The Absurdity of Certainty in the Workplace


The idea of writing about uncertainty following budget cuts, first occurred to me back in 2009 when I was Staff Welfare Officer for ICTR (UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). Upon joining the team, I realized that outwardly composed colleagues were, in fact, inwardly experiencing great angst. My surprise was to learn that we were all about to face unprecedented uncertainty and personal crisis that was related to imminent downsizing. This was a scary time, for managers, for staff and for me as the counselor. The changes meant loss, anxiety and fear for everyone involved.

Uncertainty around job loss can create anxiety; this is only natural, considering the circumstances, but nevertheless uncomfortable. This article addresses coping and transition, both of which I’ve experienced firsthand; and now as the Staff Welfare Officer for OCHA wish to share with you.

outwardly composed colleagues were, in fact, inwardly experiencing great angst

In this article I endeavor to address uncertainty and to explore the following questions: What is uncertainty? What can managers do to help staff manage change? What can staff do to manage transition?

What is uncertainty?

As humanitarians, we are no strangers to the uncertainty that comes with high risk environments. We have a healthy regard for the situation and take the necessary precautions. Yet when it comes to uncertainty in the workplace brought about by organizational change, reduction in budgets, and systemic downsizing we find it harder to make the connection to what is also a risky environment and potentially threatening our existence.

“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” ~Voltaire

All too often our identity is intertwined with the work that we do; it gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, it defines who we are –or at least who we think we are. And so, the uncertainty of whether ‘this job’ will exist in a few months or be morphed into something completely different can understandably be perceived as an existential threat.

All too often our identity is intertwined with the work that we do

For all staff

The following list provides a practical focus on what you can do personally to cope with uncertainty in the workplace:

• Recognize what you’re going through, the impact on your emotional world. When you acknowledge this, you start to gain control of the effects of the emotion.
• Communicate with others, don’t internalize. Let people know how you’re feeling.
Ask for help if you are struggling, from trusted colleagues, from your social network or from the Staff Welfare Officer.
Be proactive, update your PHP, CV or resume. Research the job market, network, seek additional training, and renew your contacts.
Focus on what you can control. Even small rituals can reduce stress. When power and choices are being taken away, you still get to choose whom you want to be.
• Look at what is not changing in your life and focus some energy there (e.g. your family, close friends, exercise routines).
Maintain routines outside the workplace.
• Prepare for different possibilities. When you can explore “what if scenarios” you remove a lot of the power anxiety can have on you.
Replace expectations with plans. In her book, ‘The Positive Power of Negative Thinking‘, Julie K. Norem discusses the concept of defensive pessimism—when you consider the worst so that you can plan how you’d handle it. This has been shown to help people manage anxiety.
Practice mindfulness to learn acceptance, to help live in the moment and to embrace the adventure of living.

‘What if’ scenarios can help alleviate the power of anxiety

Supervisors and managers are not immune to uncertain times within the organization. They may not have the necessary information at their disposal. They may not feel sufficiently equipped discussing the topic of uncertainty with their staff. They may be dealing with their own anxiety and fear about changes. This does not negate their responsibility to staff and the organization, but it is helpful to humanize their role too!

For Managers

In this role, it is always best to communicate as openly and clearly as possible with staff in times of uncertainty and change. This will go a long way toward reducing some of the fear and anxiety among individual staff, and that which is also feeding the general culture of the organization. These feelings that are being experienced by all staff including managers are a normal reaction to difficult circumstances. By engaging with staff in a genuine discussion, listening, understanding and empathizing you will alleviate some of the burden and help staff make informed rational decisions.

communicate as openly and clearly as possible

Here are a few practical tips to assist supervisors and managers, and useful to all staff:

• Take care of your own needs first: You’ll be better able to support your staff if you acknowledge and manage any stress and anxiety you feel yourself.
Acknowledge the uncertainty: These emotions are very real and can not be ignored, denied, or repressed. Expressing how things seem chaotic and unpredictable can help, but avoid dwelling on negative talk.
• Encourage self-compassion: acknowledge that stress is a normal, physiological response to feeling out of control or threatened. Help staff recognize that change can bring about a sense of powerlessness.
Deliver updated information to staff regularly using a variety of communication methods.
Show empathy: Discuss the impact of the current organizational change directly with staff and check for understanding.
Encourage and practice self-care: Sleep, exercise, and good nutrition are essential for combating stress.
Help staff to deal with transition and change: Assist staff with networking during their job search. They will appreciate your efforts!

What’s coming tomorrow might not be easy—or it might fulfill you in ways you could not have imagined. What’s certain is that tomorrow will come and when it gets here, you’ll respond to it, learn from it, and move into another tomorrow full of endless possibilities.

“When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” ~Margaret Drabble

References & more

How to Keep Your Team Focused and Productive During Uncertain Times

Benefits of getting comfortable with uncertainty

5 Certain Ways to Engage Employees During Uncertain Times