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Managing Stress at Work: Uncertainty Reducers



As uncertainty increases so do feelings of anxiety and insecurity.  This increases the risk of stress.  Approaches that reduce uncertainty and ambiguity reduce the risk substantially.  Many of these approaches involve communication and decision making.  Reducing uncertainty is particularly important in times of organisational change when the risk of stress is high.

  1. Communicate!  Especially during times of organisational change, effective communication is vital to manage the risk of stress.  In risk assessment terms, change is a hazard that has the potential to cause very real and lasting harm.  The risk is high.  Without effective communication people fill in the gaps, usually with nightmare scenarios.  This leads to them ruminating constantly about what might happen, putting them in chronic ‘fight-flight’ (stress).  This can be very damaging to mental and/or physical health.  Bear in mind that in change situations you are the main information resource, sometimes the only reliable source.  In stress terms, what is known is always better than what is unknown.  Even when the news is bad, real eventualities can be planned for and alternative strategies generated.  This not only reduces uncertainty, but also increases a sense of control.
  2. Be open, approachable and welcoming with your employees.  If they perceive you in this way they are much more likely to share their worst fears with you.  If you don’t know what these fears are, it will be very difficult to address and challenge those fears.  In addition, the more they know you as a human being, warts and all, the better you will know them.  So give of yourself, invest in relationships.  In terms of stress prevention, it’s the best investment you can make.
  3. Avoid being secretive.  You may not think that you are secretive, rather that you are protecting your team e.g. ‘What they don’t know they won’t worry about’.  Unfortunately, if you are perceived as secretive, this may cause stress because people may develop nightmare scenarios, or believe you are deliberately withholding information from them.  ‘Protecting’ people in this way usually backfires horribly.
  4. Be clear about roles, tasks and priorities.  Uncertainty and ambiguity about your role can be a major stressor.  This is especially the case if you aren’t sure what the role really is or who you’re answerable to.  Clarifying these issues reduces ‘role ambiguity’, potentially a major stressor.  Also, working with your team on clarifying what the priorities are and what’s really important can help by reducing stress associated with ‘role conflict’.  Role conflict occurs when people feel they have conflicting demands and priorities.  Again it is clear that good communication is a critically important factor in minimizing the uncertainty associated with these ‘role’ stressors.
  5. Don’t assume people will know why…  Assumptions that your employees will work out why something has been done in a particular way are very dangerous.  It may be obvious to you, it probably won’t be to them.  Never make assumptions about what people know.  For example, you could use process checks.  Here, you check out and clarify where people are and if they are with you (i.e. understand what to do and what you want).  Make sure you give time for this to happen so that people have the same understanding that you have.  Use the process check as an opportunity to ask questions.  Ask whether you’re going too fast or too slow.
  6. Be careful about behaviours that may be ambiguous.  If team members interpret your behaviour as confusing in any way, the risk of stress increases.  In addition, your behaviour may be interpreted as aggressive.  If that is the case, you are less likely to find out if people are not coping because they will be afraid of the consequences if they raise their fears.
  7. Give as much clear information as possible.  If you can, make sure information comes directly from you in person.  Share information in a timely manner, especially if the information is related to changes that will affect your staff. Think very carefully about withholding information.  Is it really necessary to withhold?  Are you withholding information because of negative assumptions that may not be correct?  Of course some information must remain confidential, but if information cannot be shared, don’t keep quiet, make sure that people understand why.
  8. Use emails sparingly and with great care.  Emails can cause a great deal of stress.  They can appear curt, even rude, and are very often ambiguous.  They have no emotional content, and you cannot query something or ask for justification.  Because of overload, they can also add to the pressure, increasing feelings of lack of control and inability to cope.  Email is a vastly overrated form of human communication.  None of us can probably avoid using it, but don’t be a lazy manager, go and speak to people whenever you can, and if you can’t, pick up a phone.  Use email less, speak to people more!
  9. Give people regular feedback.  People need to know how they are doing and what you think.  If you don’t tell them they will make assumptions and those assumptions may not be positive, causing them stress.  So give constructive feedback.  This reduces uncertainty and reduces the risk of stress.
  10. Try not to give people mixed messages.  This sounds easy but isn’t.  Work life is very complicated.  For example, sometimes managers would like their teams to be innovative, to show initiative, but not to make any mistakes.  Mixed messages like this increase levels of ambiguity, so try to avoid them.  Better still, encourage people to let you know when you’re giving mixed messages.  That way you will be able to clarify what you really mean.

Change and uncertainty

Organisational change significantly increases pressure on people because it causes high levels of uncertainty, and employees can feel they have very little control over what is happening to them.  That makes change a special case where stress is concerned.   We recommend that managers should always take steps to minimize the risk of stress posed by change by seeking to increase control, reduce uncertainty, and by providing appropriate support.

Managers Managing Change Training

Further Reading

If you found this article of interest you may like to read the other 4 articles in our series featuring this stress prevention framework for managers:

Business people at meeting



Managing Stress at Work: Introduction to the CUSP™ Framework for Managers





Managing Stress at Work: CUSP™ Control Enablers




Pressure gauge



Managing Stress at Work: Reducing Pressure



Providing support, Columns



Managing Stress at Work: Tips for Providing Support



You may also like to listen to our short 3 minute podcast introducing the CUSP™ stress prevention framework for managers:
Stress Management Training for Managers Podcast


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