Managing People

How to Help Your Team Overcome Change Fatigue

January 11, 2024
January 30, 2024
Rosanna Campbell
Lattice Team

The average employee experienced 10 planned business changes in the past year alone. They’re tired. 

According to that same source, nearly three-quarters (74%) of employees said they were willing to support organizational change back in 2016. By the end of 2022, that number had plummeted to just 43%. 

In other words, if you think change fatigue isn’t affecting your team, you’re probably wrong. 

Unfortunately, though, change doesn’t stop just because we want it to. Continuous change is the reality for most businesses these days. So it’s a question of figuring out what you can do to help. 

In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of change fatigue in the workplace — how to avoid it, how to spot it, and what to do about it. 

What is change fatigue? 

Change fatigue is the state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion brought on by too much change. And, given the rate of change that many of us have experienced in recent years, it’s likely to be affecting a significant number of employees. 

Gartner research has shown that the average number of organizational changes in a year quintupled from 2016 to 2022 — and employee willingness to support these changes has dropped markedly. 

Layoffs, acquisitions, restructuring, and other changes are constants in business, but they were especially prevalent this past year. And Lattice’s 2024 State of People Strategy Report found that, for the most part, these changes were handled poorly: 

  • 41% of HR teams reported layoffs at their company.
  • 59% of HR professionals said they felt the C-suite fell short in providing enough support for addressing low employee morale following a layoff.
  • Another 62% and 63% said the C-suite didn’t provide enough support with training managers to talk about layoffs or with redefining roles, respectively.

Couple those frequent, difficult changes at work with the constant upheavals triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic — what behavioral scientist Amy Cuddy, Ph.D., called “pandemic flux syndrome” — and we have a recipe for disaster. 

Symptoms of Change Fatigue

LeMeita Smith, Ph.D., the director of clinical services at United Health Services, explained how she sees change fatigue manifesting in her clients. “Change fatigue, in my professional experience, goes beyond mere exhaustion from constant changes. It's a deep-seated sense of disillusionment and apathy that sets in when employees are continuously bombarded with changes, especially without adequate support or rationale. It’s a state where people lose sight of the purpose behind these changes and begin to feel disconnected from the organization’s goals.” 

According to change management consultancy Prosci, the following are the most common symptoms of change fatigue

  • Noise — Complaints about changes arise more frequently and loudly.
  • Apathy— Indifference about changes grows, and employees stop asking questions.
  • Burnout — Individuals look tired.
  • Stress — People appear anxious about the amount of change they’re dealing with.
  • Resistance — Employees may resist changes strongly, while others don’t push back at all.
  • Negativity — The general attitude toward work becomes cynical.
  • Skepticism — Individuals express doubt about changes succeeding.

In the words of Erica Keswin, a workplace strategist and bestselling author of The Retention Revolution, “For the past three-plus years we’ve seen work and life upended constantly — and we’re tired. We humans aren’t meant to experience so much upheaval so often, and our minds are exhausted from it.” 

How to Know If Your Employees Are at Risk of Change Fatigue

Linea Johnson, a change management expert and mental health advocate, put it bluntly: “Have your employees been in the work world in the last three years? Then they are at risk for change fatigue.”

There are specific signs that might help you spot a team that’s experiencing significant change fatigue. According to Tim Reitsma, a disability inclusion consultant and founder of Invisible Condition, there are four signs of change fatigue to watch out for. He outlined them like this:

  • Absenteeism — If your "sick" rates increase, there is likely something brewing!
  • Productivity — Sure, people still want their jobs, but they will put the minimum effort in, not the usual benchmark you may have seen in the past.
  • Language — When you sense a shift in language, change fatigue may be setting in. Reitsma said you might hear employees ask, "Why bother? It will just change again next week," or "What's the point? We are going through an acquisition so things will change anyway.” 
  • Morale — You may be able to feel that things have shifted. For example, Reitsma said people might not be as vocal in Slack or in meetings. When you walk around the physical office, if the mood is dreary or even dread-filled, that’s a sign too.

8 Ways to Overcome Change Fatigue

So, if you’re a business leader or an HR manager, and you’ve spotted those telltale warning signs in your work environment, what are you supposed to do? 

