How to Reduce the Risk of Employee Change Fatigue

Employees’ risk of change fatigue is higher than ever. Focus change management on employee experience and make sure to manage day-to-day changes.

Employees have endured months of rapid and constant organizational and business change and are battling concerns about the economy, job security, their health and the health of their loved ones. It’s taking its toll, but HR leaders can develop effective strategies to reduce employees’ risk of fatigue — in particular by focusing on how employees experience change.

Employees’ ability to absorb change has plummeted precisely at the time when more organizations need change to reset

“The amount of change that the average employee can absorb without becoming fatigued is half what it was last year,” said Jessica Knight, Vice President, Gartner, at Gartner ReimagineHR Conference, taking place virtually in the Americas and EMEA. “Employees’ ability to absorb change has plummeted precisely at the time when more organizations need change to reset.”

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Preventing change fatigue must start with everyday change

Change fatigue manifests in negative reactions such as burnout, frustration or apathy — and results in lower employee engagement and productivity. It’s tempting to think that the high volume of large scale change is what causes fatigue. For example, many would expect large-scale organizational transformation, such as a merger or acquisition, to be the primary cause of change fatigue. 

Change management must account for the small ripples of change in the organization, not just the Big Bang

But Gartner used measures of volume, exertion and disruption to study the change load that different types of change exert on employees and found that day-to-day changes, such as moving to a new manager or team, are far more damaging. 

“Change management must account for the small ripples of change in the organization, not just the Big Bang, because it turns out that those ripples actually take the greatest toll on employees,” said Knight.

HR leaders therefore need to rethink where they invest time, attention and energy to manage change. Consider, for example, the timing of support. It’s common to offer support when news of a change is announced, but employees experience the reality of that change later — which is when they actually need change management support. 

The choice of change management approach can also have a significant impact. Progressive organizations, for example, use an “open-source” approach that actively engages employees in all facets of change management, instead of using traditional top-down mandates.

2 keys to reduce the risk of change fatigue

Gartner analyzed data from more than 4,000 employees across levels, regions and geographies and found that two differentiators enable employees to better absorb change:

  1. Trust: The extent to which employees believe that key stakeholders — leaders, managers, coworkers and HR — have their interests in mind, and do what they have promised to do. Employees who report high trust have an average capacity for change that is 2.6 times greater than those with low trust.
  2. Team cohesion: The extent to which teams share a sense of belonging and connection, along with commitment to, and accountability for, a common goal. Employees with strong team cohesion have a capacity for change 1.8 times greater than the capacity of those with low team cohesion.  

Fortunately, HR leaders have significant opportunity to build trust and team cohesion, because they can potentially influence both factors across the entire workforce — unlike, say, personality or demographics. And the benefits aren’t unique to today — even though they are especially relevant right now, when many employees are remote and dispersed. 

Learn more: Managing Organizational Change

Focus on how employees experience change

Gartner research shows that the best approach to managing change and reducing change fatigue is to focus on how employees experience change, not just the outcomes of changed behaviors. By thinking about the desired experience first, leaders can work backward to identify the specific change actions that are needed to create that experience.

Empowering different levels of leaders and teams to shape the change experience builds greater cohesion 

A well-managed change experience is important for changes at all levels of the organization. Organizations must ensure resources are available, approachable and consumable for any change leader — and for change of any size or intensity.

“Empowering different levels of leaders and teams to shape the change experience builds greater cohesion by enabling teams to define the desired experience for the changes they are implementing. It also builds trust among employees by supporting consistent delivery of that desired change experience,” said Knight.

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