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Tumultuous times create uncertainty for employees
We’re in the throes of a turbulent period in history. The global economy has been erratic since the pandemic began, and employees are still living with fears of job insecurity and a deep sense of uncertainty around what’s going to happen in the next few years.
A recent survey shows that even in the face of a potential recession, one-third of workers are planning on leaving their jobs. At the same time, one in five organizations is planning layoffs, and more than a third of HR leaders have rescinded job offers.
The last few years have made us all realize how vulnerable we are to global crises that are completely outside our control. Let’s think through how employees and People leaders can build resilience in the midst of all these challenges, and weather the present storm.
How uncertainty and ambiguity affects employees
Uncertainty is uncomfortable for humans. We take solace in feeling like we know what the future has in store for us, and understandably, the past two years have made us all feel the weight of future unknowns.
There are many forces outside our control that affect our work life and livelihoods, and this has taken a toll on employee mental health.
According to the 2022 State of Workforce Mental Health, 84% of employees have had at least one mental health issue over the past year, and anxiety levels are up 14% since 2020.
Uncertainty about job security tends to manifest in employees as higher anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout. This can lead to:
- Decreased engagement
- Lower productivity
- Increased absenteeism
- Physical health issues
- A sense of hopelessness
- Declining mental health
Cultivating resilience during uncertain times
Although we don’t have control over economic stability or global relations, we do have control over our own mindset, and there are ways to effectively cope with the unknown.
Resilience is “the ability to withstand, recover, and grow in the face of stressors and changing demands.”
Emotional resilience is deeply connected with inner strength, and provides benefits in the workplace, such as:
- Higher job satisfaction, happiness at work, and a greater ability to handle work stress
- Better employee engagement and organizational commitment
- Improved self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and better relationships between employees
Resilient people embody characteristics that enable them to withstand hardship, dynamic environments, sudden changes, and difficult or stressful situations. These characteristics include:
- High adaptability
- Emotional regulation
- Deep attachments to other people and a strong support system
- Perceiving change as an opportunity
- A sense of humor
- The ability to manage negative emotions
These characteristics are not innate. They can all be learned and nurtured in a workplace environment.
Now that we know what resilience looks like, here are some ways People leaders can help integrate it into workplace culture, and become more resilient themselves.
Building a resilient workplace culture
Resilience training for employees has proven to be highly effective. The American Heart Association put together a detailed report after studying the impact of resilience training in the workplace.
The authors found that, “Participation in resilience training programs is associated with positive outcomes with nearly three-quarters of participants (73%), who say their participation has improved their health a great deal or fair amount. Participants also report various specific health outcomes ranging from less negative stress to sleeping better.”
They also note that it’s important to use both individual-level employee programs, policy, and training, and systems-level approaches. Some examples of this include:
- Leadership encouraging and supporting employees to participate in resilience training and to take advantage of resilience resources
- Encouraging employees to use mental health resources, take advantage of innovative EAP benefits, and take paid time off, and providing professional development support
- Ensuring managers, supervisors, and People leaders are participating in the resilience training, so they can model what they’ve learned to their teams, and deal with ambiguity and uncertainty better themselves
Transparent communication is a comfort for anxious employees
Pretending that things are fine amid layoffs and hiring freezes will likely cause employees to lose faith that leadership is being honest with them. This allows fear-based rumors and speculation to spread.
Human brains are wired to build models of the world that anticipate future events but tend to visualize unknowns as negatives. And when there are gaps in information, our brains naturally start making up stories that typically resemble worst-case scenarios.
Which is why it’s critical for companies to practice:
- Transparent and consistent communication and messaging. Acknowledge that circumstances are difficult, acknowledge if there are hard decisions to be made, and acknowledge employees' fears. Without this, employees are likely to imagine the worst, whether their conclusion is based in reality or not.
- Articulating messaging around both larger picture issues. This includes the direction of the company, future goals and vision, along with what any change or event means for the present, day-to-day lives of employees. What projects will be canceled or be continued, and what’s our focus as the company reorients itself during uncertain times?
- Communication that is omnidirectional and not solely top-down. Make sure employees are heard and part of the decision-making process. This should be a two-way street.
- Obtaining employee feedback in multiple forums. For example, send out surveys asking about the biggest workplace stressors for employees, schedule regular one-on-one sessions between employees and supervisors, and host brainstorming sessions for addressing how a company or department adapts as conditions change.
Reframing ambiguity as future opportunity
The fear of an uncertain future is normal and human, and it’s also a failure to recognize that all futures are uncertain and unpredictable. Uncertainty may be scary, but it always passes as the future becomes the present.
Psychologists use the concept of uncertainty avoidance to think about how humans tolerate the unknown and the resources they use to deal with it.
Research shows that people with a high tolerance for uncertainty are more willing to let events play out, make observations without being reactive, and then deal with whatever happens.
It’s possible to shift from an anxiety-based approach of trying to control circumstances to an approach that prioritizes engaging with ambiguity—of what we do have control over.
Here’s an example of the two mindsets: “the future is unknown and scary, terrible things could happen” contrasted by “the future is unknown, anything is possible.”
It’s important to point out that it’s easier to embrace uncertainty when you feel psychologically safe in the workplace, when your mental health is stable, and when you have a strong support system.
Mental health support is the foundation
Employees are the bedrock of any company, and mental health underpins individual wellbeing and stability. This means that employee mental health is part of a company's foundation.
One main piece of the equation for addressing employee fear, anxiety, and depression during uncertain times is to support mental health. For example:
- Offer an innovative EAP. Spring Health’s EAP provides mental healthcare for employees that’s precise, personal, and proven.
- Practice and encourage mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us focus on what is under our control—our own reaction to outside circumstances. In parallel with mindfulness is acknowledging and validating that employees’ fears are real and understandable.
- Ask employees what they need during times of high uncertainty. What would help them cope with ambiguity around the future?
- Respond with empathy, always. A workplace without empathy is a toxic workplace, which is the last thing employees need during uncertain times.
The tools we’ve been discussing for adapting to changing conditions and living with ambiguity will help employees stay engaged and able to deal with a wide range of issues both at work and in their personal lives.
Companies made up of resilient employees will also develop a resilient workplace culture. In a dynamic world, that’s a useful skill set.
Learning to live with uncertainty is a win for employees and organizations
Uncertain times call for elevating employee support systems by providing mental health resources, promoting resilience and a tolerance for uncertainty, and using ongoing, honest, empathetic forms of communication at all levels of a company.
Investing in employees and their mental health is not a zero-sum game. Employees who are mentally healthier and more resilient are able to bring more to the workplace while also thriving as individuals outside of work.
Companies that prioritize resilience are more likely to weather the uncertainty we’re all living with.
Read this blog next to learn how to conduct layoffs with empathy and respect, while also supporting the mental health of remaining employees moving forward—and your own.