Intolerance of Uncertainty in the New World of Work
by Katy Lindsay
In March 2020, when I looked ahead to September, I rather thought that we’d be in a different place than we seem to be. A friend’s birthday party, which was due to take place on March 28th, was postponed to September 5th, and I put the new date in my diary confidently.
Of course, things would be back to normal by then, I thought.
Wrong, of course.
By July, the hostess was back in touch to postpone again, this time to March 2021. Until September, I’d have been similarly confident that we’d be able to party again by then. However, recent talk of ‘another six months’ means that I’m starting to doubt that too.
Another friend of mine is in a ranting mood, frustratedly telling everyone that she can’t plan anything. She’s highly organised, typically has a very full diary and hates having to change things around, so our current life, awaiting new rules from the government on an almost weekly basis, does not suit her at all. She finds the uncertainty very stressful.
Intolerance of Uncertainty
There are plenty of people like my ranting friend, who are intolerant of uncertainty. Indeed, ‘IU’ (Intolerance of Uncertainty) is a recognised phenomenon in psychology, generally found in the clinical literature, rather than the world of work.
A widely used definition of IU is “a dispositional characteristic that results from a set of negative beliefs about uncertainty and its implications and involves the tendency to react negatively on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioural level to uncertain situations and events” (Buhr and Dugas, 2009). It is particularly associated with anxiety disorders.
My friend is certainly not at the extreme end here. She just really likes to be in control of her life, and she reacts negatively when she’s not.
Uncertainty does not just affect mood. It can also have a physical impact. For instance, Intolerance of Uncertainty has also been shown to raise blood pressure for people faced with a possible threat (Greco and Rogers, 2003).
Given the level of uncertainty we are all facing and the length of time that it is continuing for, I’m wondering whether IU is now going to be manifesting in many workplaces? It’s starting to test many people who would typically keep their anxiety well under control.
A recently published study of Chinese students (Wu, Yu, Yang, Cottrell et al., 2020) compared the impact of three different types of stress, Study Stress (e.g. from exams and competition for grades), Life Stress (e.g. from their living situation or relationships) and Uncertainty Stress. Of the three, Uncertainty Stress was found to have a significantly stronger relationship with mental health.
Assuming these results are generalisable, then for people with IU who six months ago were just about managing different sources of stress (say Life Stress and Work Stress) the recent addition of high levels of Uncertainty Stress may feel very difficult.
Leaving aside the more severe impacts of Intolerance of Uncertainty in clinical settings, it is worth thinking about how managers should handle uncertainty in this most unpredictable of times.
Uncertainty in the Workplace
One model that I have found very useful over the years is Elliot Jaques’ Stratified Systems Theory. In this model, the leaders of an organisation are responsible for setting the overall longer-term strategy and vision. The leaders and managers at the next level down are then responsible for translating the high-level vision into some more tangible goals. These people then cascade these goals to the next level, who will turn these into even more specific targets until everyone knows precisely what’s expected of them.
In normal times, this cascade should ensure that the vision is turned into something very structured, that feels quite certain and clear to the people who have to execute it. This process reduces the level of Uncertainty Stress within the organisation.
The problem now, entering the Autumn of 2020, is that many leaders and managers are not in a position to simplify the cascade as they usually would. They have to keep many options open, to see how things develop. The resulting sense of uncertainty reverberates throughout the organisation.
So, if leaders and managers can’t actually reduce the uncertainty for their workforce in the way they usually would, what should they do?
One approach would be to think about how to help people to manage their reactions to uncertainty differently. Here is where emotional intelligence training can help.
Stress and Emotional Intelligence
Many studies have shown that high emotional intelligence is associated with a greater ability to manage stress and higher levels of well being. (e.g. Sarrionandia et al., 2018).
There are many ways of thinking about developing emotional intelligence. One useful study (Hodzic, Ripoll et al., 2016) looks at three very specific elements of emotional intelligence theory, and how important these are in managing stress:
- Emotional attention – how much attention you give to thinking about how you’re feeling
- Emotional clarity – your ability to identify and more or less label the emotion you’re feeling
- Emotional repair – your capacity to repair your mood, shift your emotions to feel better.
This study found that only the third of these, emotional repair, was consistently helpful in managing stress.
It turns out that having high levels of emotional attention is beneficial when stress is low, but when the stress they are dealing with is great, high attention to one’s emotions makes people feel worse. This is probably because they ‘ruminate’ about how they are feeling. In psychological terms, this implies that someone is thinking about their distress and the causes of that distress, rather than about the solutions.
The researchers expected that the second of the three elements, emotional clarity, being able to identify the emotion, would help but on this occasion did not find conclusive indications that it did.
However, they found that emotional repair, being able to shift one’s mood, did help.
What might this mean for the people suffering from the stress of uncertainty? Perhaps one ‘take out’ would be to try to avoid ruminating. Maybe thinking more about the uncertainty won’t help. Even understanding the emotion it provokes may not help.
Instead, perhaps leaders and managers should help their people just go straight to the repair.
The uncertainty can’t be eliminated, but what can you do to make yourself feel better?
This is where concentrating on feeling better ‘in the moment’ might help. Can we take the time to metaphorically pat ourselves or someone else on the back for doing something well? Can we work out some small joy to put into our life today, whether that’s a walk in a park, a chat with a friend, a funny movie? Or do we have another safety valve that helps us feel less stressed?
For my ranting friend, maybe the very act of ranting makes her feel better.
The role of fear of anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty in worry: An experimental manipulation (Kristin Buhr, Michel Dugas, 2009)
Uncertainty, stress, and health (Veronica Greco, D.Roger, 2003)
The Impacts of Uncertainty Stress on Mental Disorders of Chinese College Students: Evidence From a Nationwide Study (Dan Wu, Lingwei Yu, Tingzhong Yang, Randall Cottrell, Sihui Peng, Wei Guo, Shuhan, Jiang, 2020)
Resilience as a Mediator of Emotional Intelligence and Perceived Stress: A Cross-Country Study (Ainize Sarrionandia, Estibaliz Ramos-Diaz, Oihane Fernandez-Lesarte, 2018)
Are emotionally intelligent students more resilient to stress? The moderating effect of emotional attention, clarity and repair (S. Hodzic, P. Ripoll, H. Costa, H. Zenasni, 2016)
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