Mental Health Awareness Week: Managing Anxiety In The Workplace
In recent years there’s been growing recognition about the impact of anxiety and other mental health issues in all areas of society including the workplace. So much so, that they have often been referred to as the scourge of the 21st century, with supporting statistics such as:
- 8 million people in the UK suffer from anxiety disorders
- 51% of all work-related ill health cases are caused by anxiety disorders
- 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions
- Yet just 10% of employees seek mental health support
There’s a lot that can cause mental health problems. From relationship and health issues to money problems exacerbated by the current cost-of living crisis and social isolation, which increased during the Covid pandemic. And there are contributory factors in the workplace too, ranging from workload issues and relationship challenges with colleagues and managers to worries over the pace of technological change and job insecurity with the rise of artificial intelligence and more.
In fact, it’s due to the growing issues that we face in modern life that initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Week, were introduced in the first place.
What is anxiety
Given that the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is on anxiety, it can be helpful to know a bit more about what this is.
Essentially, anxiety is a future-oriented state of mind that is characterised by worrying about things that might happen.
It’s normal to feel anxious sometimes, particularly if we’re feeling threatened, under pressure or stressed due to a fast approaching exam, job interview or doctor’s appointment. And in fact, low levels of anxiety can actually help by keeping us more alert and motivated to deal with these situations. However, too much anxiety can be a problem, particularly if it starts to affect our ability to live our lives.
The symptoms of anxiety can be far ranging and affect both our body and mind.
Physical feelings can include:
- Feeling dizzy or light-headed
- Wobbly legs or pins and needles in your hands and feet
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilating
- Heart palpitations (a noticeably strong, fast heartbeat)
- Nausea (feeling sick)
- Needing the toilet more or less often
- Sleep problems
- Panic attacks
While the effects on the mind could include:
- A feeling of dread or fearing the worst
- Feeling on edge or panicky
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling detached from yourself or the world around you
Types of anxiety in the workplace
Unfortunately, if left unchecked and unmanaged, these anxieties can manifest themselves in the workplace too.
When it comes to workplace anxieties there are a number of different types to look out for. Having an awareness of the signs and symptoms of each, will enable you to better identify any specific anxieties felt by yourself or those around you, and help you to understand how best to provide support.
Here are just a few of the most common anxiety disorders experienced by staff in the workplace.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) typically presents itself as a constant feeling of dread which can interfere with your daily life. In contrast to the occasional worry about a significant event, people with GAD experience frequent anxiety that is often out of proportion with the impact of the things they’re actually worried about.
Symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder can include:
- A feeling of restlessness or being ‘on edge’
- Becoming easily fatigued
- Having headaches, or unexplained tension or pains in your muscles or stomach
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
GAD in the workplace may manifest itself as an increased feeling of tiredness, which makes it difficult to concentrate on your core work tasks. Consequently, those suffering from it may find they’re missing more deadlines and producing lower quality content. Additionally, GAD may cause them to take more time off work due to an increased number of headaches and general physical discomfort.
Staff with a panic disorder can experience frequent and unexpected panic attacks, which consist of an intense fear and a feeling of losing control, despite an obvious lack of danger or a trigger.
During a panic attack the sufferer’s symptoms can include:
- A racing heartbeat
- Trembling or shaking
- Pain in your chest area
- Feelings of impending doom or lack of control
At this point it’s important to note that not everyone who has experienced a panic attack will have a panic disorder. However, if you frequently experience unexpected panic attacks and find yourself worrying about when the next one will occur, you may want to seek further medical advice.
Having a panic disorder can make the workplace a very scary, as incessantly worrying about a future panic attacks can make it difficult to focus on completing work tasks. You may find yourself feeling detached from reality and unable to contribute to group discussions or interactions with co-workers. Worse still, in more extreme cases those suffering from panic disorders may find it difficult to do tasks that require a level of manual dexterity such as writing or typing, due to excessive shaking.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety is a very common type of anxiety disorder that is often mistaken for extreme shyness. However, a person with social anxiety disorder feels intensely worried about being scrutinised or judged in social situations, particularly when speaking in public, meeting new people, or being interviewed.
In a social situations, or a situation where they’re asked to ‘perform’, people with social anxiety may:
- Blush or sweat excessively
- Feel their mind going blank
- Have a rigid or tense body posture
- Find it difficult to make or maintain eye contact with someone
- Experience an increased or irregular heart rate
In the workplace, we’re often required to have many interactions throughout the day with colleagues and superiors. However, this can be extremely difficult for someone with social anxiety due to their fear about interpersonal interactions, making it common for them to avoid these circumstances and be at risk of increased absenteeism.
Social anxiety may also get in the way of a sufferer achieving promotions or taking on new opportunities, as the social and performative interactions that accompany these events, such as interviews, can be too anxiety-inducing for them to attend.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD and other anxiety disorders can have many overlapping symptoms, and are therefore often considered to be connected. Yet, OCD is a chronic disorder where people have uncontrollable obsessions or compulsions that they feel a strong urge to act on and repeat over and over.
Common compulsions that people may experience include:
- Excessive cleaning or hand washing
- Arranging things in a very particular manner
- Repeatedly checking things, such as whether the door is locked or the oven is turned off
- Compulsive counting
Generally, a person with OCD is unable to control their thoughts and behaviours, even when they realise they’re excessive. This results in them spending at least an hour a day on these rituals, despite feeling a lack of pleasure in performing them.
Such compulsions can have a huge impact on your work life, as it’s extremely difficult to focus on a task when you’re constantly trying to battle compulsive thoughts – meaning it takes longer to complete work tasks. Similarly, it may take time for someone with an OCD to move on from a task, as they feel a need to complete their repeated checks before starting something new, and this can take hours.
