods you can use to put a stop to change fatigue before it starts.

1. Manage the pace of change

It’s a good practice to pace the amount as well as the frequency of change initiatives introduced in your organization.

So as a change leader, consider:

  • Do all of our desired organizational changes we’re trying to implement need to happen as soon as possible?
  • Can you pace each change effort with a phased rollout that can be managed easier over time?

When you take a steady, phased approach to making a series of changes, it gives your employees time to rest and helps prevent exhaustion.

You should also build in scheduled breathers within each phase of your change plan to help prevent burnout (e.g., a day of the week where change projects are set aside and regular responsibilities are tended to).

2. Over-communicate to keep employees engaged

Communicate change plans early and often with everyone who will be affected by them. Your employees need to know:

  • What’s being planned and why
  • When it will happen
  • What they can expect

Providing this information helps you address employees’ fears surrounding change, which are often based on unknowns that turn into change-related anxiety later on.

Another important piece of change communication is fostering feedback from employees throughout the process. Depending on the size of your organization, this could include company culture surveys, focus groups or meetings focused on gathering information from employees.

Remember: When soliciting employee feedback, you want them to come away feeling that not only were their ideas and suggestions heard, but that they’re also being considered and, at times, applied.

3. Reinforce a culture of improvement and innovation

Organizations that build their cultures around the values of improvement and innovation tend to handle change well when it’s needed.

When employees come forward with ideas about improving processes, be open to them. Encourage their creativity to instill confidence in their ability to be transformative and to adapt quickly when needed.

Protecting your employees

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to protect your employees from change fatigue and the damaging effects it can have on your organization.

To learn more about how to enact changes that positively impact your business, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to managing change.