Dealing with Uncertainty: 5 Strategies to Alleviate Employee Anxiety

Everyone is dealing with uncertainty in multiple facets of life, such as economic instability, job market fluctuations, familial pressures, and climate concerns – just to name a few.

But change is often the only constant in life, and this holds true in business as well. An employee’s resilience in dealing with uncertainty determines a company’s success in the face of constant change.

Conversely, if employees become overwhelmed with anxiety and uncertainty, companies suffer as a result. Over one million workers are estimated to be absent every day due to stress – both on and off the job. And job stress costs US companies over $300B per year in health costs, absenteeism, and lost productivity.

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, this is a reminder for companies to take a more active role in helping employees alleviate anxiety.

The Sources of Uncertainty

It’s critical to identify the sources of uncertainty to avoid unnecessary costs to your business and better support your workforce. We’re all coping with unexpected challenges and loss, whether it’s a loss of a loved one, a job, or a sense of normalcy. And daily life is full of uncertainty in areas of health, relationships, and employment, even without external factors impacting us.

While it may be hard to know exactly what a person is going through, several factors play a large part in creating uncertainty for employees that can be identified and addressed.

Ongoing Impacts of COVID-19

A more recent factor that’s increasing global anxiety is COVID-19. The pandemic exacerbated people’s experience of dealing with uncertainty. The unprecedented time created a “new normal,” disrupting any existing sense of normalcy that was in place. To better grasp the impact COVID-19 had on anxiety levels, consider these stats:

  • 53 percent of adults reported their mental health worsened due to COVID-related stress and worry.
  • 78 percent report the pandemic as a significant source of stress in their lives.
  • 67 percent of adults report experiencing an increase in stress over the course of the pandemic.

COVID-19 disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life. It caused job loss, financial insecurity, and social isolation, resulting in high stress and anxiety levels. With new cases still being diagnosed every day, this stress and anxiety has not gone away.

Economic Stress

Economic stress can also elevate employee anxiety. Fluctuations in the economy, instability in the job market, and a potential recession are all significant stressors on one’s financial well-being and overall mental health.

For instance, in 2022, more than 3,150 companies announced layoffs. And as of 2023, more than 388 companies followed suit, including downsizing at many Fortune 500 companies.

For those who lost their jobs during the pandemic or as a part of these layoffs, being unemployed, especially for a long period of time, can cause psychological and financial trauma and leave lasting effects on one’s mental well-being.

And those who kept their jobs during this time were not left unaffected. Prolonged feelings of anxiety from job insecurity have adverse effects on a person’s mental health. These stressors can manifest as sleep problems, inability to manage anger, and depression.

Careers provide people structure, schedule, identity, purpose, and social interactions. But when a person loses or worries about losing their job, this stability disappears. This could result in great anxiety as one rebound and learns how to cope with job uncertainty.

Worsening this feeling of uncertainty is the economic threat of inflation and recession. The rise of food, gas, housing, and a flatlined salary can increase financial anxiety, especially in vulnerable populations and for people who financially support their families.

According to a 2023 Smart Asset study, the search term “recession” generated the most interest on Google. It had the highest average search interest score out of 6 other keywords used to measure layoff anxiety. This signals to employers and managers that employees are worried about the looming recession. And it could be impacting their mental health, which can negatively affect their work performance and productivity.

Workplace Expectations

A change in expectations can cause great anxiety in the workplace. In the past few years, remote and hybrid work environments became more of the norm. Now, many people design their own flexible work schedules. But as more companies require team members to come back to the office, anxiety rises.

According to a survey conducted by Slack, only 12 percent of people would choose to be in the office full-time. Yet CNBC reports that 50 percent of leaders are demanding their employees come back full-time. This reveals a stark disconnect between employee expectations and what employers are asking of their workforce, which can increase stress and anxiety, especially for employees already dealing with uncertainty.

When these changes in expectations occur, there’s a disruptive shift in lifestyle changes. Employees who have adjusted to remote work and its benefits are now having to calculate commute time and adapt to being in a new work setting, which may impede overall productivity. For some who joined a company remotely, new social pressures can add to their anxiety.

The Impact of Uncertainty on Anxiety and Mental Health

There are individuals in every workforce who can ‘roll with the punches.’ But often, the majority of individuals struggle in dealing with uncertainty. And unfortunately, there’s difficulty in coping with the experience of ‘not knowing.’ If uncertainty feels dangerous, it can feed our worry and anxiety. Humans like certainty, and when things change, we default to a stress response.

According to a report from the American Psychological Association, nearly 2 in 3 adults say the current amount of uncertainty facing our nation causes them stress. And 3 in 5 say the number of issues America faces currently is overwhelming to them.

Even more concerning, in 2019-2020, over 50 million Americans were experiencing a mental illness, but over half of these people did not receive treatment.

