Change—it is the word that best describes the past year. For most companies, it’s been a year of continual disruption: remote work, furloughs and restructurings, rapid shifts in strategies, and more. For employees, the impact has been profound: They have been forced to adapt to a level of change never before experienced that is causing general fatigue and higher stress levels. And the pace of change is not slowing down.
Leaders must address this change fatigue because it is impacting their operations. In the U.S. alone, more than 75% of employees are reporting symptoms of exhaustion—a feeling that is echoed by their counterparts in Europe and Asia. With more changes in the works, executives need to consider how to help their employees continue to adapt without burning out, becoming cynical, or disengaging.
To successfully counter change fatigue, leadership must partner with HR and internal communications teams to create a plan that arms them with the right knowledge and keeps them fully engaged. Here are six ways to build that strategy:
Show empathy and give hope
Leaders must keep top of mind that the very real change fatigue their employees are experiencing right now isn’t all workplace-related. For many, it’s total life fatigue after the relentless turmoil of the past year. People’s lives have been upended beyond recognition—home, relationships, friendships, work–and they’re exhausted from it all. Adding further necessary workplace change needs to be approached with this in mind and layered with real empathy and understanding.
All the more important, then, that leaders also give their people hope and articulate solid pointers to a brighter future, because hope and positivity create their own energy.
Build empathetic leadership teams
Leaders are more than the public face of their company; employees look to C-level executives and business unit managers for cues on how to react to changes. These individuals must embrace a two-way communication flow when sharing details on changes. Remember that leaders have had much more time to think about the change than employees. Give them time and opportunities to process it. Build online forums and fully listen to their input. Demonstrate why the change matters to everyone at the company, how it will occur, and what’s in it for them. Over time, this will build trust, where leaders and employees will have a greater appreciation for each other.
Communicate in clear terms
How changes are communicated to employees will determine the success of any initiative. Make sure to clearly state what the changes are, what they mean to employees, the benefits of these changes, and what they will need to do. Share the story about why these initiatives are happening, and be honest about it. Keep an open flow of communication with scheduled updates on each stage of the change, even if there is little new to share. Finally, encourage feedback from employees through online forums, surveys, small group discussions, and company meetings.
Take it one change at a time
Whether due to outside forces such as a pandemic or internal pressures from leadership shifts, product innovation, or an M&A event, change is a constant part of an enterprise. And often, employees are hit with multiple changes over a short period of time. Where possible, prioritize the changes that need to happen rather than overwhelming employees with them all at once. Research from McKinsey & Company states that while prioritizing work has always been an issue, the recent pandemic is making it a priority for leaders to effectively guide employees through changes for future success.
Support employees through all stages of the change
At its heart, adapting to change is more of an emotional process than a rational one. Leaders can support employees through this emotional journey.
Watercooler and lunchroom conversations help employees share their feelings with each other. With today’s remote-work models, companies can provide platforms and open forums for employees that simulate those in-office experiences. “In 2020, we essentially lived off a culture bank that had been built up over years. But it’s a finite resource, and once we’re out of ‘crisis’ mode, employees’ expectations will shift,” says Laura House, cofounder of the-thread, an employee engagement and experience consultancy.
It’s also crucial to create safe spaces. Many employees may be experiencing feelings of fear or isolation. Create a sense of company culture online whether through chat platforms, virtual events such as happy hours, yoga classes, or other non-work-related activities. “Much of the change and challenge that professionals experienced in 2020 took place in relative isolation,” notes Ethan McCarty, founder and CEO of Integral, an employee activation agency. “This isolation has limited our ability to process change since one of the key mechanisms for processing change is through dialogue and witnessing others’ reactions.”
Make employees part of the change
Rather than leadership making all decisions and communicating these down to employees, bring in employees from different levels to assist with the planning and ongoing communications process. These change ambassadors can help their peers navigate concerns and act as go-betweens for employee groups and leadership. Companies can supplement these ambassadors with mobile applications to share information, especially in remote-work environments.
In the end, no plan will please everyone. But if leaders have taken the time to earn employee buy-in and communicated the changes empathetically, they’ve done their job.
“The key for employers in charge of communicating change is confidence–and being able to hold your nerve,” says Lindsay Kohler, the lead behavioral scientist at scarlettabbott, an employee engagement consultancy. As studies of lottery winners show, she explains, people eventually return to their baseline levels of happiness, regardless of the initial spike in joy or sadness any single event in their lives caused. “Generally speaking, if you’ve planned well, no change will make anyone utterly miserable in the long term because, frankly, they’ll get over it.”
At its core, successfully navigating change fatigue is about creating clarity, emotional resilience, and a culture of inclusiveness for employees. Leaders who take the steps above will have made a significant start to achieving the benefits that come from positive changes to their businesses. And when a change initiative ends, that doesn’t mean these steps should be shelved. On the contrary, keeping them as part of ongoing operations will help smooth the way for the next change that is coming.
Andrew O’Shaughnessy is the founder and CEO of Poppulo, an internal communications platform used by more than 900 companies around the globe. O’Shaughnessy says he founded Poppulo with a vision to radically change how companies engage with their people.