Thoughtful Change Management in a Time of Unprecedented Change

Posted by Mallory Bouwman, LMSW, CAADC on 08:11 AM

Supporting a Workforce Experiencing Change Fatigue

Behavioral health organizations are no strangers to change. Evolving procedures, new documentation practices, technology upgrades, and staff turnover are par for the course. However, the pandemic has brought with it a level of chronic change seldom before experienced and exceedingly difficult to adapt to. Employees have been asked to acclimate to changes associated with remote work, new business models, organizational restructuring, and countless iterations of Covid-19-related protocols. “Business as usual” has constantly adjusted. 

As humans, we inherently need structure, routine, and reliability. Change, at the pace, it has occurred since the pandemic began, has disrupted these basic needs. According to research from Gartner, employees’ ability to cope with change is half what it was pre-pandemic i. This type of fatigue, known as change fatigue, is characterized by an organizational culture of stress, confusion, apathy, and resistance in the face of change due to multiple concurrent changes or a history of failed change attempts. Today’s behavioral health workforce faces change fatigue on top of existing compassion fatigue and burnout.  

It is important to recognize, respond to, and work to prevent change fatigue. To spot it in employees, look for these signs and symptoms: 

  • Frequent, loud complaints

  • Indifference (or even disengagement)

  • Visible tiredness

  • Anxiety

  • Push-back

  • Prevailing negativity

  • Skepticism about change success

  • Loss of focus

  • Eroded morale

  • Absenteeism

The complex change occurring in behavioral health organizations today requires strategic change management. The timeless Managing Complex Change Model, published by Timothy Knoster, asserts that to successfully implement change, you must have vision, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan. ii Missing any of these key pieces can lead to the signs and symptoms of change fatigue listed above. 

Behavioral health organizations must confront change fatigue in order to recoup staff engagement and produce desired outcomes for the people they serve. There is no quick fix for change fatigue but utilizing the strategies below can help refuel teams who are running on empty and equip them for more change ahead.

Demonstrate purpose and meaning in the work – According to Gallup, a key driver of employee engagement is purpose in the work.iii Find ways to remind employees why what they are doing every day is important. 

Build trust and team cohesion – Prove that you have employees’ interests in mind and do what you say you are going to do. Nurture connection among the team and foster commitment to the common goal of your program. 

Cultivate caring managers who are effective at coaching employees to the next level – The manager alone accounts for 70% of the variance in team engagement. iv Invest in their leadership and relationship development skills.

Communicate early and continuously – Bring employees into the change journey early on so they can mentally prepare. Update them as the change progresses. Keep a pulse-check on the impact as time goes on and offer support as the reality of the change sets in.

Engage leaders and teams (at all levels) most affected by the change in the planning and implementation – Individuals support what they create. Include them in shaping the change experience.

Stage activities to control the pace of change – Few changes are debatable; however, timing is frequently adaptable. Space change activities out to a manageable tempo.

Characterize the result of each change – Without an understanding of the conclusion, the full extent of a change cannot be comprehended. Loopback around with your team about the change and be transparent about the outcomes and lessons learned.

Change is inevitable. It can be met with excitement, apprehension, or both. For a workforce that is vulnerable, change must be introduced and executed thoughtfully. Assess the team’s readiness for change, communicate throughout the process, involve them, and share the end result.

The photo credit is: Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash
i Baker, Mary (2020). How to Reduce the Risk of Employee Change Fatigue. Change fatigue is rising; first tackle small everyday changes (
ii Knoster, T., Villa, R., & Thousand, J. (2000). A framework for thinking about systems change. Restructuring for caring and effective education: Piecing the puzzle together, 93-128.
iii The Gallup Organization. (2020). What Is Employee Engagement and How Do You Improve It? Gallup, Inc.
ivThe Gallup Organization. (2020). What Is Employee Engagement and How Do You Improve It? Gallup, Inc.