Here’s a familiar scenario: John has been a loyal employee to a major pharmaceutical company for more than five years. He likes his leadership and feels well-equipped to perform the work he was hired to do. However, he doesn’t feel as nimble with the company’s constant changes, leaving him little room to think through the last asks before new ones come. While John believes in the company’s vision, he’s contemplating leaving in search of an advancement. He doesn’t feel connected to all the recent changes or that the strategy is ever fully connected to something greater.
The company is moving at lightning speed to activate new omnichannel pathways, embed digital and data fluency in R&D and commercial operations, decentralize clinical trials, accelerate drug development, and respond to pandemic-related changes in ways of working. In his personal life, he has a one-year-old daughter who is just learning to walk and a six-year-old son who takes Tae Kwon Do lessons and started kindergarten last month. John has been going into the office one day a week for the last month but is feeling pressure to increase it to three or more days in the next several months if he stays. He feels overwhelmed in his work and personal life.
John is not alone. The rapid changes resulting from the pandemic combined with the emotional stress surrounding it all, produces a great deal of weariness. At a minimum this will contribute to heightened levels of change resistance. At its worst, it impacts attrition. Leaving an organization is one way to alleviate this fatigue; it gives the affected employee an opportunity to reset and start fresh somewhere else. This is one reason behind the so-called “Great Resignation,” in which a record 4.3 million Americans quit their job in August 2021 alone.1
“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill
Nearly two years since the pandemic began, pharmaceutical organizations are under pressure to rapidly implement new approaches to help employees face whatever lies ahead—and they should. New hybrid ways of working; shifting HCP and patient behaviors; disruption to traditional channels, processes, and more, all require shifts in mindsets, behaviors, and responsibilities.
Change, at its core, is a good thing and intuitively we know it’s necessary to remain relevant and competitive. However, it can still have a negative impact on employees if not done properly. The official term is called “change saturation,” or the point at which individuals are being asked to absorb and embed too much change at any one time. The result is what we see in our scenario about John—employees becoming stressed, confused, and even disconnected.
Now that the pandemic has altered our expectations of what is possible, it’s clear that change is here to stay for the foreseeable future. But leadership can employ internal strategies and tactics to retain their most valuable employees to positively impact project outcomes without jeopardizing strategic initiatives that ultimately have an impact on the bottom line—and can lead to a more productive work environment.
Steps to Combat Change Fatigue
When you start to recognize the fatigue within your organization, consider taking these three steps:
- Pause: Allow time for the organization to breathe and build up a little more resilience. You will know you need to pause if productivity slows down, employees are less energized about coming to work, or your company begins to experience a mass exodus of its top talent. Sure, these are not the only red flags to watch for or the only way employees respond to change, but these behaviors will leave clues.
- Ruthlessly prioritize: Understand that the velocity of changes must decrease for people to absorb/adopt the needed changes. Look at your portfolio of changes across time and sequence them in a way that will be “adoption friendly” to the organization.
- Be transparent: Acknowledge the situation and tell the organization how you’re going to address it. Give updates along the way and create a feedback loop so you know how things are improving. When employees are brought along on the change journey, they can better adapt to it. This includes informing them via internal communications and even building special teams across the organization to test certain aspects of the change. A lack of transparency can cause an unnecessary amount of angst and anxiety in employees.
Overcome Resistance to Change
If you find employees within your change-fatigued organization are reluctant to embrace a new way of doing things, try these tactics:
- Make it bite sized: As much as possible, break the changes into manageable pieces that can be more easily digested and adopted.
- Provide visible support: Include change management as an integral part of the project. An organization needs to provide an employee experience that includes well-paced opportunities to learn about the change, have a voice in the change, and be well supported by their managers and leaders as they make the transition.
- Celebrate success: Look for opportunities to communicate wins, success stories, and other bright spots that will motivate and inspire the organization. Success breeds success.
The most critical point for change leaders is to never forget the importance of compassion in decision-making and leadership. While change is good and necessary for success and growth, don’t overlook the fact that the pandemic has happened to all of us, and many employees are going through significant changes right now while navigating a new work and life environment. John is an employee, but that’s only one of the many hats he wears as a human being. His time and talent are valuable to more than just his place of employment. Compassion and clear, proactive communication are critical to keep your top performers engaged, empowered, and equipped to handle whatever changes come next.