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All about Workplace Anxiety

According to a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation in 2020, almost 1 in 5 UK workers (18%) reported experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of work in the past year. Additionally, the same survey found that 1 in 8 (12.8%) people had taken time off work in the past year as a result of stress, anxiety or depression.

Of course, these figures may not reflect the true extent and prevalence of workplace anxiety in the UK, as many people do not report their experiences or seek help for their symptoms.

What is workplace anxiety?

Workplace anxiety is also known as occupational anxiety or work-related anxiety. It is a type of anxiety that is experienced in a person’s work environment or job. Workplace anxiety is a common problem that affects employees in many industries and job roles.

Workplace anxiety manifests itself in different ways including feelings of excessive worry, tension and fear about work-related tasks, performance or deadlines. It can also be expressed as social anxiety, with the fear of being judged by colleagues, clients or supervisors. Those suffering may experience panic attacks and eventually burnout – a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that has been caused by an extensive period of stress.

Such anxiety can have a negative impact not only on an individual’s well-being but also on their productivity and job performance. Those suffering should seek support to help manage their work-related anxiety, but it is not always easy.

Employee suffering from workplace anxiety

Causes of workplace anxiety

Workplace anxiety can have a range of causes.

These include:

  • Work demands
    This includes a high workload, tight deadlines, and responsibilities that are beyond an employee’s skillset or resources.
  • Job insecurity
    This includes the fear of being laid off, fear of losing one’s job or the prospect of redundancy.
  • Workplace relationships
    This can include negative interactions with colleagues, supervisors or clients that can lead to stress and social anxiety.
  • Organisational culture
    An unsupportive or toxic work culture that values competition over collaboration may contribute to work-related stress. An organisation that does not prioritise its employees’ well-being contributes to workplace anxiety.
  • Trauma or negative past work experience
    Employees who have experienced negative workplace experiences such as discrimination or workplace harassment may develop anxiety as a consequence.
  • Personal factors
    A person’s pre-existing mental health conditions, life stressors or financial concerns can also contribute to workplace anxiety.

Given that the causes of workplace anxiety are complex and multifactorial, the causes will vary from person to person.

According to a Perkbox survey in 2020, the most common reasons cited as the cause of work-related stress in Britain were “work-related office politics” at 37%, the “lack of interdepartmental communications” at 34% and “others’ work performance” at 33%.

The summary goes on to say that long working hours contribute as the seventh most common cause, whereas this came in first place in their 2018 survey. This shows that perhaps workplaces have begun to listen to their employees’ causes of stress. Of course, work-related stress and work-related anxiety are not the same, but there are extremely close links between the two conditions.

Signs of workplace anxiety

The signs of workplace anxiety vary from person to person. They can include physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural symptoms.

Physical symptoms

The physical symptoms of workplace anxiety often arise out of the emotional symptoms, but they can be worrying and debilitating on their own too.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Stomach problems.
  • Sweating.
  • Headaches.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Racing heart.
  • Palpitations.
  • Shortness of breath.

Emotional symptoms

When you’re feeling anxious and/or stressed, many common emotional symptoms often appear too:

  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Feeling irritable.
  • Excessive worrying.
  • Panic attacks.

Cognitive symptoms

As a result of the emotional and physical symptoms of workplace anxiety, a worker may begin to suffer from cognitive symptoms.

These include:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Racing thoughts.
  • Catastrophising.
  • Negative self-talk.

Behavioural symptoms

When we’re suffering from anxiety or stress, whatever the cause, the symptoms we experience affect our behaviours, even if we do not realise it.

Someone with workplace anxiety may:

  • Withdraw socially, either at work or elsewhere. They may not talk to colleagues in the same way that they used to and may not make time for their permitted breaks.
  • Avoid work tasks. They may procrastinate a lot to avoid doing something which they know will increase their stress and anxiety.
  • Have decreased productivity due to their emotional and physical symptoms.
  • Appear more confrontational and outspoken with colleagues, superiors or clients and behave in ways that are not usually deemed appropriate or acceptable.
  • Express their frustration with their job, role or workplace.

Other related symptoms

As a result of the above effects that workplace anxiety places on a person, the worker may go on to experience other symptoms that are often related.