Here are 8 actionable steps from our change management experts to help you be an effective change leader.

1. Use empathy to build a culture of trust.

If you want to tune in to how your team is doing, it starts with “taking genuine care of your people,” said Reitsma. “Make people feel heard and seen, be human, and actually demonstrate compassion.” 

By creating a company culture based on empathy and trust, you’re more likely to notice any warning signs, and your team is more likely to talk to you about their mental and emotional state, Keswin explained. 

“It starts with checking in — early and often. Ask your employees, ‘How are you really, really doing?’ And provide the sense of psychological safety for them to be able to answer honestly.” 

Being honest about your own feelings can also be helpful, noted Keswin. “Demonstrating your own vulnerability and being transparent not only provides a sense of psychological safety but also helps employees manage their expectations about changes in the organization.” 

For example, you might share that you’re finding the current restructuring stressful, but that you can see the potential benefits for your team. As a result, your team would likely feel validated in their own stress but also reassured that this change won’t necessarily harm their interests. 

2. Communicate frequently but mindfully.

For Reitsma, communication is key to helping reduce the emotional impact of change. “But watch what you communicate,” he cautioned managers and HR leaders alike. 

If you simply tell your team that there will be a change initiative, but don’t tell them the details, how it will affect them specifically, and the reason for the change, then your team will fill in the gaps. In the absence of detailed, specific information, they may jump to the worst possible conclusions. 

But don’t over-communicate, warned Kraig Kleeman, CEO of The New Workforce. “Back in my early days as a tech founder and CEO, I found myself amid a pivotal moment — selling my company to a strategic distribution partner,” he recalled. 

“I was green and naive when handling high-stakes negotiations in those days. I believed in transparency and kept all my employees in the loop whenever something changed. However, this constant communication of ongoing uncertainty unintentionally sowed seeds of insecurity and anxiety among my dedicated team members, who found themselves caught in the whirlwind of change.” 

A solid communications plan is key to any change effort, said Johnson. When supporting a large team going through a merger, Johnson and the leadership team created a plan that “released information in digestible chunks while creating a feedback loop so employees could feel heard, express concern or fear, and understand what would happen to them.” 

3. Create spaces for employees to share feedback.

Instead of being secretive or oversharing, Smith recommended that managers and HR leaders create opportunities for “meaningful two-way conversations that offer clarity and reassurance. In one instance, during a major restructuring process in a company I worked with, we held small group sessions. These weren't just to inform but to listen — really listen — to the concerns and suggestions of employees.”

Your team may need opportunities to vent and share the stress and inconvenience that change can cause, Reitsma pointed out. This is not the moment for you, as the manager, to try and steer the conversation or focus on the positive aspects of the change. Rather, you’re there to simply listen, actively and with empathy. 

4. Offer opportunities for employee ownership.

One of the most stressful aspects of change can be the feeling of helplessness that it triggers. For example, research into burnout and change fatigue in nurses shows that employees in more hierarchical organizations are more likely to experience change fatigue than those in collaborative cultures are. The implication is that change decisions that come from the top down are more difficult to cope with. 

Instead, Kleeman urged managers and leaders to “get your team involved in the change process. Ask them for ideas, listen to their thoughts, and make them feel part of the solution.” 

To this end, Smith proposed the idea of “change champions,” which she described as “individuals from within the team who could liaise between management and staff, offering a more relatable perspective.”

She also suggested looking for opportunities to “give employees a sense of control, however small. Let them have a say in how they adapt to the changes, or offer them choices in their roles and responsibilities.” 

5. Manage the experience of change, not just the outcomes.

Gartner's research into change fatigue found the best approach is to “focus on how employees experience change, not just the outcomes of changed behaviors.” 

In other words, the impact of change is not just in the final outcome — the new location, the new senior leadership, or the new organizational structure. It’s also in the experience of how you go from A to B — the way that the change is communicated, the logistics of the relocation, or the way you’re introduced to your new leadership team, for example.

To facilitate a successful change and make the experience easier for your employees, consider the process beforehand and think through each step.

