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This article was first published in the April 2020 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Individuals who are overly worrisome in the workplace are often criticised for being too negative and insufficiently optimistic. However, worry may in fact have certain positive consequences, both at work and in life more broadly.

When most people talk about worry, they may be referring to a pattern of repetitive negative thoughts about past regrets, current problems or anticipated future situations. However, psychologists typically define worry as an aversive emotional experience that comes about as a result of persistent, unpleasant thoughts only about the future.

It is commonly believed that high levels of worry are harmful to people, causing restlessness, disturbed sleep and perhaps a reduced ability to concentrate. However, a study by psychological scientists Adam Perkins and Philip Corr challenges this simple idea. In their sample of managers from a UK financial institution, they found that the tendency to worry was positively correlated with job performance – but only for those individuals who had above-average levels of cognitive ability (ie they scored above the 50th percentile on intelligence). In other words, worry benefited managers who were able to identify threats and had the capability to deal with them. Rather than blindly hoping for positive outcomes, individuals who are both smart and prone to worry may ponder likely or merely possible problems and put plans in place to pre-empt them.

A separate study, published in the academic journal European Economic Review, explored the relationship between optimism and earnings in a sample of business owners. Entrepreneurs who had levels of optimism below the mean earned 30% more than those who had levels of optimism above the mean. The self-employed ordinarily have much more discretion in how they work than employees; consequently, it may be doubly important for self-employees to worry and be prudent – rather than recklessly optimistic – about the choices they must make.

If there is a theme here, it is that a moderate amount of worry motivates planning, preparation and the prevention of negative outcomes. People who rarely worry may benefit from investing a little more time thinking through potential difficulties and worst-case scenarios to ensure they avoid disaster. Reviewing a large number of studies on the topic of worry, researchers Kate Sweeny and Michael Dooley at the University of California, Riverside concluded: ‘When people have control over a future outcome, worry illuminates the importance of taking action to prevent an undesirable outcome and keeps the situation at the front of one’s mind to ensure that appropriate action is taken.’

Worry most serves a purpose when we have a degree of control over a situation: an upcoming exam, presentation or job interview, for example. When we have no control over an outcome, however, worry may have little practical value and be unnecessarily unpleasant – such as when we may be waiting to hear about a job interview we attended.

Sweeny also worked with Jennifer Howell to track levels of worry in a group of law graduates over four months while they waited for the results of their bar exam, the major test that would-be lawyers must pass before they are allowed to earn a living in the legal profession. Budding lawyers worried less when they experienced high levels of competence: for example, taking on and mastering challenging tasks. They also worried less when they experienced a high degree of autonomy, ie they felt free to pursue projects and activities that they wanted to do rather than ones they had to do. In terms of the third need, they worried less when they felt a greater sense of relatedness – when they spent more time with people they cared for and felt appreciated by.

That suggests that when you are worried about things over which you have no control, you should take three steps. First, keep busy by developing your competence and capabilities: what can you do in the short term to improve your knowledge or skills? Next, make an effort to do at least some things that genuinely interest you rather than tasks you feel compelled to do. Finally, spend more time in the company of cherished friends, family and important others.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace.