How employers can help their workforce to manage uncertainty and worry

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Article by Clare Price, Director of Clinical Services, Onebright

Uncertainty can have an enormous impact on our mental health and our quality of life.

As the world continues to navigate its way out of the pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, and with the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine, we have a new set of uncertainties to contend with.

If left unresolved, these uncertainties can lead to an overwhelming feeling of worry, which can have a serious impact on our mental health, and in turn have a negative effect on both our personal and professional lives. 

What is ‘worry’?

Worry is a way of ‘thinking ahead’ to events or challenges that we encounter in our lives, which may leave us feeling anxious or apprehensive. When we worry excessively, we often think about the worst-case scenarios that can materialise from future events, resulting in us feeling anxious and thinking that we won’t be able to cope. 

Worry generally takes two forms, ‘real world’ worry, which is about actual concerns which are impacting in the here and now and ‘hypothetical worry’, things which don’t currently exist but might happen in the future or are not within our power to resolve. 

The impact of worry on mental health

Thinking too far ahead to events far in the future can often result in us stepping over the line between the real-world and the hypothetical, which can result in excessive stress and worry, but thinking ahead can also benefit us too. 

The benefits of ‘thinking ahead’

It is important to recognise that thinking ahead can be helpful in lots of situations, for example:

  • It can help us to anticipate obstacles and/or problems. For example, thinking about how you plan your time can help you to complete the tasks you need to do during a working day.
  • It affords the opportunity to problem solve and plan solutions. It could be as simple as planning the quickest route for travelling to your workplace.
  • It can help us to achieve our goals. For example, this could be planning the targets you need to hit to gain a promotion. 

For employers and business leaders, it is vital to understand the impact that uncertainty and worry can have on the mental health of their employees and understand the steps they can take to support them. 

Signs of uncertainty to look out for as an employer 

There are several different signs that may indicate an employee/colleague may be struggling with worry and uncertainty. It can be hard to know if this impacting someone as worry is an internal process, so there are some key behaviours to look out for which could lead you to opening a conversation with them to find out more:

  • Excessive absence – Taking an unusual amount of time off work, should an excessive level of absence persist, take steps to communicate with the person to understand the reasons why.
  • Reduced tolerance – Overreacting to situations in the workplace. 
  • Increased pessimism – Focusing too much on the negative aspects of their job.
  • Uncharacteristic performance issues – Struggling to concentrate or complete tasks, either day-to-day or by set deadlines is another sign that your employee may be preoccupied with worries that are resulting in them being unable to focus and complete tasks effectively. 
  • Isolation – Reduced social skills or less interpersonal interactions with other colleagues, including experiencing increased concerns about what others are thinking.
  • Low confidence – Turning down opportunities for development or promotion, or indeed even plateauing in their career. 

What can I do to support my employees struggling with worry? 

Support them to maintain balance

Wellbeing comes from living a life with a balance of activities that give you feelings of pleasure, achievement, and closeness. As an employer, acknowledging the importance of these for employees can make a real difference, and taking additional steps to ensure your workplace culture fosters them can have an even bigger, positive impact upon the mental health of your people.

Help them to identify their worries

Another way you can help is through encouraging people to distinguish if their worries are real or hypothetical. Is it a real-world worry or a hypothetical worry? If it is a real life worry then problem solving and action planning can help, if it’s the latter, maybe reflecting on whether this is a problem that can actually be solved and helping them focus on things that are within their control can be useful. 

Postpone your worry

Worry triggers an insistent physical response, but it can help to remind employees that they do not have to engage with it right away. Instead, encourage them to set some deliberate time aside every day where they are allowed to express their worry and don’t worry until the set time, often the worry will have dissipated. 

Promote self-compassion

Worry can come from a place of concern; we worry about others when we care about them. As an employer, responding to worry with kindness and compassion can make a huge difference. 

Encourage mindfulness 

Finally, encourage your employee to practice mindfulness. Learning and practising mindfulness can help us to break free and let go of worries by staying in the present moment rather than engaging with the constant noise in our minds.

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