Best Practice

9 Ways employee uncertainty is bad for business – and people

In a time of profound uncertainty, people don’t know when we’ll get back to some semblance of normality, or what the new version of normal will even look like.

People that still have jobs aren’t sure if they’ll keep them. People who are furloughed now, don’t know when or if they’ll get back to work. And pretty much everyone fears the possibility of COVID-19, for both themselves and their loved ones.

It’s all very scary. And all that fear and uncertainty will bleed into your business in a number of different ways. Smart leaders will benefit from proactively working to understand the ways uncertainty is likely to affect employees, as a way to better prepare for what’s to come.

In a Poppulo webinar on employee wellbeing during a crisis, Lindsay Kohler of scarlettabbott and Jo Hooper discussed the toll uncertainty can take on employees from a behavioral science perspective. They shared a number of specific negative effects your employees may face in response to the uncertainty caused by the virus.

Employee communications and coronavirus – How to stay the course through a long crisisDownload now

Common psychological and behavioral effects of uncertainty

Business success always depends on humans. Understanding your people and what they’re going through plays an important role in managing them effectively, and keeping business running as smoothly as possible throughout this crisis. To that end, there are some common ways people respond to uncertainty.

  1. Anxiety

Most people experience anxiety during certain moments when facing something new and scary, like giving a speech. That’s normal. But the more concerning type of anxiety you may see in your employees during times of uncertainty is a generalized anxiety disorder. That means consistent, patterned thoughts of anxiety that a person doesn’t know how to deal with or let go of.

  1. Catastrophizing

Related to anxiety is a tendency toward catastrophizing, which means imagining all the worst possible negative outcomes of a situation. While worrying about the unknowns of their careers, the economic impacts of the virus, and the sickness itself, many employees will get caught in negative thought patterns of imagining what could happen.

  1. Depression

So much bad news, combined with long-term social isolation, will likely cause some of your employees to experience periods of depression. Uncertainty can lead to feelings of hopelessness and sadness that they’ll struggle to see a way out of.

  1. Increased health issues

And all of these negative emotions and challenging mental health states can lead to stress eating, increased alcohol consumption, and difficulty sleeping. On top of all that, mental health issues are often associated with somatic symptoms like headaches, digestion problems, and various aches and pains.

Negative business effects of uncertainty

The negative feelings your employees have in the midst of uncertainty will also influence how they approach work.

  1. Susceptibility to negative assumptions and misinformation

If employees don’t know what will happen with their job, their minds may leap to the worst possible assumptions. If the dreary assumptions of a few get shared with their colleagues, you’ll face misinformation running rampant through the ranks. If your company doesn’t do a good job addressing whatever uncertainty you can, misinformation will fill in the gap you create.

  1. Less attention to detail

When someone experiences anxiety, the brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone, into their system. Cortisol affects mental capacity. For employees that feel anxiety on a regular basis, the effects of cortisol will start to affect their work. That includes a greater difficulty focusing on details. Small errors may start to find their way into the work of employees who used to perform at higher levels.

  1. Slower response times

Another effect of cortisol is slower response times. Reduced mental capacity makes it harder to get as much done in the same time as before and process ideas at the same speed. Don’t be surprised if employees need more time to complete comparable amounts of work.

  1. Impatience

And unfortunately, uncertainty leads to frustration. Patience requires a certain amount of emotional energy that’s harder to tap into when you’re regularly dealing with feelings of frustration. With impatience comes more common experiences of anger and annoyance.

  1. Increased bias and judgment

All that impatience leads to people being less gracious with each other. Many will fall prey to the fundamental attribution error, a tendency to assume another person’s behavior is because of a character flaw rather than situational events. Instead of acknowledging that other people are having a hard time too, some employees may attribute things coworkers say and do to meanness. That can cause contention amongst employees.

How to handle the problems caused by uncertainty

That’s a long list of issues to worry about. Knowing to expect them only counts for so much. You need to know how to handle them effectively as well. We can help with that. Download our free guide on how to help with employee wellbeing during a crisis. You’ll learn strategies for how to recognize each of these issues, and how to help your employees manage them effectively.

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