Exhausted. The most common response I get to an opening question I pose senior leaders that I have the chance to speak with most days of the week. Change and uncertainty: The two most common responses to my follow-up question about the root causes of that exhaustion. I appreciate their openness about their feelings. I don’t entirely agree with their conclusion as to cause. Fatigue is a product of change and uncertainty and it also a by-product of growth. In this article I’ll share with you why helping people examine the origins for their fatigue, will help you to help them and your organisation in the extended struggle we are working through.
According to a recent study as many as four out of five people are struggling with change fatigue and, perhaps not surprisingly with the raft of new responsibilities over the period since March 2019, HR leaders are often feeling this most acutely. A real challenge for the most senior leaders in an organisation, is that they are not as aware of the true extent of the issue as they need to be and this can make it difficult to provide the support and resources required at the right time, in the right ways, to the right people. There is no doubt that feelings of exhaustion are real and caused by factors which are additional to those we might normally expect to see at this time of year. So, the experiences are real, widespread and not helpful to individuals and the organisaitons they work for. But is this all down to the rate of change and the uncertainty we are all now surrounded by on a daily basis?
Change and uncertainty promote situations where people need to adapt frequently. It is these requirements for rapid changes of focus, learning new ways of operating and assimilating the stream of ever-changing information that take their emotional and cognitive toll. People are on their knees not because of change and uncertainty but because of their need to adapt and grow their skills and capabilities to cope with these external factors.
Swap change and uncertainty for growth and learning
I think laying the cause for this generalised deep fatigue at the feet of change and uncertainty will, at least to some extent, further demonise these two variables that are not going away anytime soon. Continuing to put the ‘blame’ on them will ensure people resist them even more in the future or automatically leap to them to explain any fatigue they may be feeling. And that will set up an unhelpful spiral.
However, if you examine those experiences through a learning/growth lens, the fatigue has more positive associations.
Creating time inside organisations for reflection is notoriously difficult. No time for quality thinking is one of the biggest obstacles to individuals coping better with stressful situations and making better decisions. We see, in the work we do, that leadership quality declines markedly with increased busy-ness. But, if leaders and managers can be encouraged to grab even a few minutes to reflect back over these last 20 months, the new skills they have had to learn, the situations they have had to adapt to, the nuanced approaches they have had to develop to get themselves and their teams through it, is both an admirable human quality and also a great way to look at the experience: How much have I grown in 20 months? Possibly, more than at any other time in your career to date!
And capacity too
In addition to new ways of working, many of us are also working harder and without the customary breaks that being in an office environment allows. Gone are the mini-downtimes as you walked from one meeting to another, or paused for breath as you made a coffee in the kitchen area. Work-free chats in the elevator or over a lunch in Pret, are largely things of the past, replaced by back-to-back Zoom meetings with little room for a comfort break let alone a bit of banal banter.
This increased capacity we have found ourselves tapping into, is a very good thing. Our boundaries have been pushed. We are more able to work more intensely, more often and as any elite athlete will tell you, that is the very purpose of much of their training: To be increasingly comfortable with increasing loads. But it in itself is tiring. Establishing new limits does not come easily.
Extending the sporting analogy a little further, all elite sports coaches understand the importance of rest and recovery. If new skills and new physical capacities have been built over a period of time, say a season, or even the four years of an Olympiad, a good coach understands that this needs to be followed by a period of recovery, to allow muscles and the central nervous system time to recoup and also to embed the development.
And so, whilst you and your leaders and managers may well feel exhausted at this moment in time, if they can access good quality rest and recovery over the forthcoming holiday period, many should be in good shape come the new year. Not because they stared down the apparent demons of change and uncertainty but because they can now access their own set of expanded skills and greater capacities, which will help them in the inevitable struggles to come.