So far in this series we’ve talked about change demand and how multiple changes can combine to create overload. In this post we are going to focus on what happens to individuals when there is more change demand than they have the energy to absorb.

Adapting to change requires individuals to use some combination of physical energy, mental energy, emotional energy, and spiritual energy. Physical energy is what we use to move ourselves and other things through time and space. Mental energy is what we use to create new cognitive connections that allow us to perceive, interpret, and respond to the world differently. Emotional energy is what we use to sustain and regain a sense of well-being when emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness arise. Spiritual energy is what we use to connect ourselves with a larger sense of meaning and purpose. These forms of energy are interconnected–for example, when we feel physically tired, we often have a more difficult time dealing with negative emotions; when we are mentally tired, we may find ourselves less able to visualize our aspirations and goals.

When we encounter challenges and have the energy required to deal with them, we often feel a sense of excitement and flow. However, if an individual experiences more disruption than he or she can absorb, here are some of the things that can happen:

Decreased Performance One of the first signs of overload is a reduced ability to do a good job at work. Energy that would ordinarily be used for day-to-day activities is depleted by the demands of change, and people begin to make mistakes, forget things, argue with colleagues, and have accidents. Sometimes people disengage from their work and spend time in daydreaming, gossiping, playing games, and other unproductive activities.

Health Issues Stress takes a toll on the body. When people encounter a challenge they do not believe they have the ability to overcome, processes in the brain operate to release hormones and other chemicals that affect the entire body, including the heart, lungs, immune system, skin, and digestion. When stress continues over a long period of time, it can lead to health problems including heart disease, chronic muscle pain, diabetes, and digestive and reproductive issues.

Psychological Burnout Overload can also lead to a number of psychological problems such as exhaustion, lack of motivation, cynicism, and depression, which are sometimes grouped together under the term “burnout.” These issues are particularly prevalent in service professions such as nursing, social work, law enforcement, and customer service. These jobs are often characterized by high emotional demands, a fast pace, and ongoing stress.

I recently did some work with a health-care organization to help them evaluate levels of overload. We found particularly high levels of overload among the nursing staff. In addition to the demands of multiple changes to processes and procedures, the environment most nurses work in is subject to high levels of “surges”–unpredictable demands that arise and require immediate reprioritization of activities. Because patient safety was such a critical goal for these nurses, they did everything possible to avoid letting the stressful conditions affect the quality of their patient care. Instead, they worked long hours, took few breaks, and took their frustrations out on their co-workers. This, in turn, created a negative work environment. In addition, the internalization of stress was showing up in health issues which led to increases in absenteeism and turnover.

The linkage between individual well-being and organizational performance is important–as overload affects individuals, it also begins to create negative outcomes for the organization. We’ll talk more about this in the next post.