Academic Articles

Change fatigue during COVID-19: Recognising the signs and shifting your mindset

May 29, 2020 | By Ashley Motene

“The world as we know it has drastically changed”; “Nothing is normal about the times that we find ourselves in”, “Things can never go back to normal” and “This is the new normal” are all phrases that we are hearing almost daily during the COVID-19 pandemic. These seem to have replaced phrases we may miss like: “When can I expect the order to be delivered so that I can make sure someone is home?”, “You look like you could do with a hug”, “Traffic was so bad today!” or “Ag, I am ok thanks, and you?”. The psychology and reality of change seems a tough one to make sense of as these uninvited changes can stir up feelings of being fed up with the tiring changes to life.

Fleet-footed adaptation as the environment changes

In the world of work, businesses are grappling with how the transformational changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are necessitating the organisational transformation of human resource management. The way that products or services are offered to clients has needed to change as some clients question their own buying power, considering the different income and livelihood threats. In essence, the fleet-footedness required to stay afloat is akin to that of the African Jacana birds in the Cape wetlands. These adaptable birds seem to walk on water from afar yet remain buoyant by never staying on a single unstable lily pad for too long.

What is normal about change?

Leadership insights from OD practitioners like Margaret Wheatley shed light on how the world is always changing in complex ways that feel chaotic and prompt creative adaptation. Change can mean many things. Perhaps the complex meaning we attach to our long-term plans, is what convinces us that we live under “normal conditions” in which change is a threat because we struggle to see what good can simply emerge from it. However, those in business are familiar with how no two days in the life of an organisation are the same and that can be exciting. Those who are working or studying may be looking at the same tasks but never with the same motivation to attempt them each day, which can lead to performing better if they accept this. Those who find themselves unemployed never carry the same hope or drive each day, but can still adapt their pursuit of dreams.

How we perceive change and our experiences of it, is often tiring as we try to keep things recognisably normal. Knowing what we think we know about COVID-19, how manageable is change when it is never a single change process that we are experiencing? With any change that people experience, there can be upsetting unintended consequences (Van Tonder & Roodt, 2008) that catch us by surprise, much like the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It continues to change the health of people, nations, economies, opportunities and freedom, as depicted by the concerns people have shared in a global survey:

Change fatigue

Worldwide lockdowns have shown how difficult it is to manage unintended consequences. This seems more pronounced when the contextual challenges keep changing thus creating incongruences between reality and best case scenarios. It may be hope-giving to collectively cheer for essential workers and appreciate life at 7pm. That being said, we still quietly gather nervously every 2 or so weeks in South Africa to listen to government announcements about new changes in regulations, in addition to the overwhelming changes we have had to adjust to. It becomes difficult to keep up with the varying communications of changes that may feel imposed and thus harder to embrace. An example of this could be the petitions against “returning to normal activities”, protests for access to oceans, food parcels or cigarettes and TikTok videos about lockdown infringements as people try to redefine freedom for themselves. The world is indeed morphing around us and changing our own personal circumstances. These are some of the signs that indicate that you may be experiencing change fatigue during this time:

  • Physical tiredness, emotional overwhelm or mental exhaustion that lingers as a result of growing change experienced.
  • Indifference or desensitization to major changes that may have a personal impact.
  • Feeling less enthusiastic or excited about any new changes or new activities linked to the changes.
  • Clouded judgment and cynicism over what you can realistically do.
  • Stress, angst and fear of things not getting better, despite efforts made to manage the change
  • Feeling frustrated or angry about perceived lack of communication and even necessary adaptations to plans.
  • Disengagement and not wanting to pay attention to the important detail communicated,
  • Intolerance of errors made by others that could be disrupting your personal plans,

What has changed about mental health?

From a mental health perspective, the world is changing in ways that are exhausting and difficult to cope with. As work and home life blur into one, even remembering the exact day of lockdown becomes tough. That being said, the findings of a recent online survey on COVID-19 and mental health by SADAG reveal a snippet of how the world as we knew it was not without major strains on people’s mental wellbeing. Depression, generalised anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder were the most prevalent mental health challenges even before the lockdown. Calls received by SADAG related to suicide have doubled during lockdown. The COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps the magnifying glass that highlights how much our personal strategies keep needing to change as the energy to cope lessens. The second global crisis that may follow is foreseen to be the mental health effects of what adjusting to life as a result of COVID-19 will look like after we flatten the curve. Whilst more people may be seeking mental health support, it may become harder to cope if you do not seek support for the everyday challenges. What is possibly quite tiring about managing the current reality, is what we cannot change about an ever-changing pandemic.

So what is manageable when life changes?

Considering that COVID-19 is not the first pandemic (HIV/Aids still has major effects on societies worldwide) and that the current social ills are consequences of previous change processes in South Africa, change may be difficult to embrace with new energy. Some find it difficult to believe that the current responses are helping in any way if we cannot stop the pandemic We might not be able to predict everything about how COVID-19 will still change our lives, our work, our studies or our businesses. However, we can manage our responses to these uninvited changes that have unintended consequences. Even if a single person could be blamed for it all, it does not change the current situation and loss of control that is felt. We may first have to process the sense of loss or grief that we each feel, be it loss of: predictability, emotional resources, energy, loved ones, familiar work processes, perceived freedom, peace or joy.

The next time you feel exhausted or overwhelmed, it may help to pause and consider how your inner world is affected and how you are changing as a person during this pandemic, be it negatively or positively. Perhaps adapting how you engage with this life change may help you to process it better. The emotional pyramid of needs above is one guide. More mental and emotional wellbeing guidelines can be found on The Counselling Hub’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/counsellinghubwoodstock/.

Van Tonder, C.L., & Roodt, G. (2008). Organisation development: Theory and practice. (Eds.). Van Schaik Publishers: Pretoria.

Wheatley, M.J. (2008). Community is the unit of change. The only way we can get through this is together. In Shambhala Sun: https://margaretwheatley.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Sun.Sept08.Boyce_.pdf

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