The workplace is full of uncertainties, and facing them is one of the biggest challenges day in and day out. The psychology of our country was at stake when we shared the uncertainty of not knowing what would happen during the pandemic, followed by the Great Resignation and the Topsy-turvy workplace. Even now, we share the uncertainty of another World War due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Rising inflation and economic fears and recession worries are on the upswing. Unemployment, the hiring crisis, shrinking financial resources and questionable job futures is causing overwhelming work stress in epidemic proportions. Plus, we have our unique uncertainties that instantly arouse fight-or-flight reactions. Will I get hired for the position? Will I get a good enough raise? Can I find a job that I really like?
Scientists in the journal report that fear of uncertainty is part of human nature. A landmark study found that uncertainty causes more stress than inevitable pain. Participants who knew for sure they would receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and less stressed than those who were told they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock. According to the research, we sweat more and our pupils expand when we are more uncertain. “When applying for a job, you’ll probably feel more relaxed if you think it’s a long shot or if you’re confident that it’s in the bag,” says study co-author Dr. Robb Rutledge, quoted in Neuroscience News. “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”
How Leaders Can Reduce Workplace Uncertainty
Scientists have found that job uncertainty creates more anxiety and takes a greater toll on your health than actually losing the job. Perhaps the good news is we’re not alone when we agonize over uncertainty, because we’re all hard wired for the stress that accompanies it. Beyond that scientific fact, we’re still edgy when a situation is unpredictable or unforeseeable.
A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, reported that when employees are uncertain about being laid off, their job satisfaction and productivity decline and they are at higher risk for job burnout. Research also shows that a predictable workplace, where employees can count on a certain amount of psychological safety, reduces stress, turnover and safety incidents and increases productivity. Psychological safety is highest when employers have consistent contact and frequent check-ins with their employees. It heightens engagement, increases motivation and boosts performance, according to the data. It’s important for business leaders to provide clearly defined roles and job objectives, along with a predictable personality to create a stable work culture.
How Employees Can Promote Workplace Certainty
Work conditions alone do not determine job uncertainty. Some of that responsibility rests with employees. The best line of defense is to manage your stress so it’s as predictable and consistent as possible. Here are eight ways to bring your version of certainty to an unpredictable work situation.
# 1. Sharpen Your Uncertainty Tolerance. Your perspective is the most powerful thing you can control in a situation beyond your control. Fear, panic and worry add insult to injury—another layer of stress that can paradoxically make us more stressed than the actual situation. The key is to remain level-headed, sensible and avoid freaking out over an uncertain situation. To offset catastrophic thinking, find the upside of a downside situation. Flipping your perspective and reminding yourself that many gifts are contained in the unknown, can be a game-changer.
# 2. Make Yourself Indispensable. Consider going above and beyond what’s required on the job. Standing out at work is more important than ever. When employees put in extra effort to go the extra mile, managers notice and it bodes well for workers. Making sure your projects keep moving, lending a helping hand to overloaded coworkers and volunteering your time are examples of actions that make you more visible and indispensable.
# 3. Focus On What You Can Control. Simply taking charge of what you can control empowers you so you don’t feel like a victim, waiting for the ax to fall. Find things you can manage and small escapes that make you happy while you’re in an unsure waiting period. Immerse yourself into little things you look forward to that bring you joy: gardening, reading a good novel, having friends over for dinner or watching a comedy on TV. Or follow the advice of writer Maxine Hong Kingston, “In a time of destruction, create something.” Think of something you can get your hands on to create. Then notice how much calmer you feel amidst the uncertainty you’re facing.
# 4. Practice Self-Care. If your company doesn’t provide times for you to disconnect, create them for yourself. Self-care is your first line of defense against chronic uncertainty—you’re doing yourself no favors by putting yourself last. Self-care makes your ability to deal with uncertainty more sustainable. Practice self-care with microbreaks and workflow meditations throughout the workday. Keep yourself fit by getting the sleep, exercise and balanced diet your body needs. Avoid junk food, excessive alcohol and nicotine. These unhealthy behaviors seem to reduce anxiety in the short term, but they actually raise stress levels over the long haul.
# 5. Avoid Participation In The “Quiet Culture.” Employees who practice “quiet quitting” and employers who practice “quiet firing” or “quiet hiring” actually raise the uncertainty threat needle instead of lowering it. Experts nationwide are calling for workplaces to provide more transparency and emotional intelligence—a win-win for employers and employees. The more direct, honest and clear colleagues are with one another, the more a culture of trust and certainty can prevail.
# 6. Prevent Your Mind From Wandering. Harvard scientists report that the human mind wanders 47% of the time. When your mind wanders, you’re likely to focus on uncertainty and things you can’t control. This makes you more stressed out and unhappy than if you stay in the here and now, for example, when you’re worried about unpaid bills or an unfinished project. The Harvard scientists found you’re happier if you’re focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else or wishing you had done something differently.
# 7. Have A Back Up Plan. Job search, go to job fairs, talk with employers and find out what they’re looking for. Find websites of companies that are hiring. Add this search routine to your weekly schedule and be disciplined about it. The pool is large and you want to stand out, so improve your interviewing skills and upgrade your technical skills through an online course. Update your resume, make sure it’s neat and grammatically correct and that you dot all of your i’s and crossed all of your t’s.
# 8. Connect With Something Bigger Than You. I live in the Blue Ridge mountains. Most days I take five minutes to observe the towering peaks. I pay attention to their shape, size and colors and contemplate that they’ve been here for millions of years and will be here for many more after me. That awe creates waves of calm that descend over me. I feel anchored and settled, and my spirits are raised—much like poet John Muir’s quote, “We are now in the mountains, and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” My five minutes of mountain-gazing helped me cope during the pandemic’s uncertainty. Science backs up my personal experience that observing nature gives us a bigger perspective of our life circumstances, induces feelings of awe and reverence and provides a certainty about the future that offsets the uncertainty of what’s to come.