With the Covid-19 pandemic rocking our understanding of what is “normal”, we are facing numerous uncertainties, both at work and in our private lives. From remote working to staff shortages, uncertainty has become an inherent component of the modern-day workplace and learning to adapt to continuous change is vital to carry out our professional duties successfully. We will explore the impact that uncertainty has on our mental health and simple ways for managing our response to it effectively.
Work uncertainty is defined as the occurrence of unplanned events interrupting the regular flow of work, prompting changes to a work schedule and making it difficult to predict the future of the work . Work uncertainty can be internal and external. Internal uncertainty at the work occurs when we have little information to perform our tasks and when there are changes to our work schedule and the complexity of the tasks. On the other hand, external uncertainty comes from the external environment, such as changes within the sector or industry leading to adjustments to our flow of work.
Although uncertainty has become a constant element in our workplace, it can affect our mental health and job performance. Pollard (2001) explored the impact of uncertainty on mental health wellbeing. It focused on how various stages of workplace reorganisation affects employees’ well-being. The result showed that employees mental health deteriorated shortly before the reorganisation, a period associated with high uncertainty experienced by the employees, linked to their future in the organisation and their role expectations . Furthermore, other studies have also identified that role ambiguity is moderately correlated to depression .
We often try to avoid uncertain situations and the anxieties that are related to them. In an experimental study, participants completed an uncertain gambling task where they choose to receive a smaller profitable reward immediately or a higher probability reward after an uncertain delay. Only 37% of the participants opted to wait for the higher profitable reward. Showing that we prefer to compromise for smaller rewards than face the uncertainty .
These reactions to uncertainty are explained from an evolutionary perspective. Our brain tries to predict the future, allowing us to prepare most effectively. When uncertainty occurs, it becomes harder to prepare for potential risks. Then, we try to avoid the uncertain situation altogether, due to fear of the unknown . Here are some methods that can help you manage uncertainty more effectively to help you to thrive at work.
We all face uncertainty in different ways. Many of us tend to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves, fighting against the natural reaction that we experience and the feelings of fear and anxiety that may come with it. We judge ourselves harshly for not dealing with the unknown the way we think we should have, which brings more anxiety and a further sense of disappointment. However, taking time to reflect and accept our emotions, instead of fighting them, can help reduce the worry, anxiety, or stress. Being compassionate towards ourselves and reflecting on our thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental way can help us evaluate the present situation more clearly and focus on the goal at hand.
To find out more about how to develop self-compassion, read our article here.
When faced with uncertainty, we tend to fall into the trap of thought distortions, catastrophizing and preoccupying our mind with negative thoughts and ‘What Ifs’ – “What if I am unsuccessful”, “What if they don’t like my work”, “What if I am wrong,” “What if I lose my job?”. These “what if” thoughts can light the fire to our stress and anxieties. Instead, let’s replace them with ‘what is’ statements – “What is my plan B?” Focusing on the plans and the present can help us calm our mind and become more focused .
Trying to control events that are not within our control can demotivate us and make us feel like we are failing. Accepting that there will be events and situations that we cannot control will help us overcome negative emotions.
When it comes to facing changes, one of the powerful tools to manage them is effective communication. Talking to your colleagues and manager about your experience, feelings and worries and seeking guidance will give you the needed support to handle the unknown with confidence.
They may have faced similar situations and will have the knowledge that can be shared with you.
If you are a leader, communicate well with your team members: They will need to understand why the change is occurring, as well as the impact it will have on their job. By listening to their concerns, you can help them to navigate through the change and deal with any fears they may have .
The ability to effectively manage uncertainty is one of the most important skills for a professional, particularly in those unprecedented times. Here at Impact, we offer both 1-1 coaching and bespoke workshops, such as workshops on increasing resilience, leading with compassion and courage, and creating psychological safety, which will support you and your team to overcome any challenges and thrive together. Click here to find out more.
 Avgoustaki, A. (2016). Work uncertainty and extensive work effort: The mediating role of human resource practices. ILR Review, 69(3), 656-682.
 Pollard, T. M. (2001) Changes in mental well-being, blood pressure and total cholesterol levels during workplace reorganization: The impact of uncertainty, Work & Stress, 15:1, 14-28. doi: 10.1080/02678370110064609
 Susanne, S., Ulrike, R., Talin, K., & Renate, R. (2014). Uncertainty in the workplace: Examining role ambiguity and role conflict, and their link to depression-A meta-analysis. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 23. 91-106. doi: 10.1080/1359432X.2012.711523.
 Tanovic, E., Hajcak, G., & Joormann, J. (2018). Hating waiting: Individual differences in willingness to wait in uncertainty. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology. 1-12. doi:10.1177/2043808718778982
 Robson, D. (2021). Why we’re so terrified of the unknown. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20211022-why-were-so-terrified-of-the-unknown
 Bradberry, T. (2015). 11 Ways Successful People Overcome Uncertainty. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2015/12/21/11-ways-successful-people-overcome-uncertainty/?sh=4021512a2475
 Stobierski, T (2020). 5 Tips for Managing Change in The Workplace. Retrieved from: https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/managing-change-in-the-workplace