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Dealing with societal change: Are we right to expect a major shift in how we see the role of work in our future life?

According to the 2021 Atlassian PWC report Return on Action, the answer is an unequivocal yes. 

The previously held notion that success comes only from self-sacrifice and scrambling up the corporate ladder has been replaced by 69% of employees now stating they would turn down a promotion in favour of preserving their mental health.

Taking care of our mental health and wellbeing is now seen as the most important issue as priorities have been reassessed. Life beyond work is no longer relegated to “a nice to have, but perhaps not until you’re over 50.” 

That’s why making mental wellbeing the norm, removing the stigma of mental illness, and transforming our health system is a must, and is already starting. 

One of the hardest things any of us have had to deal with during Covid has been the relentless tidal waves of uncertainty. Just as think we’ve sorted out one issue, along comes the next, blowing our good intentions for what to expect, out of the water.

Uncertainty, rather than the volume and velocity of changes is the major contributor to the rising and more severe stress levels being reported, putting the most vulnerable in our society at higher risk of developing mental mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, or burnout.

Those most affected have been the younger generations with 45.8% of Gen Z reporting having a mental health condition during periods of lockdown, principally anxiety (30.8%), stress (29.6%) and depression (20.1%.)

That’s not saying that other older Australian workers haven’t been affected with the World Health Organisation reporting a 25% global increase in anxiety disorders and 27% of major depressive disorders in 2021.

What I found interesting was when asked who they would look to if they had a mental health challenge, more than 1/3 replied they would look to their employer as their main source of mental support.

 

Why do we hate uncertainty so much?

Uncertainty is uncomfortable because it intensifies how potentially threatening, we see a particular situation. The longer the uncertainty prevails, the greater our discomfort and the more we switch to worst-case-scenario thinking and catastrophising.

Do you remember a time when you were waiting for your Year 12 results? So much hinged on well you had done, whether you would get into your university of choice, or even if you’d go at all.

Or perhaps you’ve had to undergo a medical procedure to test a lump to see if it is benign or malignant. The agony of waiting for that result has often been described as worse than finding out you do have cancer.

Ema Tanovic is a psychologist with the Boston Consulting Group who has conducted research into the consequences of uncertainty at Yale University. It’s been shown uncertainty triggers a part of the brain called the anterior insula that we use to weigh up the consequence of a particular event and can lead to an overestimate of the potential damage.

Too much uncertainty provides us a tool to scare ourselves silly. 

This is because we evolved to have a brain designed as a giant prediction machine. We crave familiarity and certainty because this is what provides you a sense of safety. Familiarity enables you to recognise a situation you may have been in before, and that you successfully dealt with, so you can better predict the outcome this time.

In a new or unfamiliar situation, you can’t be so sure, and that uncertainty means you don’t know how best to respond. And because your brain’s primary organising principle is to keep you safe, it will err on the side of caution and naturally presume the worst.

 

How well do you handle uncertainty?

We’re all different and so one person’s tolerance for uncertainty will be unique to them. Though people predisposed towards anxiety or depression may find their tolerance is lower than average.

How about you?

To find out more you can rate yourself on what is known as the short “intolerance of uncertainty” scale.

Societal change places expectations on everyone because our expectations govern our beliefs and our reactions and are highly influenced by our culture, class, age, and religion.

Our social norms continue to become embedded as we navigate our way through life, though they can be rudely upended by unexpected events such as a pandemic or gradually dissipate through changing times and fashions.

Where it was previously the norm to shake hands, or Hi-5, now, we have the awkward standoff – do you toe tap, elbow bump or just nod?

The pressure to conform with societal norms and expectations can be helpful such with the trend to ban smoking in public places. For much of the time, it’s in our interest to follow the crowd, because we want to be perceived favourably by others in our societal groups. 

 

What to expect next.

More uncertainty. But I expect you knew I was going to write that. 

Managing your uncertainty will also require a certain willingness for you to disengage from the need for more certainty. Instead, look for clarity.

Seven things to help include:

  1. Acceptance that more uncertainty is inevitable. This immediately reduces the impact of the associated stress of not knowing what’s coming next. As Kristen Neff reminds us, “acceptance surrenders our resistance to the situation, as well as our associated emotions.”
  2. Separate the uncertain from the more certain. Like separating your whites from the rest of the wash then you can focus on getting the results you want from those items you have control over. This reinforces a sense that you do have some power over some aspects of your life. If these activities also provide you with meaning they will serve to energise and restore you.
  3. Reduce the noise input. Of course, you want to stay informed of what’s happening in the world, but you don’t need the latest update every 5 minutes. That’s a fast ticket to overwhelm, acute anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. Instead, try scheduling short times to tune into the news, just a couple of times a day. Remember too, you don’t have to believe everything you hear, challenge your reactions – do you agree, or disagree with what is being shared. Resist being a passive bystander.
  4. Stay in the present. Slowing down, pressing pause just to breathe helps to quieten all that monkey chatter in your head, and separates you from the emotions that may be pulling you towards anxiety and worry.
  5. Connect to the world around you. Spending time in a beautiful place, watching the sunset or gazing up at the myriad of stars is grounding and allows you to simply observe your surroundings with wonder.
  6. Take a reframe. If the expectation is to fail, or to become weaker as you age, you may well fulfill that expectation Why not switch that self-fulfilling prophecy to something more useful by switching your focus to expect to succeed, and to continue to participate in your favourite activities, regardless of your chronological age.
  7. Commit to doing something good for others. Whether volunteering at your local food bank, joining your child’s school canteen helpers’ roster or helping your neighbour with their shopping, taking the focus off ourselves, helps us to feel involved, included, and useful. 

Societal change brings new expectations and massive uncertainty for the future. This could be frightening, but it doesn’t have to be when you choose to step into the uncertainty with curiosity, stay aligned to your values and seek to explore what’s possible. 

How do you handle uncertainty around societal change?

Are you experiencing a big shift in how you look at your life and work?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase

If thriving in life and work is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

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