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November2015

Is workplace jargon a serious mental health issue?

Workplace jargon has been around for as long as workplaces have. Each field, each workplace and each department necessarily has terms that are only relevant to that field. However, the use of workplace jargon – empty terms and excessive acronyms – has increased phenomenally and unnecessarily in the last decade.

At a networking function recently, a fellow was explaining to a group that he had just taken on a VO. He had also found that using a VA was much more profitable for him but due to this change in his circumstances, he was now looking for a pad, but if he took this pad he would need a VC. Give yourself a pat on the back if you can work out exactly what this man needed. I’ll be the first to admit, I only had half a clue what the message was he was trying to convey.

This article is an excellent example of what happens when an individual joins a workplace rife with jargon. In the end, the author resigned after only three weeks, which begs the question: just how detrimental is workplace jargon? Among other things, it can have a significant impact on mental health in a number of ways.

Firstly, workplace jargon prevents clarity. Due to its ‘specifically vague’ nature, jargon conceals real meaning, giving the impression of specificity and clarity without any, you know, specificity or clarity. Think about phrases such as ‘synergy’, ‘key learnings’ or ‘taking it to the next level’. While the phrases sound very action-oriented and precise, they lack any deliberate goals or tasks, leaving whoever is on the receiving end in a state of confusion. Often times, this leads to feelings of inadequacy as individuals feel that because they haven’t understood what the other person is saying they are ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ or not deserving of their position. Ironically, the person using the jargon misses out on valuable contribution from such colleagues. When an individual feels awkward or not equal to their peers, this can certainly lead to anxiety and depression.

Abstract language, like the specifically vague workplace jargon, is often intended to obscure meaning, evade fact and induce confusion. It is no surprise then, that according to this 2011 study users of abstract language – as opposed to concrete language – cause listeners to regard the speaker as being deceitful. In turn, this generates distrust, especially in a workplace setting that relies on jargon and abstract language. Obviously, not everyone who uses jargon is being dishonest; however less trust in a work environment places an immense strain on the mental wellbeing of employees. Imagine having to decipher what your colleague is saying, and not trusting the people you work with. Such isolation and paranoia can only result in a mentally unhealthy atmosphere.

Each workplace has its own vernacular, and to an extent a certain amount is necessary. After all, each department has its own special field with its own special things that require its own special language. In order for individuals to fit in in the workplace, it is then necessary to use the same language as everybody else. An extensive use of workplace jargon then has the effect of isolating colleagues. By unnecessarily using specialised terminology, especially in conversation with new colleagues who are still learning, or individuals from a different sector, to make yourself appear more intelligent or experienced, you are not adding any value to yourself and the things you are saying. Instead, such individuals detract from building and cohesive, inclusive and positive workplace. A healthy, harmonious and productive workplace is not built through ego and isolation.

Workplace jargon affects mental health through creating negative feelings of isolation, confusion, anxiety, lowered self-worth, stress, paranoia and an unhealthy workplace atmosphere.

No matter what position you hold in your workplace, here are 5 things you can do to create a mentally healthier workplace void of the side-effects of jargon.

  1. Use terminology in your office that everyone understands. By speaking plainly, you increase the chance of being understood as well as the inclusion of others. If the person you are speaking to looks a little confused, try using different terminology.
  2. Be honest. If you do not understand what is being said, simply say ‘I don’t understand’. Pretending you understand something that you don’t, does not benefit anyone, least of all you.
  3. Write out specialised acronyms. To help out new employees, any necessary workplace acronyms could be written out and displayed, giving everybody an equal opportunity to learn and fit in.
  4. Take note of specialised acronyms. If you hear a new acronym, jot it down so that you can recall it later.
  5. Watch out for the new recruits. Especially in a group setting, new employees may not have the confidence or experience to speak up and say that they don’t understand. If there were things you struggled with when you first started, chances are the new employees are too, so perhaps take it upon yourself to ask for some clarification.

By including everyone in your workplace communication, you can significantly reduce stress and anxiety, helping to create a more harmonious, mentally healthy workplace.