Better Workplace Mental Health Through Approaches to Anxiety
If asked to describe 2020, many people might choose the word “anxiety.” While it’s true that 2020 brought more than the usual set of challenges, it also offered an opportunity for supervisors and employees to understand more about anxiety and its effects and to learn tools to help ourselves and others cope.
How to recognize anxiety in the workplace
“Anxiety is a normal human reaction. It can be useful when it alerts us to potential threats and allows us to evaluate and respond to them in appropriate ways. Anxiety is also frequently experienced at levels that fall far short of interfering with engagement in normal life. Just because you are feeling anxious doesn’t mean you have a problem that needs to be ‘fixed’ with medication or a specialist referral. That need only happen when anxiety disrupts and impairs an individual’s ability to function,” says Maja Jurisic, MD, CPE, vice president and director of strategic accounts for Concentra.
In the workplace, common signs of anxiety in employees, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include:1
- Feeling irritation or anger
- Feeling uncertainty or nervousness
- Lacking motivation
- Feeling tired, overwhelmed, or burned out
- Experiencing sadness or depression for unknown reasons
- Fatigue due to difficulty sleeping at night
- Trouble concentrating or completing tasks
Employees who are naturally insecure, people pleasers, or perfectionists in their work may be more vulnerable to anxiety because of expectations they place on themselves, says Stewart Geddes, MIACP, author of the book, The Professional Worrier: Become the Boss of Your Anxiety.2
Supervisors need to know that communicating with an employee who is experiencing anxiety often requires additional effort. One research study concluded that individuals with high anxiety had “deficits in overall cognitive control,” which means they had difficulty concentrating, ignoring distractions, fully comprehending what they were told, and processing emotions.3
In another study, researchers divided participants into two groups (high anxiety and low anxiety) and had a physician provide biomedical information to each person. Members of the low anxiety group received the information with less tension and easily described it back to the physician. High anxiety participants had greater difficulty grasping the information and needed the physician to ask them more questions about the information before they could recount it accurately. Even then, high anxiety participants remained more tense and less satisfied after their consultation.4
Since anxiety makes it more difficult for an individual to focus and retain information, supervisors may need to deliver information in smaller portions and repeat it, in a supportive way that doesn’t create a public display of the concern at hand.
Geddes, who specializes in workplace anxiety, mentions other behaviors that potentially interfere with an anxious employee’s productivity:
- Mapping every consequence of an action or overpreparing
- Avoiding difficult tasks and procrastinating in general
- Switching excessively among multiple tasks
The American Psychiatric Association says at least one in three are affected by anxiety at some point in their lives.5 This is affirmed by research done on the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A meta-analysis of 17 studies and a sample size of 63,439 showed the prevalence of anxiety was nearly 32 percent.6
So, anxiety is fairly common in the world and in the workplace. It calls for compassion and leadership skills.
Leadership skills to assist with employee anxiety
A non-profit organization called Mind Share Partners conducted a study of global employees in partnership with software company Qualtrics and its parent, SAP. In the first two months of the pandemic, the mental health of 42 percent of respondents had declined. While the short-term effects are attention worthy, the study pointed to the significance of long-term effects, too. “As we navigate various transitions over the coming months and years, leaders are likely to see employees struggle with anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, and posttraumatic stress disorder,” Mind Share executives Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol wrote in the Harvard Business Review.7
Their recommendations to leaders included eight steps and most can be implemented without cost through behavioral changes and focus. They include being vulnerable by talking about your own anxieties, modeling healthy behaviors by taking brief breaks from work during the day, communicating more frequently than you might usually, being flexible in scheduling and expectations, and checking in regularly with your direct reports. Go beyond the quick, “How are you?” Listen deeply, don’t rush, ask and encourage questions.
A time of workforce anxiety is an opportunity for leaders to hit the books to take their people skills to the next level. “Anyone who supervises people needs emotional intelligence and right brain skills. With empathy and understanding, it’s easier to pick up on the emotions of the people they supervise and, so, to say and do ‘the right thing,’” says Dr. Jurisic. High on her list of recommended books are three by Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence; Social Intelligence; and Working with Emotional Intelligence) and one by Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind).
“Supervisors who don’t have emotional intelligence may struggle to show empathy or understanding. This can increase an employee’s angst, leading to worse outcomes and a more difficult recovery, especially when dealing with a high anxiety employee with an injury that limits his or her physical capacity,” says Dr. Jurisic.
