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We’re all frustrated with the circumstances that COVID-19 has caused, but at least it no longer has the element of surprise. The realities of a pandemic and what it means for business are starting to settle in. And yet, there’s still more than enough uncertainty to go around, clouding the vision of leaders and hampering the productivity of employees.
With markets continuing to shift and government orders changing often, plenty of people still have to worry about being laid off or furloughed. Even those who are lucky enough to have relative job security wonder if their roles will evolve, whether business operations will undergo further radical changes, and when — or if — things will ever get back to normal.
Physiologically, this uncertainty translates to fear. At some level of our consciousness, we’re constantly worrying about what happens next. That’s not a sign of weakness, it’s just the way we’re built. Our brains are incredibly adept at noticing threats and letting the rest of our body know about them.
If you had to make a list of the most important skills for business leaders, “fear management” probably wouldn’t come to mind first. Especially in times like these, however, it should.
The connection between uncertainty and productivity
Fear is distracting. Most job-related worries aren’t the kind that have us literally looking over our shoulder, but part of our brain is still devoted to protecting us from whatever danger it perceives. The amount of focus that gets subtracted means we’re less creative and less productive. It’s hard to get things done when we’re stuck in reactive mode.
Science backs this up. A paper published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology details the effects of job insecurity on mental and physical health. Whenever there’s a perceived risk of being laid off, job satisfaction and productivity both decline, and employees have a greater risk of burnout.
A separate study explored how the same problem can lead to a decrease in workplace safety — employees dealing with uncertainty at work pay less attention and are more likely to hurt themselves or others. This might seem like enough of a rarity to only warrant a side note, but actually, it’s a huge problem: in 2019, 105,000,000 workdays in the U.S. were lost as a result of injuries, and every medically consulted injury cost employers $42,000 on average. If you needed just one good reason to consider fear and uncertainty in the workplace a major issue, this should be it.
But fear is manageable.
Turning uncertainty into certainty
It may be impossible to guarantee that an employee will never, ever lose their job, be furloughed, or have to deal with some uncomfortable circumstance. But there is still a lot that can be done to manage uncertainty and reduce the fear that goes along with it. In fact, that’s why it should be a main focus for leaders – of all the things that can dampen morale or limit productivity, uncertainty is one of the easiest to handle.
The main way to accomplish this is to just be transparent. Getting bad news (like the news that you’re being laid off or won’t get a bonus) is never fun, but it’s orders of magnitude better than uncertainty. Once you know, you’re able to focus on dealing with it. Not knowing, on the other hand, essentially leaves you powerless.
Even when outright certainty isn’t doable (say, for instance, that you aren’t sure yet whether you’ll have to downsize your company or department), you can still bridge the gap by offering something that is certain. Maybe you can’t promise a particular result, but you can at least promise that a decision will be reached by a set date.
In addition to being as transparent as possible, there are other methods that can reduce uncertainty in the workplace. For one, you can add to employees’ sense of control by empowering them to make decisions wherever possible. That could mean choosing their own schedule or setting their performance goals. Another way is to simply encourage employee health (aka, stress management abilities) via good habits like sleep and exercise.
Uncertain workers are worried workers, and worried workers are neither happy nor engaged. The more that leaders in the workplace learn to treat uncertainty as a business challenge, and to be honest, straightforward, and consistent in their communication, the more productive their staff will be — good for employees, and good for the bottom line.
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