Kindly Do The Needful: Coping With Outcomes Anxiety

Sep 29, 2021

In healthcare, we’re always talking about improving patient outcomes, clinical and financial outcomes, or even the mind-numbing phrase ‘operational outcomes,’ whatever that means. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the intersection of language and performance anxiety, and I keep circling around the concept of what I’ve been calling outcomes anxiety.

Our inability to control the future often manifests in an urge toward excess—the desire to subdue all unknown variables with an overwhelming volume of material. It’s the opposite of a strategic approach, and it’s unfortunately fairly common. Many healthcare companies err on the side of quantity rather than quality, assuming that whatever sticks to the wall will function just as well as an intentional choice.

I’ve seen 15-touch email campaigns delivering 18 assets on 11 disparate products; product lines with 85 fact sheets; website rebrands of hundreds of pages doomed to start over again in six months’ time.  When you don’t know what will work, you try everything, right?

Wrong. This is always a bad idea, both for your company and your career—not to mention your mental health. Let me explain.

The Anxiety Spiral at Work

Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the anxiety spiral when it comes to our daily lives. One asks oneself a reasonable question, which is immediately answered with the worst possible outcome and escalated to ever more dire hypotheticals. What if my child’s cough is a symptom of Covid? becomes she’ll miss school for two weeks and morphs into all the grandparents could die before you’ve even removed the thermometer from its case. The literature calls this catastrophic thinking.

Of course, given the pandemic, we’re all trying to grant ourselves extra leniency as we cope with our anxiety; after all, there are real consequences at stake. For my friends with clinical anxiety, however, the spiral is triggered a thousand times a day by the most mundane concerns: a meeting conflict, a late payment, an unreturned email. As a healthcare writer with generally deadline-driven anxiety, I try to stave off stress with the usual preventative measures: deep breaths and long walks.

At work, I notice that my worry tends to coagulate around long-term outcomes. I don’t have time to research this byline today becomes nobody will like what I write and morphs into this whole week will be a firestorm of horror before I’ve written the first paragraph. As the things we tell ourselves are mostly subterranean, it can be tricky to diagnose yourself with outcomes anxiety.

For me, it starts with the language.

Marketing Speak: The Original Social Distancing

Whenever I think about healthcare jargon, I remember listening to intake calls with one freelance writer who routinely strung together industry phrases without apparent concern for their meaning (or lack thereof). He asked questions like this: “So we leverage clinical intelligence efficiencies to thread the needle of those at-risk enterprise social determinants and optimize technology-enabled solutions to close the gap, right?” The subject matter expert he was talking to would pause for a moment, frown ever so slightly, and resume her explanation.

Even more puzzling was the reputation this writer had among marketing management. “He knows his stuff,” I heard time and again. This could not have been further from the truth, at least not in my opinion. While the final product of these intake calls was serviceable, particularly as SEO fodder, it wasn’t very good. His copy did not help readers understand a new concept, or elucidate product intricacies, or address how the company could help clients. It just put all the relevant jargon in a blender and served it up like an ambitious smoothie: empty calories, suspicious taste, but certainly filling.

Why do so many people talk this way on calls? I think they suffer from an acute case of outcomes anxiety, one that’s particularly endemic to marketing. When you don’t yet know what you need to, you worry about the ultimate outcomes of your work. Will the piece miss the mark? Will the audience click on your links? Will any of this result in sales?

That misguided writer was trying out all his phrases at once, hoping the cumulative effect would be impressive. Although he thought he sounded knowledgeable, he was too insecure to ask the useful questions, the kind that might be perceived as too simplistic: “So, how does this product help patients? How does it work?”

When I edit copy for a client, I try to eliminate marketing speak, and I often get pushback. People tend to believe that dense language sounds more professional, and it can be a struggle to help them understand that jargon is the enemy of clarity. By its nature, marketing speak is an agent of exclusion: it alienates readers who are unfamiliar with the terminology. This is not for you; this is for those who can decipher this code. What a pernicious myth! Readers should not have to decipher meanings, at least not in professional writing. It’s the writer’s job to deliver the message with grace and clarity.

Circumventing Your Own Outcomes Anxiety

In my experience, extra fluffy language is motivated by insecurity about the real value of what is being produced, and it shows in the piece. It’s also the first indication that you might have outcomes anxiety.

So, the next time you sit down to write, and your first paragraph is hogwash—or when you’re in a meeting, and everyone’s talking about peeling the onion on customer buy-in—try these tips:

Ground yourself in the practical. What is the point of this piece? What do we want this campaign to accomplish? Whenever you find yourself tempted to overcomplicate things—when you’re wrestling with how to deliver 18 assets in a logical order—it’s a sure sign that you need to go back to basics. Ask simple questions. People will thank you.

Insist on a plan. One of the best healthcare writers I know routinely frustrated the teams she worked with by refusing to write before a plan was in place. And not just any old plan, with a wishy-washy “we’ll use this later, definitely” rationale, but a good plan, with strong strategy, clear tactics, audience definition, a timeline, the whole shebang. Paradoxically, your outcomes will be better when you spend more time on the inputs, as that planning process eliminates the creep of outcome anxiety from infecting your work.

Kindly do the needful. At a former company, I had a lovely coworker from Bulgaria whose English was refreshingly creative. When she sent me an article to edit, she’d close with this line: “Kindly do the needful.” When you catch yourself beginning the anxiety spiral, try to focus simply on the task at hand. Do the needful. And then do the next needful. And so on.

Reclaim your joy. When we stop worrying about uncontrollable outcomes, we remember why we enjoy the work we do…and then we do it better. When I stop wondering whether a client will like what I write, I suddenly realize that I’m enjoying myself, and that I actually like to write. Who knew! Give yourself permission not to focus on the deadline, the reception, or the ultimate outcome. For thirty minutes at a time, focus on the fun.

Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith is a seasoned healthcare writer with a passion for compelling narratives. She has more than 17 years of experience creating strategic marketing materials for payers, providers, and consumers in the healthcare IT market, and has developed content for numerous sales campaigns, product launches, acquisitions, and employee engagement initiatives. Before joining Amendola, Jessica served as senior writer of content operations and marketing communications at Change Healthcare, partnering with both payer- and provider-focused lines of business to create targeted white papers, case studies, articles, podcasts, videos, infographics, press releases, and product brochures to drive sales and market visibility. Her areas of focus included the company’s clinical decision support and enterprise imaging solutions. Her previous experience includes more than a decade in marketing publications at McKesson, where she managed collateral creation, marketing campaigns, customer newsletters, and digital content for the company’s internal and external websites. Her areas of focus included the company’s population and risk management, capacity management, and strategic intelligence solutions. Jessica also worked in corporate communications at PPD, a global CRO, supporting its finance, quality, and IT teams and writing for the company’s intranet. Jessica holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a minor in Psychology, from Duke University, as well as a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.