5 Reasons ‘Hey-Hanging’ Uncertainty Is Bad For Your Mental Health And Career

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The “hey-hanging” trend recently flooded the media, causing a torrent of stories about what it means, why it’s happening and how rude it is. I penned a post for Forbes.com that yielded an interview with The Wall Street Journal and an appearance on CBS News. I was surprised that some news outlets took a humorous approach to the story, failing to grasp the seriousness of how this type of asynchronous communication can negatively affect employee mental health and add to an already stressful, chaotic and confusing workplace.

Problems With Communication Shortcuts

Just as the vague phrase, “We need to talk” leaves a spouse hanging, unleashing havoc in a marriage, the three-letter word “hey” unearths the worst case scenario and strikes fear in the hearts of employees. Why? Because communication shortcuts trigger the eleven-letter word, “uncertainty.” And uncertainty triggers the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight or stress response). And the fallout from stress impacts mental health, job performance and morale.

As a marriage therapist, I find that these truncated methods of communication—often not serious in the final analysis—can take a toll on both intimate and professional relationships. Nothing is scarier than the uncertain stability of your marriage or job—especially if they’re already tenuous.

“Hey-hanging” is just one example of how communication shortcuts are misunderstood, even when people mean well. It causes employees to jump to threatening conclusions about what a manager or coworker is thinking or their intention. Plus, remote and hybrid work leave us clueless whether a colleague is at their workstation or somewhere else.

“In physical office settings, sometimes it’s easier to send a colleague a quick Slack or Teams message instead of walking up to their desk,” states Brenda Pohlman, vice president and practice leader at Workhuman. “In these cases, sending a quick ‘hey’ to get their attention may seem innocuous enough. But when employees don’t know why they’re being contacted, especially if the person contacting them is their manager or someone in a position of authority over them, it can cause serious anxiety. You don’t want to leave people thinking they may have done something wrong or made a mistake.”

Unwritten workplace rules cause miscommunication and disconnection among employees and impact job engagement, performance and morale. Communication shortcuts can perpetuate an unpredictable and in some cases toxic work culture because they:

  1. Activate the sympathetic nervous system (stress or fear response).
  2. Lack larger context, adding to miscommunication and disconnection among colleagues.
  3. Waste valuable time and dilute productivity.
  4. Spread tensions among team members, hampering group morale.
  5. Exacerbate the already-present subterfuge and paranoia of employer quiet maneuvering like “quiet cutting.”

The Psychology Behind Workplace Uncertainty

Mismanaged fear is responsible for most poor communication in organizations. It’s important that business leaders consider the psychological safety of their employees and how their mental health impacts the company’s bottom line.

The human mind is like Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity. Work-life’s inevitable uncertainties instantly arouse our fight-or-flight reaction. Does my boss appreciate my work? Will I get hired for the position? Will my colleagues like my presentation? Your survival brain is constantly updating your world, making judgments about what’s safe and what isn’t. It will do almost anything for the sake of certainty because you’re hardwired to overestimate threats and underestimate your ability to handle them.

The human brain prefers to know an outcome one way or another to take the edge off. If it doesn’t know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep us out of harm’s way. Its disdain for uncertainty causes it to make up all sorts of untested stories hundreds of times a day because uncertainty equals danger. A coworker doesn’t respond to a text. Your boss wears a frown and uses a certain tone of voice. You’re not a finalist for the position. You assume the worst, over-personalize the threat and jump to conclusions.

Scientists report that living with job uncertainty takes a greater toll on health than actually losing your job, making you more vulnerable to diseases and worsening existing chronic ailments such as heart disease, diabetes or depression. Studies show that employees living with job uncertainty have worse overall health and more depression than employees who actually lose their jobs. Research also shows that uncertainty is more stressful than anticipating inevitable pain. British researchers discovered that study participants who knew for sure they would receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock.

Amp Up Your ‘Uncertainty Tolerance’

If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, you will amplify your fear and end up at war with yourself, resisting and arguing with your situation, instead of living it. Accepting versus resisting uncertainty is a tall order, but it’s counterintuitive. The author, Eckhart Tolle said, “If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness and creativity.”

Studies show that your ability to accept job uncertainty reduces stress and brings peace of mind. Your best defense against communication shortcuts and job uncertainty is to manage work stress by sharpening your uncertainty tolerance.

Your mindset during uncertain times is your most powerful ally—the one thing you can control in a situation that is beyond your control. Uncertainty is scary, but fear, panic and worry add insult to injury—another layer of stress. Changing your perspective and reminding yourself that many gifts await you in the unknown, that it contains many positive outcomes as well as negative ones, can be a game changer. This re-frame amps up your uncertainty tolerance, takes the edge off the waiting period and brings balance to your brain’s ability to anticipate positive and negative outcomes more evenly.

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