Now layer on these workforce statistics:

  • In 2021, 76 percent of workers reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, a 17 percent increase over the previous two years alone. For those experiencing loss of a job, this anxiety is even worse.
  • According to Pew Research, 7 in 10 unemployed adults say, as a result of being unemployed, they have felt more stressed than usual, and 56 percent have experienced more emotional or mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
  • Fifty-five percent of employees say they experienced anxiety over deadlines, which ultimately can contribute to missing them altogether.

From missing deadlines to absenteeism, uncertainty at work has an immensely negative impact on performance and overall well-being. Employers should provide mental health support and resources to help their workforce address their anxiety and other mental health challenges.

5 Strategies to Help Employees in Dealing with Uncertainty

As leaders, it’s important to identify the sources of uncertainty on your workforce and create a strategy to alleviate employee anxiety. In creating a plan to support employee mental health, alleviate job stress, and coach employees in dealing with uncertainty, consider the following strategies and leadership tips:

1. Lead with empathy.

Prioritize your team members and their well-being by recognizing when employees may be experiencing stress or other mental health challenges. It’s critical to take action to alleviate anxieties and offer support in any possible way.

Taking an empathetic approach to leadership means meeting your employees where they are and truly listening to the issues they are battling. In better understanding employees, companies can create mental health and well-being strategies that provide the resources that best fit their workforce’s unique challenges.

The pandemic, economic stress, and ongoing international tumult affected everyone. Empathizing with this shared experience can build trust, resilience, and community amongst your team.

2. Communicate with consistency and clarity.

It’s crucial for leadership to communicate clearly and consistently with employees. Provide transparency with regard to the state of your organization, so no one feels like they’re left in the dark on important company matters.

For instance, if your organization requires a return to the office, employees need to know why this change is occurring and what they can expect. Explaining this change in expectations helps alleviate employee anxiety, as it eliminates ambiguity from the conversation. It also provides employers with the chance to answer questions and provide more clarity where needed, leaving no room for miscommunication or uncertainty.

To keep the lines of communication open between managers and their teams, establish employee feedback strategies, including ongoing reviews and check-ins. This alleviates anxiety, as issues and concerns are discussed more regularly so employees can better understand where they’re at instead of feeling blindsided during a once-a-year annual review.

3. Foster organizational and employee resilience.

It’s not enough to send an inspirational message to counter anxiety. Companies must view resilience as the key to bouncing back instead of burning out when stress is high. To do so, companies must adopt a comprehensive change management plan. This plan must cultivate a holistic approach to resilience with a focus on mental health and emotional well-being.

Organizational and employee resilience helps build strength in a workforce, providing employees with the tools to adapt to change. With greater resilience, comes great reward. Resilient employees are more productive, develop better connections, persevere through setbacks, and can bounce back in the face of uncertainty.

4. Reorient people to focus on the things within their control.

Managers must help employees reorient their focus on the stressors within their control. This starts with identifying what’s causing the anxiety and determining what the employee can do to improve the outcome. When looking at anxiety from this perspective, rather than dwelling on past events or what could happen in the future.

As leaders, it’s also important to demonstrate these coping techniques. Those who model healthy behaviors and responses to work challenges provide an opportunity for employees to learn from a negative situation and move forward, rather than getting stuck in a previous bad outcome.

5. Equip managers with the right tools and language to support employees.

Managers are tasked with a lot more than their business and organizational KPIs; they’re responsible for identifying and assessing the stress, anxiety, and burnout their employees may be feeling.

Managers serve as the conduit between employees and the company benefits offerings like Employee Assistance Program (EAP) resources. These resources are often difficult to navigate, resulting in low utilization rates. To encourage full EAP usage, it’s important for managers to understand what’s available and where and when to use them. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has a number of resources that can be used for this management training.

The Aduro® Connect Platform also provides a vast offering of resources and content, with certified coaches that can support your workforce without the difficulty of navigating or waiting for EAP sessions. Through interactive content, expert coaching, and actionable data, Aduro® Connect offers a holistic approach to employee well-being.

Train leaders and managers to know all the available resources and how to use and access these benefits to best support their workforce. Only then can they lead their teams to the right care at the right time and improve employees’ overall well-being.

Moving Forward in the Face of Uncertainty

Whether it’s economic, health, social, or workplace anxiety, every employee is dealing with uncertainty. For employers, it’s important to understand not only where employee anxiety comes from, but how these stressors impact employee mental health and well-being. Better understanding the employee experience makes it easier to support your workforce and its unique needs and challenges.

When it comes to mental health in the workplace – the need is critical and urgent. Too often, employee mental health resources and support are siloed, underutilized, and accessed reactively. To learn more about Aduro’s holistic, proactive, and inclusive approach to improving mental health and building resilience, check out our Integrated Mental Health Solution.