Written by Andrea Williams, Organization and Professional Development
How are you feeling about work lately? Burned out? Frustrated? Apathetic? If so, you may be experiencing change fatigue, and you’re certainly not alone. Changes at work can lead to feelings of confusion, anxiety, anger and helplessness. With the rapid rate of change right now, it’s important to take time to gauge whether you’re having feelings of change fatigue and learn skills to cope with, or perhaps, even embrace change as an opportunity to grow.
Six Stages of Reaction to Change
You’ve likely heard of the five (or more) stages of grief commonly associated with loss. Did you know there are also typical stages of reaction we experience when confronted with change? Being aware of these tendencies better allows us to work through our reactions with intention and feel less overwhelmed and alone in this very normal process.
- Shock: Often experienced as feeling numb or as if you can’t grasp what’s happened. You may think or say things like, “I need time to process this or make a decision,” or “I can’t believe this is true.”
- Denial: You might try to deny the reality of the situation or continue as if nothing has happened. You could say things like, “It doesn’t make any difference.”
- Anger: You want to defend yourself against the change or resist it. Strong hostile or negative statements and behavior may occur during this stage.
- Passive Acceptance: Once you realize nothing can be done about the change – it’s happening regardless of how you feel – you begin to accept the change as a fact of life and simply get on with your work. You might start having the mindset of, “It’s out of my hands,” or “This is just the way things are.”
- Exploration: When you accept that change is inevitable, you may also start actively engaging with it, trying to learn more and generally becoming explorative and curious. Thoughts are more along the lines of, “I wonder what effect this will have,” or “Why is this being implemented?”
- Challenge: Although its name implies this is the most difficult stage, this is actually the point at which you feel most empowered. You’re willing to come to grips with the change and actively contribute to developing solutions and resolving difficulties. You may make useful suggestions, ask constructive questions and offer to contribute toward any new goals.
Escape vs. Active Coping
Experts believe there are two general types of coping: escape coping and active coping. Which way have you been coping with recent changes?
Escape coping involves changing your behavior to try to avoid thinking or feeling things that are uncomfortable. If you’re experiencing change fatigue, you may be escape coping.
Active coping allows you to tackle a problem head-on. This approach is healthier because you are addressing what’s causing your negative feelings, rather than avoiding it.
The ability to adapt to change — which typically goes along with active coping — is advantageous to your professional and personal life. One of the most important ways you can cope with change in the workplace in a healthy way is to simply acknowledge it. Recognizing and accepting change is one of the first steps toward managing it.
Tips to Actively Cope with Change
If you find yourself escape coping or feeling stuck in a stage of resistance or fatigue related to work changes, try the following approaches.
Take a closer look at your response. Our reactions to change often reflect our interpretations – or “stories” – that we believe to be true. In reality, our stories are often subconscious and are not always accurate. What is your primary emotion when considering a change? Once you identify it, ask yourself, “What do I believe to be true that’s making me feel this way?” This can help influence your perception of the change and better understand the stories driving your emotions.
Help others. If you feel uncomfortable with a change in the workplace, there are likely other people feeling the same way. If you can take the focus away from your own situation and direct it toward someone else’s, it can help you cope. Whether it’s a check-in with a colleague via Teams or inviting someone in your office for a walk during your lunch break to discuss the situation, the act of helping others and communicating your thoughts and feelings will allow you to better deal with stress, feel less isolated and helpless, and adapt more quickly to change.
Embrace new opportunities. Change often translates to possibility for those who are willing to embrace it. Ask yourself, “What are the opportunities with this change,” and “How will these opportunities help me and others?” Things may feel bleak when you don’t agree with a change, but studies show having a positive outlook can open you up to new possibilities and be more receptive to change.
Whether we like it or not, change in the workplace is inevitable. Although sometimes disruptive and uncomfortable, there are clear benefits to change — the development of new skills, increased innovation, and new and better opportunities, to name a few. If you find yourself experiencing ongoing change fatigue or feelings of burnout you can’t shake, there are many resources available to help, including the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Health4U, Organization and Professional Development, and the WorkLife Office.
Castrillon, Caroline (2020, February 26). How to Cope with Change in the Workplace. Retrieved July 13, 2021 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2020/02/26/how-to-cope-with-change-in-the-workplace/?sh=4904dd38d207
Skillsoft Ireland Limited. Organizations Change So Get Ready. Retrieved July 15, 2021 from https://elevateu.skillport.com/skillportfe/main.action?path=summary/COURSES/pd_31_a01_bs_enus
Wiens, Kandi and Rowell, Darin (2018, December 31). How to Embrace Change Using Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved July 13, 2021 from https://hbr.org/2018/12/how-to-embrace-change-using-emotional-intelligence