The last of the most common workplace anxieties is phobias, which represent an intense fear of an object or situation, which causes high-level anxiety and terror that is out of proportion with the danger surrounding the event.
Someone suffering with a phobia is likely to:
- Experience an irrational but excessive worry about encountering a specific object or scenario
- Actively avoid the feared object or situation
- Experience immediate and intense anxiety when encountering the feared object or situation
While a phobia to something that is rarely encountered can be managed relatively easily, someone with a commonplace phobia can find that it severely impacts their daily life.
In the workplace, common phobias such as heights, enclosed spaces, or crowds are issues that can be frequently encountered and research shows that people with intense phobias can find career progression difficult, as they struggle to perform in interviews or in pay-rise discussions. Additionally, those with phobias are absent from work far more often due to feeling unable to tackle their fears and opting to avoid them altogether. However, despite this just 2% of phobia sufferers have discussed their fears with their HR team, while as few as 7% have chosen to discuss the issues they’re experiencing with their manager.
While this list is not exhaustive, it does provide you with some idea of the most prevalent types of anxiety that may be present in the workplace and greatly impact a sufferer’s ability to thrive at work.
Ways to calm staff anxiety in the workplace
Once you’re more familiar with the concept of anxiety and knowledgeable about the different types of anxiety in the workplace, you’ll be in a better position to handle any of these types of issues that your staff may be struggling with.
Get staff to open up about their feelings
You’ll struggle to get anywhere if you can’t get your staff to open up about how they’re feeling and be able to assess the level of anxiety that is present in your workforce.
However, it can be difficult for some staff to provide feedback about their stresses and anxieties, as they worry about the potential consequences for their job if they do so. While a face to face chat with someone qualified in dealing with mental health issues is the ideal solution, a valuable first starting point can be to issue a survey among your staff.
A staff wellbeing survey is a great place to begin, as it takes a holistic approach to employee wellbeing looking to explore their physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing. These are all important, as once you get to know how staff are faring in these areas you can take steps to improve their health outcomes.
Similarly, a work life balance survey can also help, as it looks to explore some of the work triggers that may be causing excessive stress and contributing to physical or mental health issues.
In fact, some staff may prefer talking about their anxieties through a survey, rather than discussing them face to face with a manager or HR person. But what’s important to remember is that if you want to get the most honest and valuable feedback, you need to offer staff the opportunity to reply anonymously, should they wish to do so.
Plan and prioritise work loads
It might sound obvious, but getting staff to plan and prioritise their workloads, can make a big difference to their stress levels. This is because it gives them more clarity about what they need to do and a greater sense of control about how much time they have available to do this.
When you plan and prioritise your work, it also allows you to break tasks down into smaller chunks with separate timelines, that can make them appear less overwhelming and more manageable. Fortunately, there are lots of methods and software tools available these days to help you to do this and see how your priorities fit in with the rest of your team.
Take enough breaks
If you’re to maintain your energy and focus, it’s important to take sufficient time out to rest, relax and recharge.
Briefly, stepping away from your workstation a few times over the course of the work day can help to clear your head, refresh your mindset and help you to refocus. Similarly, exercising or going for a brisk walk a lunchtime can help too.
To help maintain good levels of mental health, it’s also important to ensure staff take their annual leave.
Often many employees don’t use their full allowance, as they feel too busy to take leave or guilty about giving extra work to their colleagues while they’re away. However, whatever their reasons for this, everyone needs time away to relax and recharge. So, it’s important to ensure that all your staff use up their annual leave entitlement.
Generate positive employee experiences
Although, it’s not as significant as some of the points we’ve already discussed, the employee experiences you deliver for your staff can also be contributory factors that can influence their overall sense of wellbeing in the workplace.
From their communications with you during their recruitment and onboarding, to the experiences they receive during their ongoing work with your business, including any development and training, right through to their final exit from your company.
Employee experience is concerned with the interactions that an employer has with their staff during the employee lifecycle, and how your employees internalise and interpret these actions.
In terms of their mental health, the more you can come across as a supportive and caring employer in your communications and messages to staff, the better their perception of you is likely to be.
Adopt healthy habits
Irrespective of where any of us are working, there are some things we can do ourselves to better manage our anxieties. And self care is one of them.
Self-care is really important, because if we’re not looking after ourselves it can compound any mental health or anxiety symptoms we may be suffering from.
Getting enough sleep, eating healthily and exercising are proven to have a hugely positive impact on the mind, as well as improving physical health, so it’s vital to try and incorporate these into our daily routines.
Get professional help
If any of us find that our anxiety symptoms aren’t eased by any of the suggestions we outlined, and that we’re still struggling with our daily activities at work, getting professional help is the best next step.
A GP or mental health specialist will be able to provide access to treatment, whether that be therapy to help identify coping mechanisms, or medication.
We hope you found this blog useful and will maybe be able to incorporate some of it’s ideas into your own workplace.
Whatever stage you’re at in terms of activities to better manage anxiety and mental health issues in your own business, it’s important to ensure that this is an ongoing process not just a one off project. You’ll only see the best results if you’re continually checking in with your staff, and collecting and analysing their feedback. And the best way to do this is through a pulse survey.
Ultimately, when it comes to anxiety, the more we understand it, the better we will be at tackling its symptoms. So, as long you’re continually collecting and analysing feedback from your staff, you should be able to implement the right steps and update them when you need to in order to better manage workplace anxiety and mental health issues moving forward.