The Reality of Change Fatigue
Every change, regardless of how minor or significant, requires extra concentration to transition from current ways of doing things to new habits and behaviours. Over time, repeated cycles of change can be tiring.
COVID-19 has thrust organisations into an extended period of change. Employees have had to manage continuous and rapid transformation on the work front while simultaneously dealing with growing concerns about the economy, job security, their health, and the health of their loved ones. The result of constantly needing to battle and endure fast-moving changes has led to a state of exhaustion known as change fatigue.
According to a 2022 Gartner Report, 54% of HR leaders say their employees are fatigued by constant change. “Employees’ ability to absorb change has plummeted precisely at the time when more organisations need change to reset,” summarised Jessica Knight, Vice President of Gartner, at Gartner ReimagineHR Conference.
“Employees’ ability to absorb change has plummeted precisely at the time when more organisations need change to reset” — JESSICA KNIGHT, VICE PRESIDENT OF GARTNER
The effects of a tired workforce are far-reaching. Other than longer-term impact which can negatively affect organisational culture, more immediate implications to the business range from lower productivity, derailing business strategies, conflict at the workplace, less engaged employees, and ultimately, loss of talent. Change fatigue is a challenge that has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and leaders need to address it well to protect the business and retain employees.
Empathy Is Critical to Combatting Change Fatigue
At its core, change fatigue is more emotional than cognitive, and it happens in the small and practical things.
Gartner finds that the primary cause of change fatigue in staff is not the big organisation-wide shifts, like mergers and acquisitions; rather, it is the day-to-day changes that affect staff most.
For example, if a staff needs to shift teams, they would have to get to know the new team, understand their manager’s expectations, adapt to a whole different team dynamic and working style – things that they were already used to before. These practical changes, if not well-supported, add up and can come at an emotional cost – feeling tired and frustrated, and maybe wishing that things had never changed.
Leaders that are most successful in managing change assist employees in navigating this multi-layered terrain and create a positive change experience. By intentionally trying to understand team members’ practical struggles and feelings that arise, team members will feel supported and valued by their leaders, leading to a high-trust relationship. This is essentially what empathy is.
According to Mercer’s Global Talent Trends Report 2020-2021 titled “Win With Empathy”, trust and empathy are the enduring foundations of success for long-term business strategies, especially in this new era of reinvention. This is supported by a study conducted by Catalyst which found that when employees had empathetic leaders, they were more likely to be innovative. This made up 61% of employees, compared to only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders.
When employees had empathetic leaders, they were more likely to be innovative.
Furthermore, companies that demonstrated empathy to employees during COVID-19 by extending well-being provisions were not only lauded publicly but also emerged stronger by attracting talent.
Needless to say, empathetic leadership fuels better business and is crucial for teams to transition through change successfully.
How To Deal With Change Fatigue Through Empathetic Leadership
1. Recognise change fatigue
During a period of ongoing change, leaders need to be extra observant and vigilant and make the extra effort to look out for people through a lens of empathy.
According to Gwen Webber-McLeod, president and CEO of Gwen Inc. and a leadership specialist, some signs of change fatigue include a lack of concentration, enthusiasm, or willingness, stress, elevated worry levels, negativity, resistance, indifference, or disengagement.
The result of change fatigue takes on a variety of forms, from burnout and mental exhaustion to aggressive resistance to change.
Leaders need to empathise with employees and recognise that their emotions and struggles are not trivial or ill-intentioned, but a result of an extended period that has been difficult for everyone.
Leaders need to recognise that employees' emotions and struggles are not trivial or ill-intentioned, but a result of an extended period that has been difficult for everyone.
2. Listen to and acknowledge the fatigue
Being aware of your staff’s challenges is important, but it is also critical that staff know that you know. And they must know that you truly understand.
It was found that the two keys to reducing the risk of change fatigue are trust and team cohesion, in a study by Gartner where more than 4,000 employees from various levels, areas, and geographies were surveyed. Employees’ believing that leaders have their interests in mind, as well as teams having a sense of belonging and cohesion, were crucial factors that determined employees’ ability to absorb change.
The two keys to reducing the risk of change fatigue are trust and team cohesion.
Armaan Seth, head of HR at Syngenta Asia Pacific, advocates for leaders at all levels to build a culture of trust to encourage people to talk about how they feel, and ensure that they in turn genuinely listen to feedback and connect with their teams.
“We also want to ensure that people are open and don’t feel scared about saying that ‘this is too much’ or ‘I’m overwhelmed’,” he said.
One of the best ways to ensure you understand what your team members are sharing is by first echoing their situation and challenges back to them, then asking them, “Am I seeing the full picture?” or “Do you feel like I understand your situation?” Being able to articulate the change’s implications on them not only as workers, but also multidimensional people with home and wellbeing concerns, will help your team members feel that you truly understand their full context.
“If there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put oneself in another person’s place and to see things from his or her point of view – as well as from one’s own.” — HENRY FORD
According to Harvard Business Review, such empathetic listening builds trust and respect, enables people to reveal their emotions, facilitates openness of information sharing, and creates an environment that encourages collaborative problem-solving.
3. Empathy is only the beginning
Leading your team with empathy will naturally pave the way for trust and connection. Understanding the current needs of your team will allow you to have better judgement of what you can do now to help them through their immediate stresses. Sometimes, no practical solution is needed – staff just need to know you’re listening.
Sometimes, no practical solution is needed — staff just need to know you're listening.
Over time, your leadership will create a safe space for meaningful and even difficult must-have conversations. When these conversations can take place, all parties will gain a broadened perspective and an understanding of different realities. Empathy-based leadership enables you to better understand your employees’ thoughts, feelings, challenges and even strengths.
Your team can then create effective solutions which truly help your teams remain resilient through change.
Lead with Relational Competence
Given the constraints on today's organisations, change fatigue may seem unavoidable, but having the necessary leadership competencies such as empathy can help you manage its challenges.
Empathetic leadership is a skill that can be acquired and must be nurtured. It is part and parcel of Relational Leadership – a coach-like leadership approach that focuses on building trust and strong relationships. With sufficient time and support, leaders can grow and hone their relational competencies through coaching, and various leadership development initiatives.