According to the APA’s Stress in America Survey, 81% of Americans reported global uncertainty as one of their main sources of stress, and nearly 65% said that the dynamic nature of the pandemic makes it impossible to plan anything. In addition to the pandemic, supply chain issues, rising gas prices and inflation, we’ve also had to deal with uncertainty at work. While many of us enjoy the freedom and flexibility of working from home, companies worldwide are calling employees back to the office. And let’s not forget the fact that the tech industry is bracing for a potential recession with companies like Netflix, PayPal and Microsoft rolling out layoffs and hiring freezes.
The truth is that our brains hate uncertainty. Human beings desire information about the future in the same way we crave food and other rewards. Our brain perceives ambiguity as danger because humans are wired to survive. Research also shows that uncertainty at work takes a bigger toll on our health than actually losing our job. That’s because job uncertainty makes you more vulnerable to diseases and worsens existing chronic illnesses like depression and diabetes.
So, what can we do to cope when everything feels so out of control? Here are five proactive ways to deal with uncertainty at work.
Start by letting go
It’s true. We are living through challenging times. But resisting only makes things worse. Instead, accept that there will always be things out of your control. Understanding that life has ups and downs is critical to being able to adapt. Nathan Furr, the co-author of The Upside of Uncertainty, suggests that even failure in the face of the unknown has learning attached. Furr adds, “it is either a moment of recognition that we just need more practice or that we still haven’t found our thing. A willingness to embrace uncertainty keeps life in a gorgeous pattern of growth. You can’t burn out if you keep doing new things. And new things, when tempered with mindfulness techniques, fuel us not to give up.”
Calm your limbic system
When humans feel uncertain, it triggers a fundamental survival instinct that activates the limbic system. That means the brain releases adrenaline and norepinephrine, and your thinking becomes pessimistic. So instead of giving in to the fear, remind yourself that a primitive part of your brain is trying to take over. To get your body out of “limbic overdrive,” try practicing mindfulness techniques like meditation and yoga. Even just taking 15 minutes out of your day to take deep breaths and refocus your thoughts can make a huge difference.
Create a contingency plan
Overcoming uncertainty at work is as much about planning for the worst as it is about hoping for the best. Contingency planning is a game plan put in place to help minimize disruption. This approach is less about how to mitigate negative events and more about proactively developing problem-solving skills. When you embrace a forward-looking perspective, you no longer need to fear uncertainty. Are you concerned about a potential layoff? Instead of worrying, use that time to start networking, revise your resume, or start a side hustle. Be financially prepared by building an emergency fund. That way, if the worst happens, you won’t feel desperate to take the first job that comes along.
Fight negativity bias
Another stress reduction tactic is not to believe everything you think. While it is natural to consider worst-case scenarios, this also sets us up for failure. Why? Expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you expect bad things to happen, your behavior changes. Suddenly you are too afraid to take risks and seize opportunities. Instead, imagine the best possible outcome. That way, you will counter the tendency to focus too much on negative consequences.
Expand your risk tolerance
Furr also suggests getting to know your personal risk profile. Think about which risks you embrace and which you tend to avoid. Understanding the risks you enjoy taking can make you bolder about embracing those situations. Then you can start taking mini risks in the areas you tend to avoid. Furr adds, “with each experience where we survive, we gain confidence in our ability to manage that type of risk.”
Uncertainty doesn’t have to paralyze you. In fact, the ability to manage ambiguity is one of the most important skills you can develop. By leveraging these strategies, you’ll be able to embrace the only real constant, which is—you guessed it—change.