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Keep an Eye on Employee 'Change Fatigue'

Change management has become such a permanent and pervasive feature of work that risk managers now see the fallout from near constant change as being one of the biggest risks facing their firms

In the 1960s, two psychologists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, developed a scale to measure the amount of stress – positive and negative – of various life events over the course of a year and how likely a significant health breakdown was to occur as a result.

A major business readjustment ranked just below having a baby and just above the death of a close friend. Experiencing a change in responsibilities at work scored on par with in-law troubles. The point of the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, though, was that multiple changes add up to a larger burden.

Their findings don’t bode well for the 67% of employees who experienced a “career moment” (a shift in responsibilities or a big re-organization) in the past six months, or for the 62% of employees that expect to undergo one in the next six months. So it stands to reason that “change fatigue” showed up as the top emerging risk so far this year – up one notch from the end of last year.

Change fatigue occurs when employees experience multiple adjustments to their role or the organization they work in over a short amount of time. Some of the consequences are:

  • Feelings of being overwhelmed and fear of workplace instability.
  • An increase in cynicism and pessimism.
  • A decrease in energy and drop in productivity.
  • A decrease in commitment to the company, team, or organization.
  • Greater skepticism about the intentions of senior management.

While change fatigue might be unavoidable, it’s relatively slow-moving and easy to track. Some indicators that risk teams can look for are:

  • The number of changes that specific groups of employees are experiencing.
  • The percent of their organization’s budget is devoted to change initiatives.
  • Any changes in employee retention year-to-year.

Reducing Change Fatigue

Given the severity of this risk and the effect it has on overall employee productivity and output, it pays for a whole host of functions to be involved in spotting and managing it. For example, communications and HR teams should concentrate on helping employees learn and adapt to new initiatives in general, rather than issuing top-down instructions for each specific project.

Employees that are more “agile,” that understand that change is now a likely factor of general working life, and are able to cope with the fallout from constant change, fare far better than those that simply follow directions or put in extra effort to respond to change (see chart 1).

Chart 1: The role communications play in an agile organization  Source: CEB analysis

Certain communications strategies can also be a big help in combating change fatigue. Using a top-down communications process often leaves employees feeling angry and anxious. Instead, analysis compellingly shows that teams should take an open source approach that supports peer-to-peer interactions, openly addresses any negative emotions, and builds two-way conversations (see chart 2).

An example of this is given in chart 3. It shows how to avoid a top-down communications approach to change among four different employee groups.

Chart 2: The power of an open source approach  Source: CEB analysis


Chart 3: Avoiding a top-down communications approach  Source: CEB analysis


More On…

  • Change Management

    Learn more about the importance of change management to all large companies and how to overcome some of the most common barriers to making a success of large scale change.

  • Fi|r|st Quarterly Journal for Finance, Risk, and Strategy

    Learn more about which emerging risks most concern ERM teams by downloading the most recent edition of CEB's quarterly journal for finance, risk, and strategy executives.

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