Workplace anxiety: causes, impact and 9 ways to help employees deal with work anxiety

Workplace anxiety is a growing issue among employees, and is one of a number of mental health issues that may be felt at work. Our mental health is strongly related to the workplace, as we spend so much of our time there, and can be influenced by factors such as workload, relationships, environment and culture. Workplace anxiety is strongly correlated with work related stress. It can be a serious, debilitating mental health concern that many in our workforces are silently struggling with.

Our recent All Worked Up study of employees aged 16-64 found that 40% are suffering with anxiety – compared  to 8.2% in the general population. Gen Z struggle the most, with almost half (47%) of 16-24 year-olds screening positive for anxiety. This shows that chronic workplace stress is having a huge effect on employee mental health. And shockingly employees aren’t speaking up – 1 in 3 have not sought help from a mental health professional, despite having work related anxiety that is clearly affecting their lives. 

The Employee Mental Health Report shows 32% employees expressed feeling low, bad, numb, depressed, and sad throughout the day and 75% employees reported low to moderate energy on average throughout the day. This low energy, stress and anxiety is clearly rampant in our workplaces.

What is work anxiety?

Work anxiety, sometimes called job-related stress, is essentially a feeling of unease or nervousness experienced by employees at work or in response to particular work-related situations or tasks. It is characterized by excessive worry, performance anxiety, untenable stress, and can result in physical conditions such as headaches, shortness of breath, and brain fog. It is one of a number of conditions that affect people at both work and in their home life, but is having a worrying increase.

We all get anxious from time to time, such as when starting a new job or before a big presentation. The worry is when symptoms start to impact daily life and prevent employees from doing their job.

8 leading causes of anxiety at work

1. Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is essentially a feeling that you might be ‘found out.’ It is a sense that someone has that they are not really up to the job, despite having the necessary skills and qualifications, and other people will one day realize this. It can result in an individual having unrealistic expectations of themselves and their performance, as they try to mask this sense of not being good enough and having the right skills and aptitude for the job.

2. Fast-paced work environment

Some people thrive in fast paced and always working environments. Some prefer a slower pace with more structure. Personal preference goes a long way to finding the right ways of working for an individual. If the pace and style of the working environment is at odds with how the employee thrives this can cause chronic stress and anxiety. A fast paced working environment can make it hard to pause and reflect on the work in hand, as you are always moving on to the next. Employees may feel overwhelmed by the volume of work or the pace of change, leading to a sense of urgency and stress, and ultimately job burnout.

3. Lack of job security

The current financial challenges mean that many people are worried about their job security, which is leading to a rise in anxiety. When job security is challenged, it affects personal lives as well as increasing stress levels. 

4. Unpredictability

If an individual likes structure and routine, unpredictability will cause them to feel anxious and increase work stress. Generally speaking, we prefer certainty to uncertainty, as it enables us to plan ahead and foresee how something might turn out. The reason is, according to studies, that it disrupts our ability to avoid or mitigate circumstances. 

5. Conflict with peers or team members

Struggling to work collaboratively with others can lead to tension and anxiety. Our workplace relationships are so important to how we experience work, and building team morale goes a long way to helping create mentally healthy workplaces. When we have positive workplace relationships, our mental health is better, no matter what kind of work we do, says research. When employees feel like they are not being heard or valued, they may feel isolated or unsupported, leading to anxiety and stress.

6. Aggressive management

Leadership style has a huge impact on the mental health of employees. A boss who is overly critical or intimidating can create anxiety and discomfort. Employees who are subjected to aggressive or abusive behavior from their managers may feel powerless, leading to anxiety and stress.

7. Social anxiety at work

Social anxiety is fear of interacting with others, and can cause significant distress in the workplace. Most jobs rely on us being able to form relationships with others, so when we find this difficult, it may be that we start to doubt abilities that we are up to the job, which exacerbates the anxious thoughts. Public speaking at work can be particularly challenging for employees who are introverted or have social anxiety disorder.

8. Generalized anxiety

A person may experience anxiety at work as a symptom of a more general anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder is on the DSM-V and is characterized by excessive worry and fear about everyday situations. Work-related situations can trigger anxiety symptoms such as an anxiety attack or panic attacks.

How anxiety at work can affect employees

Poor performance at work

Anxiety can cause difficulties with concentration, focus, and decision-making, which can have a negative impact on job performance. Individuals may struggle to complete tasks, meet deadlines or may make mistakes, leading to poor performance and decreased productivity. And when work performance declines we may become more anxious and self esteem can drop as we’re not able to meet standards. 

