Change Fatigue is Real
This year has been one for the books. Social distancing, wearing masks, new hand washing routines all against a backdrop of social, economic and political unrest. We have all learned lessons on how adaptable and flexible we are or aren’t as individuals and organizations. 2020 has brought so much change that we are now living in a fatigued state. Gaining some insight into the mechanics of fatigue can help you take a pause to refresh, reset, and focus on the way forward with a different mindset.
The Mechanics of Change
Change is disruptive. Even positive change that we choose like marriage, buying a house, or moving to a new state to chase our dreams is disruptive. Responding to the pandemic has been disruptive for most people personally and organizationally. There are a lot of reasons why, but they boil down to three key elements that interact and intersect within each of us uniquely: the biology, psychology, and social nature of change.
Biology plays a role in how we react and respond to change. First, there is the body’s reaction to stress. When we deal with change, our body interprets it as stress, and our brain translates it as a threat. The human body responds by producing cortisol. Don't get me wrong, cortisol is great! It's the super helpful hormone that helps us survive and triggers our fight or flight response. The problem is if we have too much cortisol it can:
- Impact our ability to make decisions
- Make easy things feel harder
- Make remembering things more difficult
- Result in atypical emotional reactions
Our brain structure also impacts our response to change. Nearly half of our behaviors are wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically. A study by MIT neuroscientists found that the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most thought and planning occurs, is responsible for moment-by-moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time (Trafton, 2012). So, when organizational change impacts work (processes, job roles, workflows, reporting structures, etc.), it forces a person to slow down and use the prefrontal cortex to think about what to do next, something they didn't have to think about the day before.
There is also psychology – and how we’re uniquely wired to interact with people around us. We all have a natural draw to optimism or realism (or frankly, negativity). We all are wired to respond emotionally different ways. When one person hears the news about a change and is excited, another person defaults to fear. Since no two people are the same, no two reactions to a situation is the same.
The third element is social influence. We’re a review conscious nation, looking to see what others have said about a product, company, travel destination or restaurant. If social opinion of “X” is good, we’re more inclined to believe it over the marketing from the company. It’s the same in life and with change. If leaders say it’s great but peers are hesitant, the social influence of the peer group will have a bigger impact on an individual’s reaction.
What you can do about it
Part of what makes us feel fatigued when it comes to change is it is happening “to” us, leaving us to feel out of control. There are a couple of ways you can personally or as a leader help reframe change and how it is perceived.
- Disconnect and make time for yourself - Unplug from your computer, your smartphone, the news, and other stimuli and take time for yourself. For example, take yourself to lunch (even if it’s just at your kitchen table without your laptop!) Try meditating or doing deep breathing exercises, or work out. Make time for you in the day.
- Take a nap – Seriously, get some sleep! Serotonin boosts our mood and is the best way to boost serotonin is adequate sleep.
- Laugh or reflect on things that make you happy – Laughing reduces the cortisol in our body. It is why you have heard laughter is the best medicine.
- Role model good behavior – Pay attention to the advice above. Leaders pull double duty in times of change and disruption, but it’s important to first get yourself through change before you can lead your people through it. It can feel overwhelming and like you need to sacrifice your time for your people. Make time for you. You are no good to your people if you are completely depleted.
- Check-in and listen – Sometimes people just need to be heard. People don’t always want a solution, but rather just to know that you are listening. What may not feel like a big deal to you can feel completely overwhelming to someone else.
- Consider a more formal pulse check for your entire team – Using an anonymous style survey, to ask your team specific questions may help to get a better sense of the climate and if there are specific areas you need to address.
The last twelve months have been challenging for most and exhausting for many. Taking a proactive approach to wellness and pausing to assess the impact of change can accelerate your team and your own ability to acclimate to the new normal.
About the Author
Shannan Simms, PhD is a vice president and strategic leader in Avaap’s market-leading change management practice. An experienced practitioner with 20+ years of experience, Shannan works with organizations and their teams to navigate change and help team members build resilience.
Trafton, A. (2012). How the brain controls our habits. MIT News, (October 29).