These include:

  • Insomnia and disturbed sleep include difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking during the night, or work-related stress dreams or nightmares.
  • Frequent colds, infections and other illnesses are due to a reduced immune system that is often associated with chronic stress and increased cortisol levels in the body.

The signs and symptoms of workplace anxiety may also be indicative of other potentially more deep-rooted mental health problems or physical conditions, so it is important to consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Construction worker with loss of productivity

What are the effects of workplace anxiety?

Workplace anxiety does not just affect the individual in the ways mentioned above. As we explained, the physical and emotional symptoms of workplace anxiety can lead to behavioural symptoms and other health consequences. These effects can be far-reaching.

  • Impaired job performance
    If you’re suffering from workplace anxiety, the chances are it will interfere with your ability to make decisions, focus on your work and complete tasks. This subsequently leads to reduced work performance. Depending on the type of role, this can have consequences financially if you rely on bonuses or run your own business. It could also have significant consequences in certain roles such as health professionals, emergency workers and solicitors, for example.
  • Increased absenteeism
    People who suffer from workplace anxiety may take more time off from their job. Interestingly, this is not always directly due to perceived anxiety symptoms but can be due to the number of infections and illnesses that an excessively anxious person tends to pick up due to the effects of stress on the body. Additionally, symptoms like insomnia can increase absenteeism as can a lack of motivation due to workplace anxiety.
  • Physical health problems
    Having already touched on this, it’s important to note that chronic workplace anxiety affects the body physically. Those with the condition for long periods can go on to experience physical health problems such as long-term digestive issues, heart disease and high blood pressure, as well as those already mentioned. Essentially, during long periods of heightened stress or anxiety, cortisol (the stress hormone) floods the body and it is thought that this, among other factors, is what contributes to the body’s development of physical conditions.
  • Strained relationships
    If you’re suffering from the symptoms of workplace anxiety, the chances are you’re behaving differently at work or you’re missing work due to the physical effects or mental challenges it brings. As a result, you may experience strained relationships at work, which tends to contribute further to anxiety. Poor relationships and avoiding colleagues can cause difficulties when working collaboratively and can lead to increased social withdrawal. All of these factors are interrelated and it can become a vicious circle.
  • Reduced job satisfaction
    If you’re suffering from workplace anxiety, whatever the reason may be, you’re not likely to be getting satisfaction from your work. This contributes to feelings of decreased motivation and a reduction in engagement with work.
  • Career setbacks
    Chronic workplace anxiety has such profound effects that it can ultimately lead to a worker suffering from a career setback. This could stem from multiple causes from increased absenteeism meaning that opportunities for promotion or advancement are missed, or a reduction in productivity so managers are not able to see the potential in the worker for further opportunities.

For these reasons, it is important to address workplace anxiety as soon as possible so that its negative effects (both long-term and short-term) are prevented or reduced.

How common is anxiety in the workplace?

As mentioned in the introduction, anxiety in the workplace is common among workers. A 2019 study by the American Institute of Stress reported that 83% of US workers experienced work-related stress with 62% reporting that they regularly felt high levels of stress.  It is not a far stretch to assume that here in the UK, the statistics are likely to be similar.

In 2020, Perkbox reported that a staggering 79% of British adults in employment regularly experience work-related stress which is 20% higher than the findings from 2018. Additionally, only 1% said they’d never experienced work-related stress.

Of course, work-related stress is technically different to workplace anxiety; however, the former can and usually does cause the latter. Perkbox’s survey outlined that 55% of workers experience anxiety as a result of work stress and almost half of them (43%) lose sleep as a result, with a third turning to comfort eating to help them cope.

With workplace stress and anxiety so very prevalent in the UK, employers and colleagues need to help support workers and their well-being and help them to cope.

How to cope with workplace anxiety

Coping with workplace anxiety involves several strategies that not only address the underlying causes of the anxiety but also manage the symptoms and promote overall well-being.

Let’s take a look at some ways of learning to cope with workplace anxiety and ease the symptoms.

1. Identify the source of the anxiety
Recognising the specific triggers that are causing the anxiety such as job responsibilities, deadlines or social interactions is the first step towards learning how to cope and deal with it.