Increase in absenteeism and presenteeism

Presenteeism is when people show up to work, despite reasons that they should have stayed at home, such as poor mental health. It costs the economy and workplaces billions each year in low productivity – Harvard Business Review has roughly estimated that presenteeism costs the U.S. economy upwards of $150 billion a year in lost productivity, ten times that of absenteeism. One of the reasons presenteeism is so common is that people fear stigma around not coming to work, and that they will be judged for not being at work.

Decrease in employee retention

Poor mental health is a predicator of individuals leaving and is highly correlated wih employee turnover. When we are constantly feeling anxious it makes it very difficult to do a job well, which can mean that work performance declines. Deloitte’s annual mental health report found that in 2021 staff turnover relating to mental health cost UK employers £22.4 billion.

Negative work culture/environment

The work culture and environment is hugely important to our wellbeing at work. When the culture is negative and challenging it is natural to feel anxiety as a result. People may find themselves worried about speaking with people, anxious to speak up in meetings, and fearful of making mistakes for worry of harsh negative repercussions. 

9 strategies to help employees deal with anxiety at work

1. Offer access to mental health resources

Workplace mental health resources such behavioral health solutions and employee assistance programs can support people with both diagnozed anxiety disorders and those experiencing moderate levels of workplace anxiety. These might include online therapy, meditation sessions, webinars and other benefits of Wysa’s employee offering to help people with their workplace stress. Having a clinically validated tool that is regularly assessed by medical reviewers, with specific professional support means that you can be sure proper support is being offered to people with all levels of anxiety. Mental health apps can be hugely beneficial, as they are discrete – and Wysa is anonymous. While talking to Wysa, 42% of employees opened up about their declining mental health.

2. Check-in with your employees

You can only support employees if you know what they need supporting with so measuring wellbeing is important. Start by taking a temperature check for anxiety and depression in your workplace by using Wysa’s completely free Employee Mental Health Barometer tool.The anonymous screening survey can identify what percentage of your employees suffer mild, moderate and severe symptoms depression and anxiety. But the real value comes in the recommendations from experts on how best to address these in your organization, in the most cost effective way.

3. Ask for feedback

Once you have implemented tools to help address workplace anxiety, you need to know if they are having an impact. Ask your employees through regular surveys, informal check ins, and formal meetings what is working for them and what could be improved. This helps them feel engaged and involved, and employee engagement is correlated with better mental health.

4. Encourage taking breaks

Regular breaks are essential for wellbeing. Sometimes it feels hard when the to do list gets overwhelming, but taking time out can reduce feelings of anxiety. This could be two minute meditation micro breaks to bring you back into the present moment, or having a team lunch break once a week. Make sure that remote employees also know that they should take breaks, and working from home doesn’t mean that wellbeing isn’t a priority. This is hugely important for helping to prevent burnout.

5. Offer flexible work timings

With a growth in hybrid working flexibility has become more common. Help to reduce workplace anxiety by allowing people the option to work at times that best suits them. This might include some core working hours where everyone crosses over, and flexibility around that. This enables people to prioritize their work life balance, and manage any stresses that they may be feeling.

6. Mental health employee resource group 

Mental health employee resource groups can help organizations focus on the specific issues at hand in their business – one of which may be anxiety. Groups of employees can volunteer to put in place interventions designed to reduce anxiety in your workplace. The benefit of an ERG is that they are entirely bespoke to your own organization, and priortize your employees.

7. Prioritize a psychologically safe workplace

In a psychologically safe workplace employees feel comfortable to speak up, articulate their opinions, challenge a co worker or difficult boss, and have conversations without fear of negative repercussions. Fear in the workplace makes people feel anxious. Leaders should prioritize building an open and communicative culture where all voices are able to contribute towards the company.

8. Recognize individual needs

Some people may have anxiety to such a degree that they need reasonable accommodations. This is a term used to define the different tweaks and adaptations that may be needed to support someone with mental health issues such as anxiety. Ask people what they need to help them work at their optimal best, and build this into their daily routine.

9. Project management tools

Offer good project management tools to help people manage and prioritize their workloads. Sometimes managing effectively includes knowing when to ask co workers for support and when to move a deadline to next week. Being able to see tasks written out or visually displayed can help people understand what is pressing and when deadlines are, with less of a sense of overwhelm as carrying it in someone’s head. It can also reduce the sense of performance anxiety as it is clear what is needed and by when.

Stress and anxiety are clearly a big issue for employees and employers, but they don’t have to take over. From implementing workplace culture improvements through to offering mental health benefits such as Wysa for employees leaders can play an active role in decreasing the levels of work anxiety and supporting their teams to be at their best.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

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