Change Fatigue and COVID-19

Change fatigue and COVID-19

Why you’re sick of the news.

Jacquie Liversidge

By Jacquie Liversidge

You’ve stopped watching the news. But to begin with, you were really invested in the federal government updates. And then you weren’t. You’ve stopped checking the coronavirus numbers.

You have no idea what you can actually do with today’s restrictions, and you might not care. There’s plenty to do around the house, and it’s going to be left undone. You haven’t done anything for weeks and you need a holiday more than you ever have.


When organisations go through significant or repetitive change, staff often find themselves experiencing change fatigue. A new update from your boss explaining how something is to be done from today. A new database. A change to the amount of time allocated towards certain jobs. So many changes.

What is the point? What was wrong with what was in place before? There’s a whole new book of policies and procedures available on the intranet, and no one is bothering to look at it.

“So, what does the latest Scott Morrison ABC update and a lengthy, new policies and procedures book at a workplace have in common?

Organisational change fatigue.”

Organisational Change Fatigue

A general sense of apathy and resignation towards change, a lack of belief in the transformational effect and a lack of buy-in to change. It is marked by mental and physical exhaustion, cynicism and a feeling of powerlessness, a drop-in productivity and absenteeism. High performers and the most productive start to drop off.

Sounds a bit like COVID-19 to me.

Humans need stability, order and predictability. When our status quo is directly challenged by change, we either buy-in to the ideals and proposed outcomes or we resist. We have all experienced change in one way or another in our workplaces. We remember some bad changes, and we remember some good. Or we remember the changes that started out bad, and ended up being great.

Key to managing organisational transformation are thoughtful goals, clear outcomes, a clear transition phase and a clear end-point for the change.

In a pandemic, of course, the end-goal is never clear.

Some news outlets are referring the phenomenon of people all over the world returning to the beach and their regular activities, with seemingly total disregard to mandated measures, as quarantine fatigue.

I believe it’s another name for change fatigue, but in this case, our organisation is a global cooperation of nations unified in the shared trauma of an abrupt, terrifying transformation with one goal of halting the virus, and an ambiguous path of steps to take to reach it.

Interestingly, the hallmarks of failed change look like:

  1. Poor planning and roll out of initiatives
  2. Lack of communication about change initiatives
  3. Improper engagement
  4. Too much change at one time
  5. Little room for error

This, above, could describe every country’s (necessary, yet inherently clumsy) approach to the pandemic.

The research is comprehensive on change fatigue, but not on quarantine fatigue. Given that they are in essence one and the same, here are some evidence-based tools you can use to manage your own exhaustion during the pandemic, and which will also put you in good stead for battling change fatigue throughout your career:

  1. Look after your basic health. Change will have you riding the undulating waves of fatigue and stress. Set a good sleeping pattern, eat a healthy diet and stay on top of physical activity. Get outside and get some fresh air. Sunlight is important in maintaining your circadian rhythm and giving you a sense of time passing.
  2. Analyse your stressors. Is it the news, the constant smartphone breaking news updates? Where is the information coming from that reinforces your stressors? Absorb the necessary information and discard the rest if it’s not pertinent. If it’s change in the workplace, talk to your manager about streamlining this information. 10 emails one after the other will only cause your stress to fester.
  3. Talk about it. In the workplace when dealing with change, you would be able to discuss the beginning and ending of the change and the challenges in the transformation. This is challenging with no set end-goal in a pandemic. Talk to your partner and family about how the isolation and quarantine are affecting you.
  4. Set small goals. Whether it’s getting up and making your bed in the morning, a sense of purpose is something we all thrive on. Make small steps towards regaining your sense of control during these times. Most workplace changes start with baby steps, and you can adopt this into your personal life as well.
  5. Acknowledge your feelings. You might still be going to work, and in which case, you are likely missing the morning chat you get with colleagues at the café near your workplace. Acknowledge how much this is affecting you. You are not weaker for finding change challenging, and it makes you no less agile or adaptable for struggling through it. It is OK to be fatigued by change.

The research that will eventually come out of the social and individual response following the pandemic will be more conclusive and rooted in specific research aims, but for the moment—just cope, know that your procrastination is not just you. You’re not an inherently bad, lazy or unmotivated person, but one of the many victims of global change fatigue.

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