Managing stress and uncertainty at work

2 March 2021

Recently, a friend compared their workplace to The Hunger Games. Initially, I thought that was a witty comment, and then I felt sad and a little deflated. This comparison reflects how challenging things have been at work for some people during the past twelve months. An unexpected global pandemic has resulted in funding cuts and loss of jobs and livelihoods. Those who remain may feel insecure, guilty and overworked. We have also been told that this climate is going to continue at least during 2021 and maybe beyond. So how can we manage uncertainty and stress at work now and into the future? Here are some suggestions.


Focus on the now

In times of stress and uncertainty, it is easy to focus on the future and what might happen. This can be helpful as planning for the future can assist with problem-solving. However, once the benefit of problem-solving is over, thinking about the future can quickly turn into worrying about the future. If we get stuck in the thought pattern of what might happen, this can lead to anxiety, sleepless nights and reduced performance at work – contributing to more stress.

One way to help regulate anxiety and manage uncertainty is to focus on what you are doing right now. Imagine you have a spotlight and you are beaming it on the task at hand. Let the stuff in the background be there (because it is always there and wanting our attention), but intentionally notice what is in the spotlight. Some people like to use their senses to help them to tune into what they are doing. We can do this by noticing what we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell in the spotlight.

Focusing on the now, also known as mindfulness, can help us to be present and reign in our tendency to worry about what might happen. Research has shown that practising mindfulness can decrease stress and improve our mood and wellbeing.


The blessing and curse of the to-do-list

If you use to-do lists, you probably know they can be both a blessing and a curse. It can be useful to have some guidance on tasks and to prioritise and structure our work, which can help reduce anxiety and stress. However, if your to-do list is never-ending, it can make us feel overwhelmed and even paralysed. Some people may spend so much time preparing their to-do list that they don’t manage to “do” anything on it – which makes it a “to” list.

It is important to put things on your to-do list that you can complete and cross off. Why is this important? When we cross things off our to-do list, we feel like we are making progress and that we have accomplished something. To celebrate, our brain rewards us by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and happy, which can improve our mood. So always put something on your to-do list that you will accomplish.

Warning: To-do lists can be the ultimate procrastination tool (who can’t relate to that?). Also, if we have too many things on our to-do list, and in competitive and stressful workplaces this is very common, our reward system may become overwhelmed and less effective.

It is also important to be flexible with our to-do list. Putting out unexpected fires at work is common, so on those days, ‘turning on your computer’ will have to do. Finally, if everything on your to-do list is huge, break it down into smaller chunks so you can tick things off as you go. Waiting five or more years to tick off a major project (for example, ‘finish my PhD’) is an impossibly long time to wait for that dopamine hit.


Let go of the need to multitask

Is it just me or is multitasking overrated? During the pandemic, your routine may have been disrupted and to overcompensate and feel more productive, you might have been hooked by the multitasking myth. One place I have noticed relentless multitasking is in Zoom meetings. I am guilty of being ‘present’ and listening to the speaker, responding to emails, looking at text messages and working on a document simultaneously – no wonder we find Zoom meetings exhausting. If you are still Zooming – see how many people are paying full attention – my guess is, there are not many or any.

We can multitask when doing easy things – like talking to a friend while washing the dishes, but this combination probably doesn’t happen that often at work. When completing more complex tasks, we can only focus on one thing at a time due to the limited capacity in our working memory – which is described as our cognitive load. We can rapidly switch between tasks, however, there is a delay when we switch because we have to find our place again and get our focus back into the task – which is cognitively demanding and can reduce our productivity.

One way to focus is to limit distractions – put your email on silent – or heaven-forbid, turn it off for a while so you can’t see the messages popping up in the corner of your screen, put your phone away, close your office door (if you have one), put on your noise-cancelling headphones and try giving one task your full attention. Letting go of our need to multitask might also improve your productivity and reduce stress.


Focus on things outside of work

Most of the time work can be enjoyable and rewarding, however, we all have our bad days. Stress, politics, funding concerns, deadlines, barriers and unexpected dramas can get us down. On those days it is good to remind ourselves what we love about our job. Is it the people, the intellectual stimulation, because you are making a difference, or it links to your values? Reminding ourselves why we do what we do can be useful as it is an act of gratitude.

Another problem, however, is when we are feeling stressed at work, we often let go of the things outside of work that helps us to de-stress. When under the pump, we tend to work longer hours, exercise and socialise less and eat unhealthier food. This combination can amplify our stress, increase our work dissatisfaction and negatively impact our mood.

Instead of missing out-of-work activities, the key is to keep doing them. If we maintain our life and identity outside of work, this reminds us that we are more than our job. When we have a diverse sense of self, which is described as multidimensionality, if things aren’t going well in one aspect of our life, we can focus on another part. So if work isn’t working for us – we still have another part of our identity that brings us joy, meaning, purpose and fulfilment. If work is hard or stressful, we can get pleasure from our pottery class, football team, volunteer work, family, community, pets or another aspect of our lives. Having a diverse sense of self can allow us to maintain perspective, boost our resilience and improve our mood no matter what is happening at work.  

Focusing on the now, managing our to-do list, letting go of multitasking, and maintaining a diverse identity may help us get through uncertainty and stress at work. We don’t know what this work year will bring, but using different strategies, we will get through it.


***Dr Jo Lane is a clinical psychologist and research fellow at the Research School of Population Health at the Australian National University. She is passionate about optimal brain health and quality of life and communication in science.