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Working with Worry
Strategies for Coping and Thriving in Uncertain Circumstances
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Cliff Notes Version
This week’s article is 1.8k words (6 min read). ▶︎ Workplace anxiety is becoming increasingly common due to the unpredictable nature of modern work. ▶︎ Worrying directly results from fear, which can be a highly rational or irrational response to something we experience. ▶︎ Worry can also have positive effects. You can take steps to assess and improve the worries you experience at work.
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This past Sunday, nearly 3 million people watched as Succession, the highly acclaimed HBO series of the decade, reached its finale. While there were many shocking and disturbing moments that shook the audience to the core, one moment in particular really hit me on a personal level. In the midst of a typically uncomfortable conversation between the quirky midwestern mercenary Tom Wambsgans and eccentric, often creepy, billionaire Lukas Mattson, Tom unexpectedly revealed a vulnerable insight into who he really is:
I’m a grinder. I grind cause I worry. I worry all night about everything, all the threats to me and to my division and my physical body. I have an excess of vigilance. I have a very high tolerance for pain and physical discomfort.
And, as insane as most of this dialogue is, wow, can I relate.
I spend a considerable portion of my life worrying. I’ve always been a worrier. It’s not a conscious choice, it just happens. I worry. A lot.
I imagine that to most people, I appear completely normal and well-adjusted. Or, at least that’s what I tell myself every morning when I look in the mirror. And yet, the worry and anxiety persists. But it’s not universal.
Interestingly, I primarily focus my worries on one thing: work.
I find myself worrying that I’m not producing enough, that my work isn’t up to my own increasingly high standard, that I’m not prioritizing the right tasks, and that I’m not ‘grinding’ enough. You know, typical hustle culture nonsense.
The more that work seeps into my brain, the harder it is to force it out. It’s like the door to work-life balance just won’t close, no matter how many locks I install. But, over time, I've realized that the worry and anxiety that I experience, along with individuals like Tom, are quite similar.
Like Tom, I come from humble beginnings. No, I was not, and am not, poor. I was squarely middle class. I have great parents and a stable family. That’s a lot more than many people have in their life. But that has never stopped the worrying. And I know many incredibly successful people who have the same feeling, whether they’re willing to share it or not.
So what causes people with stable jobs, stable lives, and good careers to stress so much? And at the end of the day, is there any benefit to worrying about work? To address it, we must first understand it.
Why We Worry.
As we’ve seen over the last few years, work has become increasingly unpredictable. Jobs that used to look safe no longer do. Career paths that were stable and consistent are falling by the wayside. Companies seem to care less and less about their employees. DEI efforts seem primarily performative. Companies that went remote during the pandemic and saw productivity increase are now reversing course.
Everything is about shareholder value. People are replaceable, so don’t get too comfortable. That’s the message, so it’s unsurprising that we’re worried.
A study found that people who have a hard time dealing with uncertainty and emotions are more likely to worry. So, as the world of work continues the path to instability, those of us who are poised for anxious thoughts and preferences of certainty will be faced with increasingly uncomfortable situations in the workplace.
This is the new reality. As much as we wish it wasn’t true, it seems to be the case. But what is worry? Is there anything we can learn about worry that may help us cope with it in the uncertain workplace?
What Is Worry?
Worrying is a direct result of fear, which can be a highly rational or irrational response to something we experience. Fear is an adaptive quality that keeps us safe, and a real or perceived threat often triggers it.
Workplace anxiety can be due to a number of issues, but it’s most likely you don’t feel safe. You’re experiencing fear for a reason. Your boss might be signaling your position is at risk. Your team may be underperforming or the market may be impacting your ability to deliver the results leadership seeks. You may have coworker conflicts that impact your work. You might not get along with someone at work. Or maybe you’re being forced back to the office after making a major life decision.
No matter your reasons for worrying, it’s important to realize that not only is it normal, it’s completely expected during such a tumultuous period of modern work.
When Worry Weighs You Down.
Last week, I wrote about a phenomenon called the Tetris Effect; basically, when you focus on something for long enough, you start to see it everywhere. As you might imagine, this can be incredibly powerful, or completely paralyzing. Worrying so much has serious consequences. Bad sleep, unhealthy eating habits, maladaptive coping strategies, grouchiness. Yep, I can be a real grump.
For others, it can cause panic attacks, stomach issues, concentration issues, procrastination, memory issues, headaches, and more. It’s truly debilitating.
The most common fears I see at work:
having financial stability
making the wrong choice
being viewed as a failure
Yep, those are all of my worst fears. And I suspect others are dealing with the same or even more issues. So, given all our fears, what can we actually do? Should we curl up into a ball, avoid the hard decisions, and let worry consume us? Obviously not. (Imagine if I wrote an article like that.)
How Worrying Can Propel You Forward.
Worrying can have positive effects at work. We worry because we have fears. The fears create a hyper-vigilance that aims to predict and control the future. In many ways, this hyper-vigilance propels us forward. We work the long hours. We take the extra meetings. We do what has to be done. Further, this additional motivation (if you want to call it that) can create positive behaviors. Research shows that worrying actually produces positive benefits and behaviors for many, including:
Overthinking, analyzing, and evaluating; these are all the ways in which your constant worrying helps you see the world and, subsequently, likely increases your intelligence.
The positives: you’re intelligent and motivated. You have a problem solving mindset.
The increased anxiety causes many people to have a superhero level of awareness, particularly with other people and in social situations. Being hyper-aware makes you more in tune with how other people might feel or perceive a problem.
The positives: you’re more conscious of other people’s feelings, because you care what they think. You have higher compassion and empathy.
Worrying is a state of hyper-vigilance, which means you’re naturally a second-order thinker.
The positives: threat response is heightened. You see around corners and anticipate.
Turning Worry into Winning.
Ok, so what now? Are you doomed to be a pain sponge like Tom? Is there anything you can do to manage it? Well, yes and no.
Yes, there is something you can do to turn your worrying nature into something positive. No, if you’re a worrier, it likely won’t ever go away. But reframing this as a positive can actually help you thrive at work (and elsewhere). Instead of letting worry dominate your life in a negative way, you can harness the energy it generates to move on, and move up.
Here are a few ways that you can improve your relationship with worry and work:
Audit it. Conduct a work relationship audit. To understand our relationship with work, we must review it. Put it under the microscope and examine its individual components. The easiest place to start is with a self-reflective audit.
Accept and activate it. You can’t change it. Embrace the uncertainty. Use the anxious energy your body feels to propel you into action. Work on things that move you closer to your goals, whether that’s in work or at home. Learn something new. Take back the control.
Diversify. Build a multi-hyphenate, anti-fragile career. Don’t just invest in one company. Find ways to reduce your fragility. Even if you only have one job, passion, or profession. Orient yourself to be ready for change at any moment.
Worry can be so overwhelming. But once we understand it, we can find ways to work with it. Work is such a major part of our lives that we simply can’t ignore it. We must find ways to live within the confines of a changing world, and adapt. Instead of spending our time or energy on the negative behaviors of worry, let’s turn them into positives to help propel us toward the future. It isn’t easy, but it is worth it.
Until Next Time!
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— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)