American Workers Are Overwhelmed With Uncertainty, Which Can Lead To Burnout. Here’s A Way To Manage The Nerves

Fortune Well October 4, 2023


American Workers Are Overwhelmed With Uncertainty, Which Can Lead To Burnout. Here’s A Way To Manage The Nerves

Employees have been anxiously holding their breaths amid economic turmoil, rampant layoffs, and fears over their job security. A cryptic Slack message, a last-minute meeting invite, or an odd look from a coworker can make us fear the worst.


Uncertainty at work can generate stress, anxiety, and cognitive distortions, and can even exacerbate existing mental health conditions. These manifestations of uncertainty can harm employees’ sense of well-being at work, not to mention their productivity.

“The human brain is essentially allergic to uncertainty,” Dr. Julia DiGangi, a neuropsychologist and author of the new book Energy Risingtells Fortune. “When it comes to the human brain, feelings of confusion are almost intolerable.”


At the very least, the rumination caused by uncertainty takes up mental space in the brain. 

“In the absence of clear data, my brain all the time will close the pattern in favor of a suspicious narrative, a rejecting narrative, or a fearful narrative,” DiGangi says. “Because if I start to get vigilant, if I start to get suspicious, if I start to get on guard, if I start to get defensive, then I might be miserable, but at least I’ll be alive.”

This thinking only harms us in the long term, DiGangi says. 

“The more people seek certainty, the sicker they get,” she says. “What happens when we feel uncertain at our job is we get into what I call the overt. We start overworking, over-explaining, over-giving, over-engineering, over-communicating [and] over-functioning.” 

This need to outrun the unknown can lead to burnout. What’s more, overworking to combat uncertainty will never work, DiGangi says. It will only cause more pain. We cannot think our way out of uncertainty. Instead, we must learn to live alongside it. 


Trust your skills 

Contrary to what we may think, the opposite of uncertainty isn’t certainty. 

“The only antidote to that is to start thinking about emotional power. You have to start thinking about how, in the absence of certainty, can I show myself that I can trust myself?”

It means not judging yourself for the uncertainty you cannot control, but trusting your strengths and abilities. It helps to remember times you’ve felt calm in the face of uncertainty and using those moments to build trust—remembering that rumination didn’t change the outcome.

Self-trust also means not overthinking an exchange with your boss and distinguishing fact from fear. Uncertainty is a constant, so search for ways to take back control at work by prioritizing making connections across the company, finding a mentor, and learning new skills.

Of course, there are times to worry, like if your workplace is causing more harm than good. In the same vein, you can trust yourself to take action or seek support when needed. 

Imagine the mental space we would gain back if we let go of the ruminations, self-doubt, and fear that accompany uncertainty.

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