What is anxiety?
Cambridge University Definition of Anxiety:
an uncomfortable feeling of nervousness or worry about something that is happening or might happen in the future
Champion Health (2023) published research which highlights that 60% of the workplace experience mild levels of anxiety, with 25% experiencing symptoms at a clinical level.
Anxiety is huge complex topic, and we cannot do it justice here.
But we can devote our thinking to how anxiety at work can manifest. I developed this graphic to highlight some common anxieties at work:
Work is, by nature, a place where there are some external pressures placed upon us. At a very basic level, we (usually) agree to complete tasks in exchange for money.
We all experience pressure differently, and there are many variables that can impact.
Inevitably, we will sometimes need to complete tasks at work that make us feel worried, uneasy, anxious or even afraid.
The Workplace Mask
In my very early life/career, it seemed to me that my managers and senior staff in general, did not seem to experience anxiety. As an anxious child, I also remember looking at TV presenters in amazement and wondering how they did not (seem to) experience anxiety.
Well, little did I know!!! How it would have helped me SO MUCH to have this perspective as a child and young adult. If leaders and adults around me had modelled expressing their anxiety more, I would have felt more able to express mine - and to understand it and manage it.
The Golden Opportunity
So - how can you as a leader, best support employees who experience anxiety at work? How can you embed this kind of conversation into your culture? How do we step away from pretending that we are not anxious, like the TV presenters I was so in awe of?
You have a golden opportunity as leaders to support people. If we are given permission to express who we are, amazing things can happen.
Here are 3 ways you can support anxious employees right now!
1.) Name the anxiety
Talk about it. De-stigmatise the experience of feeling worried and having sleepless nights. We must feel able to bring our whole human selves to work.
Consider the possible causes of anxiety for individuals. The best way is to ask directly. Make this part of frequent check-ins with your team. You can ask in a way that feels comfortable but something along the lines of:
Is there anything at work causing you worry or anxiety at the moment? What can I support you with?
Think of this as a preventative measure, rather than crisis management. We all benefit from consistent support, rather than a knee-jerk reaction. This can be fuelled by leader's anxiety and lack of confidence when something has perhaps gone awry and action is fuelled by panic. Let's ask before we see warning signs, never assuming how someone might be coping. The workplace mask is real.
3.) Making Changes
Can workload be reduced? Does person A have a preferred communication style? Is that presentation crucial and worth the stress it causes? Does asking direct questions in meetings produce good results?
We cannot entirely avoid stressful, anxiety provoking tasks. However, we can weigh up the pros and cons for each individual.
Reasonable adjustments must be considered under The Equality Act 2010 legislation. Please read here for further information https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/legal-rights/disability-discrimination/equality-act-2010/.
There is no one size fits all, and this can make a leader/line manager role more challenging.
There is also not an expectation that line managers and leaders should replace professional advice and support. Absolutely not.
You, a leader, can have a significant impact on an individual's anxiety, by offering compassionate leadership and support.
Often, these are instinctive responses we would have for friends and family. It seems that the workplace can sometimes block or stifle this part of us, and leaders/line managers feel afraid to approach the topic.
My mission is to encourage the workplace to become more concerned when these conversations are avoided, than when they are approached.
Let's turn this tide, and connect human to human
Dr Elaine Smith
Business Wellbeing Consultant | Clinical Psychologist
I have some further workplace wellbeing and compassionate leadership resources available for purchase: