Do you ever worry about work? I do. I worry about work, even after leaving the workplace: in the evening at the dinner table, at night watching TV, even right before I am about to go to work. I used to worry about work a lot more than I do now. I would get anxious and wake up in the middle of the night, looking at the ceiling — lying in bed thinking about that next project going south.
I wanted to understand why I worry about work so much. As an Engineer, I live by this motto: when we understand the cause of a problem, we can solve the problem. So, I went on a quest, researching the causes of my worries, thinking about my thinking, and observing my own behavior.
Turns out, I worry about work for reasons you can relate to: wanting information, lacking confidence in others’ abilities, dabbling in worry that floats in our culture, and perceiving threats that are unreal.
I worry about a project because I don’t have all the information about the project. My coworkers and I spend plenty of time crafting a vision, like many organizations do; maybe yours is one of them. It seems like we don’t spend enough time delineating the steps to make the vision a reality. I know the goal post but not how to get to it. Without knowing how, I cannot come up with tasks and assign the tasks to the right coworkers. What else can happen if I am missing information?
We don’t bring enough people into discussions. Say, you and I are working on a product and we forgot to bring the market research leaders in discussions. Can you imagine the product we’ll end up creating? Likely the one with unknown market demand. This situation is a recipe for a product that customers don’t want to buy; a product that will create unhappy customers. Unhappy customers are bad for business – yours and mine.
Missing information also means incomplete allocation of resources. Poor information results in wrong people assigned to the task. Imagine assigning the finance professionals to a task appropriate for a manufacturing team. Not starting on the right path here, are we? Sub-optimal information leads to insufficient tools to get the job done. Failing to acquire sufficient tools means I am preparing to fail to get to the goal post.
Here is one more casualty resulting from incomplete information. I know that there are gaps in the business plan, I just don’t know what the gaps exactly are. “what is missing”, I ask myself day in and day out. What is missing causes me worry. An incomplete plan leads to frustration filled workdays, eventually causing low morale.
Lacking confidence in others’ abilities
Another reason I worry is my lack of confidence in other peoples’ abilities to perform a task. I bring different people from different areas together, seek alignment, agree on shared goals, and execute tasks through others. I wonder if others will complete their tasks in time. in the past, I experienced working with team members who did not finish their tasks on time; the entire team suffered because of their inability to get things done on time. We had a training program for operational work, but not for the project work. We could neither find experienced workers nor had the money to train the inexperienced ones. I worry that something like that will happen again on my projects.
Like most cross functional leaders, I depend on others, including the people who don’t report to me, to get my projects done. I lack direct authority over coworkers who don’t report to me. I fear that they already have too much to do, in addition to the tasks from my project. Also, I have no control over how they allocate their worktime. That means I must influence them without authority. What if I fail to influence them? What if the project tasks conflict with what their immediate supervisors require them to do? I am naïve to think that they will work on my project and not on the one assigned by their supervisor; there is no motivation for them to do so.
Dabbling in worry that floats in our culture
Here is yet another reason I worry: a culture of worry, around all of us, breeds worry. News of layoffs and shuttering businesses dominates headlines in the news media. All you have to do is to browse business news headlines and you will know what I’m talking about. Have we become a world of news-fed anxious professionals? Coworkers running around in the office building, anxious about missing targets, abound. Water cooler conversations are full of negative doomsday scenarios and overblown issues. Even if I don’t participate in those conversations and just listen passively, I feel like I’m adopting my coworkers’ worries.
Even small issues get blown up for attention in workplaces. If a customer is unhappy, we act as if the sky is falling. Colleagues anxiously describe the worst possible outcome instead of solving the real problem the customer is complaining about. Is seems like we are all competing for the game of “who can worry more?”
Perceiving threats that are unreal
I also worry about work because I perceive threats that are not real. Have you heard of Murphy’s law? It goes something like this: “if something can go wrong, it will”. Now, the Murphy’s law is not an absolute truth but sometimes my brain takes it as the truth.
Imagine a beautiful, sunny morning. I am driving to a client site to make an important presentation. My brain tells me that my client will be disappointed in me because my presentation will be bad. My client will then fire me. If my client fires me, I cannot afford to live because my salary will be gone. I will fail as a professional, as a spouse, as a family man, as a human being.
What if the next client presentation is not scheduled anytime soon? I am just working in my office, on a project for my boss. Suppose I’m about to meet my boss to report the progress on the project. And a thought bubbles up in my head, “… my boss is going to dislike my work.” And then other thoughts, equally discouraging ones, emerge: “This is my first time doing something so complex and I will fail doing this project. What if my boss dislikes my work so much that she fires me?”
Are these threats real? Absolutely not. On multiple occasions, I started something novel at work and succeeded in doing so. But, of course, my brain conjures the worst-case scenario and then goes on to tell me the subsequent worst-case scenarios. I feel overwhelmed — my brain is spinning in a feedback loop, feeding worry with more worries. First it invents small worry-filled futuristic scenario and then, assuming the first worry is real, invents more worrisome scenarios. The brain does not stop here; it spins even faster, bringing in additional worrying scenarios. I conjure up big perceived issues from small real issues. For example, if this project fails, I’ll have no future prospects: no career, no life.
As you can see, I am using my brain’s ability to plan and live in the future — to imagine a lopsided, worry filled future. Mental and physical symptoms follow with the feeling of worries. These perceived threats can come from many sources and invoke a fight and flight response from my brain. The fight or flight is the mechanism that our brain activates to prepare us to react to a real, or perceived danger (Cleveland Clinic, 2019). When we perceive danger, our brain goes into survival mode, trying to keep us alive. It releases hormones, increases the heart rate and blood supply to muscles in case we need to make a run, and even shuts down some cognitive functions (Bynum, 2013). Of all the causes I uncovered, this one seems to be the most widespread and also, dare I say, the most human.
Once I understood the main reasons behind my worries, I felt clarity. The clarity that comes from awareness. I felt prepared to solve, or at least mitigate, the problem.
Bynum, W. (2013, April 26). What Sets Your Heart Pounding; Adrenaline plays a role in a wide range of our bodies’ functions beyond the fight-or-flight response. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal (Online): https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323741004578414633777951680
Cleveland Clinic. (2019, December 9). What Happens to Your Body During the Fight or Flight Response? Your survival response explained. Retrieved from Cleveland Clinic. Brain & Spine: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-to-your-body-during-the-fight-or-flight-response/