How to prevent "change burnout"

Photo by  dodge challenger1  on Flickr

Photo by dodge challenger1 on Flickr

People have strong emotions around change. When I talk to leaders, and when I talk to couples, people talk about “change fatigue,” “exhaustion,” “change saturation,” “change burnout,” “change weary.”

While in the past Kotter, talking about change, mentioned the need to awaken a “sense of urgency,” what I hear today is a perceived reality that when change is constant, and all change seems urgent, people feel exhausted and can’t seem to find the energy to move forward. Our society is experiencing more change at an accelerating pace. Families and organizations tend to naturally prefer predictability, clarity and a continuation of the familiar.

The 3 Phases of Change

Change has phases and each phase has different emotions tied into it. All change theories recognize this. Some add more details into the phases, others less. But all agree on these basic 3 phases. In the past, enough time was given for each phase. There was also the recognition that each individual has different rhythms and go through each phase in a different way and at a different pace. This is not a linear process, and works more like spirals that are repetitive until there is a final integration. The three phases are:

1.    Disorientation. The first phase is chaos, or unfreezing, or disorientation. This is when change is first thrust upon us and we go into “fight or flight” mode. We experience a roller-coaster of emotions including fear, anger, denial, and for some, great excitement. We are not sure why we need to change or if we fit into the new model. Even with positive change (like getting married, or receiving a promotion) we go through disorientation.

2.    Re-orientation. The second phase is change, or Re-orientation. This is when the pieces of the change puzzle start to come together and we better understand what we can influence and what we can do to make the change work for us.

3.    Integration. The third phase is re-freezing, or Integration. This is when we accept the change, establish new habits, and sometimes find it hard to imagine that life existed beforehand.

Since we are human, these cycles continue to repeat over and over again.

Our present reality

What I hear now is that the pace of change has accelerated so much, and change is so constant, that there doesn’t seem to be time to get to integration. One change effort has barely launched when another one comes along. A couple has hardly accommodated to living together when they are pregnant with a first baby. A CEO has just been hired when a merger comes around. It seems as if the waves of change come faster and bigger until people feel they are going to drawn.

Photo by  Jeremy Bishop  on  Unsplash

What doesn’t help

  • Denying, minimizing, avoiding and/or resisting the realities of change.

  • A defensive or dysfunctional self-protective posture which is draining.

  • Stressing about the constant change. It takes away valuable mental and emotional energy, constricts risk-taking and creative problem solving and often enhances the likelihood of burnout.

  • Forcing change and complaining about employee “resistance,” or about “uncooperative” love partner.

  • Not involving a wide enough cross section of people involved in the change starting with the planning stage. Or in a relationship, doing all the planning on your own and not involving your partner until the end.

What can help reduce burnout during change

A capacity for modifying mindsets and operational policies and procedures is essential. Remember that while change may create anxiety, it can also sharpen focus and purpose. Anything that enhances resilience will help with reducing burnout. To be able to influence positively you need to have constant and clear two way communication with everyone. Keeping people in the dark only augments anxiety and insecurity.

Key suggestions for reducing burnout and enhancing vitality:

1. Group Grieving. Allow employees to constructively express sadness, anxiety and anger in a safe forum. In this way, energy will less likely be channeled into passive-aggressive inertia, destructive interpersonal conflict, sabotage, lateness, illness, etc. It also gives a strong signal that the leadership is concerned about the employee's and the team's needs, desires, and concerns.

Group grieving facilitates individuals, families, and systems to grapple with the loss involved in any change: a) letting go of the familiar past; b) confronting one's feelings about loss of coworkers, or neighbors and friends, and exploring the danger and opportunities of an uncertain future; c) dealing with any blows to self-esteem due to changes in the nature of the job, title, or validation of one's existing job or mission, d) redesigning a new, more adaptive and innovative focus for new realities. 

2. Fireproofing Against Burnout. While change may be scary, it provides opportunities for new learning, enhanced competence and confidence. Show how flexibility and adaptability can help. Model this by accepting and adapting, rather than controlling. Listen to suggestions and let people experiment with problem solving. You don’t have to have all the answers. At the same time, keep a measure of organization through the chaos of change.

3. Enhancing Risk-Taking. Change tends to break the connection with traditional patterns of operation. If the organization can see errors as chances for generating self-awareness, contemplating surprising relationships amongst problem elements, and motivation for innovation, then the pain of learning will result in substantial gain. For example, when a baby is born, the well established patterns of relating and operating are totally disrupted. But if a couple is willing to experiment with new ways of doing and relating, you can be surprised at what new awareness and enrichment develops.

Often, the scariest part of risk-taking is not objective external criticism but having to confront the fear of failure - the critical, judgmental, apprehensive voices (past and present) in our head. As a leader you can encourage getting out of a comfortable box, with safe routines and habits and explore risky alternatives.

4. Building social connections. This might be the most important point. There is research that shows that stress and anxiety are not harmful if there is social connection. Effective group communication and interpersonal coordination are not only essential for change, they are essential for preventing change burnout. A vital ingredient is having people - both managers and peer team leaders - with interpersonal and change agent skills who can help bring colleagues on board and help with their issues during change. A couple should not isolate themselves during times of change, but reach out to family and friends.

5. Sharpening Self-care and reflective skills. Change often provides a dose of reality for people who have been cruising on automatic. The turmoil of negative feelings and fears often create paralysis, health issues, negativity, and helplessness. Teach basic self-care and practice it too. It might seem you have no time for it. Nevertheless, it pays high dividends in better decision making, adaptability, and optimism.

Learning requires reflection. If you don’t provide time and a format for reflection, it will not happen. Maybe at the end of each day you need to get your team together and have a 1/2 hour of reflecting on the process, challenges, break-downs, and feelings. Conclude with asking for positive gains and suggestions for improvement for the next day. This will help with self-regulation and with fine-tuning the change process.

This also applies for a couple going through change. Take time at the end of the day for reflecting on how you are managing change and your connection and resilience will be strengthened.

Remember. . .

Resilience is defined as ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize itself while undergoing change.’ People who ride the waves of change successfully surrender. They release old agendas and plans so they can meet new impulses with spontaneous intelligence. Facing continuous waves of change, they let go of holding everything together in secure, predictable ways. In my experience, this often opens space for amazing energy and changes which were almost waiting to happen.

Your leadership can build resilience and inoculate people against burn out.


LETS TALK: I you want to be more effective with change and avoid burnout, schedule a free exploration call to better understand your needs and challenges with change. Or simply email me.