Communicating remotely is hard, with far more room for ambiguity. That’s why some overthinkers are struggling.
overthinkers | Anyone can suffer under the isolation of remote work – even for the least social people, spending workdays with only a webcam or messaging platform to contact people they once saw all the time can eventually take a toll. But this isolation can be particularly hard on one type of worker: the ‘overthinker’. These are individuals who tend to over-analyse events around and pertaining to them and need reassurance that everything is OK.
Overthinking can happen in any environment that allows room for uncertainty, such as within social relationships or the workplace. But experts say remote work can worsen overthinking tendencies, because the lack of face-to-face communication among colleagues increases ambiguity and uncertainty – factors that can trigger overthinking spirals. (What did that one-line email mean? Am I getting fired during that afternoon Zoom?)
There are steps individuals can take to stave off these intrusive thoughts. But it’s also up to managers to communicate better, so workers know how they’re doing – and aren’t left alone to wonder.
‘Need-to-know kind of people
Psychologists say overthinkers obsessively worry about things that could go wrong.
In one sense, being an overthinker can be a good thing. “Overthinkers tend to be super conscientious people, they tend to be highly responsible individuals and they tend to be a little perfectionistic,” says Craig Sawchuk, psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, one of the largest medical-research organisations in the US. “They care about their work, and really want to do well.” They also tend to be “highly emotionally attuned”, says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, behavioural scientist at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, US.
That’s why overthinkers can be a boon to the workplace. They’re diligent, hard-working and aware of others’ feelings; since they spend so much time thinking about their performance and where they stand with people, they can be engaged and dedicated team members. “That is a real strength,” says Sawchuk.
But once anxiety takes hold, those strengths can become weaknesses (and rumination specifically can even lead to detrimental effects on mental and physical health, studies show).
Sawchuk says that when overthinkers start to worry, they tend to take one of two paths: they either disengage from the situation or over-engage and constantly seek reassurance that their fear is unfounded. Overthinkers “are very much ‘need-to-know’ kind of people”, and when they’re worried about something or feel that a situation is unclear, desire 100% confirmation that everything is OK. “The biggest source of gasoline that anxiety kind of feeds off of is this uncertainty,” he says.