Learning & Development, Startup HR

The Science Behind Uncertainty and Anxiety

A pandemic and resulting business closures and economic turmoil have rattled not just the business world but also virtually every aspect of daily life for workers around the globe.

We’ve regularly advocated for companies to be as transparent as possible with their staff members about changing policies regarding remote work, layoffs, reorganizations, business closures, and other major changes.

However, many companies are hesitant to be completely transparent.

Hesitancies Around Transparency

In addition to the potential for proprietary or strategic information to find its way to competitors or the press, companies often fear that too much information can cause undue anxiety and even panic among the ranks.

This attitude generally fails to give a company’s workforce due credit for being able to cope with troubling information. It also neglects the very real and negative impact uncertainty has on workers’ mental state—an impact that can and does translate to lower morale, diminished productivity, and higher turnover.

Uncertainty Science

“Our knowledge of uncertainty’s effects on the brain and body comes from a series of slightly sadistic studies,” writes David Robson in an article for BBC Worklife. The studies, he says, are typically done by hooking subjects up to electrodes that deliver nonharmful electric shock as researchers measure the physiological responses from participants—e.g., sweating and changes in pupil size. 

“In study after study, the researchers found that any element of unpredictability significantly increases people’s discomfort, despite there being no objective difference in the intensity of the shock,” he writes. “Participants show greater stress if there is a 50% chance that they might receive a shock, for example, compared to situations in which there is a 100% certainty that they will be electrocuted.”

Robson also says that the inability to “process the unknown could also increase rumination—another known contributor to many mental illnesses—as the mind cycles through every possible outcome of the situation at hand.” In other words, for many, the unknown can be worse than knowing a negative truth, simply because people often assume the worst.

The Power of Transparency

Companies have legitimate fears regarding divulging negative information too widely, as it can spook investors and give an edge to competitors. But whenever possible, companies should strive to be transparent with employees in times of uncertainty. Doing so helps avoid unnecessary rumination and anxiety that can negatively impact morale, performance, and retention.