Emotional intelligence involves self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. With greater mastery of perceiving, accessing and generating emotions, a person can promote emotional and intellectual growth, says Goleman. Social intelligence involves interactions with others. Goleman says paying close attention to the people around you, increasing your emotional intelligence, respecting cultural differences, using active listening, and appreciating the people in your life are important in developing social intelligence. Social intelligence comes when you listen to people’s stories with sincere interest, resist being negative, ironic, or complaining, and follow up with people who have expressed needs.
In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink outlines six human abilities to cultivate for professional success and personal fulfillment, based on his belief that the future belongs to right-brained thinkers who express themselves through creative pursuits.
Coping tools for anxious employees
Anxious employees may be relieved to learn there are practical tools they can use to help reduce anxiety. “It’s hard enough to keep on top of your work, deal with the complexities of the modern workplace, and have one eye on your career in the longer term without the constant pain and mental noise of unrestricted worry,” says Geddes. “If you can learn to manage anxiety as early in your working life as possible, you will feel the positive effects in terms of the nature and quality of the work you do.”
His book contains four “toolboxes” for dealing with anxiety in day-to-day activities, social situations, the workplace, and in relationships. He emphasizes that everyone handles anxiety-inducing experiences differently; each person has a unique “reservoir,” or capacity to deal with emotional, physical, and psychological effects. Ignoring or withdrawing from situations that create anxiety stifles growth; overindulging in activities to mask the pain of anxiety – substance abuse or any activity taken to the extreme – is a path fraught with problems.
Many of Geddes’ anxiety tools involve self-discipline in monitoring our feelings and thoughts – and taking action on the negative ones through a variety of approaches, such as writing them down, asking if there is evidence to support them, probing whether these are recurrent patterns in thinking, and shrinking the time we allot to our negative or worried thoughts each day.
A few tools Geddes recommends are:
- Stay on task and in the moment. Do not engage in “what if” thinking.
- Work in short bursts of 20 to 25 minutes to heighten focus and complete tasks.
- Use “Thought Records” to lower the intensity of the anxiety. List the seven key elements of an anxiety-inducing situation in the Thought Record:
- The situation
- Intensity of emotions felt (on a 1-to-100 scale)
- Thoughts you had, especially the ones that caused the most pain
- Evidence that supports your thoughts
- Evidence against your thoughts
- Balanced thoughts (form a new thought that takes both sides into account and is as close to the truth as you can get)
- Reassess the intensity of your emotions
- Use “Daily Check-ins” to consciously monitor your feelings and identify possible triggers of anxiety. This can be done during any daily rote activity like brushing teeth or making coffee. Ask yourself how you are feeling at that moment and what the cause of those feelings may be.
- Narrow the time you allow your brain to indulge in worries, anxious or negative thoughts. Set aside 15 minutes and let your mind exhaust itself by bringing up every worry. Then stop and go about your day.
- Separate yourself from your thoughts by naming your brain. When it brings up familiar worries, you acknowledge them, “Yes, (brain name) you have mentioned that before. I recognize it’s a concern. Now leave me alone, I’m busy.” Or if you brain begins to engage in “what if” thinking, respond by acknowledging that is a concern, but you will leave it to “Future (brain name).”
Leaders may wish to share these ideas with employees as practical tools they can try when anxiety begins to creep into their work day.
The year 2020 was like a Petri dish in the laboratory of time, presenting ideal conditions for the growth of anxiety: uncertainty, vagueness, worries for the future, and ambiguity. Fortunately, there are traits that leaders and employees can cultivate and tools they can use on a daily or episodic basis to turn down the disruptive effects of anxiety. Will anxiety ever completely disappear? Probably not. But the impact on our work and lives can be managed by becoming more conscious in noticing and challenging what our mind is telling us and growing more comfortable when confronted with the unknown.
1 “Employees: How to Cope with Job Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). May 5, 2020.
2 Geddes S. The Professional Worrier: Become the Boss of Your Anxiety. July 21, 2020.
3 Van Dam NT, Earleywine M, Altarriba J. Anxiety attenuates awareness of emotional faces during rapid serial visual presentation. Emotion. August 2012; 12(4): 796-806.
4 Graugaard PK, Eide H, Finset A. Interaction analysis of physician-patient communications: the influence of train anxiety on communication and outcome. Patient Education Counseling. February 2003; 49(2): 149-56.
5 “What Are Anxiety Disorders?” American Psychiatric Association. January 2017.
6 Salari N, Hossein-Far A, Jalali R, Vaisi-Raygani A, Rasoulpoor S, Mohammadi M, Rasoulpoor S, Khaledi-Paveh B. Prevalence of stress, anxiety, depression among the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic: a systematic review and meta-analysis. July 6, 2020; 16(1):57.
7 Greenwood K, Krol N. 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health. Harvard Business Review. August 7, 2020.