6. Consider additional PTO.

If you think that your team members are at risk of change fatigue — or already experiencing it — the solution could be simple, said Reitsma: “Give them all a month off!” 

This is particularly true for the HR team, Reitsma observed. “HR deals with it all,” he said. Human resources professionals aren’t just managing the impact of the change on the organization — they’re also likely dealing with all the complaints and concerns of the other teams affected. 

In some cases, additional paid leave can help reduce your team’s exhaustion, so they can return to work with more energy to deal with the new reality. 

7. Advocate for employee needs.

As a manager or HR leader, it’s your responsibility to represent your team’s interests to executive leadership. When it comes to planning major changes, that may mean that you need to provide context and remind leaders about the potential negative impact of these changes on morale and productivity. 

Of course, you may not be in a position to question or challenge a planned change. But you can certainly ask meaningful questions to help with decision-making and avoid a “change for change’s sake” mentality. 

A few examples of questions to ask include the following: 

  • Is this change right for the business, right now?
  • This change could have a significant impact on morale. Have you given the current model enough time to be successful?
  • Have you prepared your managers to talk about this change?
  • Our engagement survey data shows X. Did you consider this when you planned this change? With that in mind, is there something you could do differently?

8. Shift the narrative.

Finally, Keswin advised managers to “shift the narrative from change fatigue to the idea of dynamic change.” 

Most change is stressful, but not all change is bad, she observed. For example, “A lot of the changes that happened during the beginning of the pandemic were simply because leaders had never experienced a pandemic and were trying anything and everything to keep their businesses afloat. But the silver lining is, that turbulent time gave us an opportunity to experiment with new ways of working, new policies, new business structures.”

Instead of panicking about the discomfort of change, Keswin recommended that leaders try to “shift the organization’s mindset to one of openness and experimentation.” 

5 Change Management Resources to Help Avoid Change Fatigue

Several HR resources can mitigate the impact of change and help reduce the risk of change fatigue. Here are our top five suggestions for change management resources.

1. Manager Training 

Managers will need to be able to talk to their teams frankly about new changes, and also deal with negative reactions in a positive way. They’ll need adequate resources to provide effective support, including: 

  • Clear guidance on how to describe the change, the impact on their team, and the reasons behind the change
  • Training on how to hold supportive one-on-one meetings with team members 
  • Upskilling in areas like active listening, creating psychological safety, managing stress, and spotting burnout in themselves and others 

2. Opportunities for Real-Time Employee Feedback 

Employee agency is key to effective change management. That means creating regular opportunities for your employees to give and receive feedback on the changes in question. Examples include: 

  • Pulse surveys, to quickly gauge the general mood in your team and note any significant drops in morale
  • All-hands meetings with executive leadership, so employees can ask questions and share concerns 
  • Real-time performance feedback, so managers can help employees overcome performance issues triggered by the changes 

3. Wellness Resources 

There are numerous ways that you can support your employees’ mental and emotional well-being during stressful times. Kleeman suggested you “hook your team up with resources like counseling, stress-busting workshops, or employee help programs to help them deal with all the feelings that come with change.” 

4. OKRs 

Objectives and key results (OKRs) aren’t just a great way to set organizational and team goals. They can also be an excellent way to manage change. OKRs help you create a clear alignment between the strategic goals you’re working toward as a company (such as a major cultural change) and the ways you’re going to work together to achieve them. As a result, they make it very clear how everyone fits into the change and give employees a context for the change and a reason why it’s necessary. 

Want to know more about how to support your team in 2024? 

Check out Lattice’s 2024 State of People Strategy Report. We’ve gathered the insights, predictions, and best practices for dealing with the changes that the new year will most certainly bring. 

And, if you’re already struggling with change fatigue in your organization, Lattice’s people management platform can be a great place to start. With Lattice, you can: 

  • Track employee engagement and spot teams at risk of change fatigue
  • Invite employee feedback with easy-to-use pulse surveys
  • Support your managers with resources for more effective one-on-ones
  • Get actionable insights into employee morale, absenteeism, and productivity with our advanced people analytics features

If you’d like our help navigating the constant changes that make up today’s business reality, join a live demo webinar to learn more.