Surviving Workplace Uncertainty

What is Workplace Uncertainty?

Uncertainty while a natural part of life, invariably causes us discomfort. This is because our brains are programmed by our past experiences and crave the familiar as that’s more predictable. As a result, most of us like to feel ‘in control’ and spend a great deal of time and effort in doing things that help us to feel more in control eg planning our week, making lists, preparing for meetings etc. So new experiences, or unfamiliar circumstances or things not going to plan ie uncertainty can feel threatening.  We each differ in terms of our normal tolerance of uncertainty (some people enjoy taking risks eg those who engage in extreme sports). But we all have limits. When feeling stressed, our tolerance of uncertainty will be lowered.

What Causes Workplace Uncertainty?

Recent times have elevated the sense of uncertainty in the world generally and in our daily lives. Health and well-being have been impacted by the global pandemic and even as life returns to some sense of normality, it’s not the same as before. Work patterns have changed with people working more remotely. Economic stability feels more precarious with higher levels of inflation and interest rates, creating greater pressures on households. Job security is a great concern to many. People consequently are feeling higher levels of fear and stress which affect their sense of well-being and at times, performance at work.

In this context, for some people any changes even minor eg being asked to do something they haven’t done before, or to adopt a new process, can feel threatening and bring on a fight- flight reaction. And when you’re stressed little things can feel bigger eg a short, direct email from a colleague can sound terse; someone failing to respond to your email leaves you feeling ignored or unimportant; your boss looks at you a certain way, or doesn’t make eye contact as she walks past, means she didn’t like your last presentation, or you! Our threat response becomes easily activated and as our rational brain is no longer running the show, it’s harder for us to see other, more likely and far more mundane explanations. So, there may be increased anxiety and possibly feelings of overwhelm and helplessness accompanied with spiralling negative thinking or catastrophising.

Tips to Survive Uncertainty and to Deal With it

Even at times of lots of change and when things feel uncertain, its important to know that there are steps you can take to help you cope with the anxiety and feel stronger and more capable of dealing with the unknown.

  1. Question your perceived need for certainty, and start to see it as over-rated: Look back at times in your life where you’ve faced challenges eg it could be as simple as an exam or an interview or where things haven’t gone to plan. Remind yourself of the strengths that helped you meet those challenges – even if you didn’t get the result you may have wanted at the time. Also reflect on some of the positive outcomes or benefits that came from the experience that you could never have anticipated or what you learned from it. Remembering the old saying “every cloud has a silver lining..” can help you to readily reframe your experience.
  2. Focus on what’s in your control: The economy, interest rates, company restructures are largely outside of your control, so choose to focus on things that help you feel good which are in your control eg a cooking a nice meal for friends, going on a weekend hike to a new location, doing some gardening, reading a book. Another thing that’s found to be helpful is to focus on others – volunteer in some capacity on a regular basis, even choosing to smile more as you greet people.
  3. Actively manage your stress levels by engaging in regular self care: Go for walks, reduce screen time, exercise daily and focus on healthy food and good sleep.
  4. Come back to the present: Notice when you start worrying and the negative thoughts are spiralling – use breathing or grounding techniques to bring you back to the present moment. Some people find splashing cold water on their face can be helpful for this.
  5. Practice Gratitude daily: This has been shown to help with our inherent negativity bias.
  6. Keep expanding your comfort zone: eg learn a new skill, or train for a distance event. This helps build resilience and confidence and challenges your need for certainty.

How to Reduce Workplace Uncertainty as a Leader

The starting point for any leader is with oneself. Self- awareness is critical, particularly in noticing the impact of uncertainty on your own stress levels. Watch out for any tendency to micro-manage or to get too involved in work you shouldn’t be involved in. So, practising the tips mentioned above applies equally to leaders.

In terms of managing organisations or teams during times of change or restructure, clear communication of stages with time frames, to the extent possible is always helpful. Breaking complicated matters or transactions down into smaller parts or stages can help people to focus when the bigger picture may be unclear and consequently overwhelming.

Also being open about not necessarily having all the answers and showing willingness to “learn as we go” and adjust, if needed, can be reassuring to others. Re-enforcing a Growth Mindset may also be useful in this context.  Encouraging Managers to check in on their team members and reminding them to reach out for support via EAP is also recommended.

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Embracing Uncertainty