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Small changes can be a big drain on mental energy

Small, frequent changes in the workplace can drain employees’ mental energy, a Gartner study found. That, in turn, makes it less likely that workers will stay with a company and more likely that they’ll resist all change at work.

“Employees who experienced high degrees of change have to expend a lot more effort to meet deadlines, meet quality standards, meet volume of work requirements,” said Tamara Shipley, CPA, vice president in the Gartner finance practice. “And too much effort hurts mental energy.”

Small changes — a software upgrade, a colleague leaving the company, even rearranging office furniture — rarely get the same attention from senior executives as organizationwide, high-priority changes do. But small changes are much more common, the Gartner study found — constituting 96% of the changes that employees say affect them.

The study defined mental energy as “one’s ability to maintain a positive mood, manage stress, and avoid burnout on a daily basis, during times of heavy workload, during times of high change, and when faced with changes one disagrees with.”

Mental energy affects how engaged employees are, how hard they’ll work, and how long they intend to stay with an organization.

The Gartner data, from a survey of 499 finance and shared services employees and interviews with 85 leaders in those sectors, predates the pandemic. Pandemic-driven changes have taxed employees even more, Shipley said, making the study even more relevant.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid the kinds of small workplace changes the Gartner study addresses, Shipley said, but the fact that those changes can drain mental energy and harm employee engagement highlights the importance of companies making deliberate efforts to support employees.

At Chicago-based PKF Mueller CPA, the firm tries to make employees’ lives easier in general, said Aaron O’Connor, CPA, managing director in the audit and assurance group, which can help them weather any changes.

“When working weekends is the norm during busy season, staff can leave early on Friday to avoid the worst traffic during commutes, which can often be lengthy,” O’Connor said. “Recapturing even a half-hour of time can be the small difference that leads to a positive attitude.”

The firm also has group luncheons on Saturdays during busy season where food preparation or ordering is rotated among volunteers each week. The firm pays for the meal, and the lunches allow people to share their culture, create time for social bonding, and decide who makes the best chocolate chip cookies.

Since the pandemic forced workers home last year, EY has expanded benefits to help employees manage stress and mental health. This year, for example, EY enhanced its employee assistance program, known as EY Assist, by including up to 25 no-cost visits per year with either a mental health coach to help with issues like stress and burnout or a therapist for more significant issues such as anxiety and depression, said Michael Weiner, director of the firm’s employee assistance program and work-life services. This enhancement is also available to each family member in the household.

The firm also held virtual “story-sharing” events where leaders and staff shared stories of personal struggle and what helped them persevere. Those events attracted about 25% of the company’s U.S. workforce, Weiner said. The goal was to normalize asking for help.

“The stigma of getting help when feeling stressed is one issue we have been addressing, and we are also communicating about the importance of proactive and preventive care. Too many people are not comfortable seeking care when they’re stressed,” Weiner said. “You don’t have to have a mental illness to be struggling.”

EY has also encouraged people to observe email quiet hours between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and has lengthened the periods around major holidays when its offices are closed.

Shipley said some companies have practices designed to better support individual employees through small changes in particular. One approach: Encouraging peer-to-peer support. That can be as simple as making it easier to know what co-worker might be able to help if someone is struggling with a software application.

To keep his team engaged, O’Connor tries to keep them focused on the benefits of working through difficult circumstances.

“Working through complex situations only adds to building one’s personal balance sheet. I also share that the experiences add up and the skills learned will be of value for the rest of their careers,” O’Connor said. “This broader perspective, I hope, protects their current mental energy.”

— Mark Tosczak is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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