2. Practise self-care
Taking care of yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep, engaging in exercise and practising relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation can help alleviate some of the acute symptoms of workplace anxiety allowing the sufferer to deal with the issues surrounding its cause in a better frame of mind.

3. Seek support
After looking after yourself, if you’re able, seeking support from a trusted colleague, friend or mental health worker is a good idea. Talking about your workplace anxiety can alleviate some of the feelings and you may receive advice to develop coping strategies.

4. Set boundaries
People are often so concerned with their work performance and the pressures that come with their job that the boundaries between their work and their personal life become somewhat blurred. This leads to overworking and eventually burnout. Some professions have particular difficulties with this such as teachers and lawyers who tend to take lots of work home after the expected ‘clocking-off’ time, even during their holiday periods.

5. Have an organised workspace
If you have an office-based job, tidying up your desk or working area can help clear your mind and reduce anxiety. It might not seem like a high priority, but it is a small thing that can help.

6. Practise time management
If time management is a problem or a worker feels that their to-do list is overwhelming, working on time management may help. Prioritising tasks, setting realistic goals and breaking large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones may help.

7. Celebrate your achievements
Many of us are quick to focus on criticisms of our work rather than focus on the things we’ve achieved or the positive feedback we have received. Make a point of noticing the positive feedback you encounter. Jotting it down may also help you if you’re struggling as you can look back over your achievements and remind yourself of them.

8. Reduce contact and engagement with toxic co-workers
There’s often one or two in any business but working alongside toxic co-workers often affects our self-esteem and heightens our anxiety further. Try to reduce your contact and engagement with people like this if at all possible. Perhaps ask a supervisor if you can move your desk or work from home on different days if this is possible.

9. Talk to your supervisor
As long as your supervisor is not a source of your workplace anxiety, talking to them and working together to develop ways of managing it may help. Delegating tasks or adjusting your workload may be something that your supervisor can assist you with to help alleviate the pressure.

10. Seek professional help
Consider seeking professional help from a mental health professional to help deal with the symptoms associated with workplace anxiety. Many businesses have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) where employers can put their workers in touch with the right people for guidance and support.

Everyone copes with workplace anxiety differently and not all jobs and job roles are the same. For those struggling, finding what works best for you is key.

How to support employees/colleagues

Many reading this article may be doing so and wondering how they can best help and support their colleagues or their employees who are experiencing workplace anxiety. Helping employees or colleagues is important for creating a healthy and productive work environment. Let’s take a look at a few ideas of how you can create that supportive and nurturing workplace culture.

1. Aim to create a supportive working environment
Foster a culture of support within the workplace by encouraging open communication and empathy among co-workers and team members.

2. Educate yourself
Learn about workplace anxiety so you’re better able to spot the signs and symptoms if someone is struggling. Look for resources on things you can do to help alleviate the anxiety if at all possible.

3. Be supportive and non-judgemental
If a colleague or employee opens up to you about their workplace anxiety, be open and listen actively. Offer support but do not judge them. Make sure that they know that you are there to support them.

4. Offer practical support
Offer practical help such as helping them with a task or finding resources for them.

5. Be flexible
As an employer, offer flexible working arrangements such as flexible hours or remote working to accommodate your employees’ needs.

6. Encourage self-care
Encourage co-workers and employees to practise self-care by taking their designated breaks as well as engaging in stress-reducing activities and eating well, if possible.

7. Encourage professional help
Remind co-workers or employees that there is professional support available should they need it. Ensure that the information on any Employee Assistance Programmes is readily available and easily accessible.

It’s important to remember that supporting employees or co-workers with workplace anxiety is likely an ongoing process. It’s not something that is easily fixed in a day or two. Providing ongoing support and checking in is the best way of ensuring that they feel supported and valued in the workplace.

Employer supporting employee with workplace anxiety

Treatment for workplace anxiety

The treatments for workplace anxiety can vary depending on the severity of the symptoms and the individual’s specific needs.

Some common treatments for workplace anxiety include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that helps individuals change their negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to their anxiety. It can be effective in treating workplace anxiety by teaching people coping skills and techniques to manage their symptoms.
  • Medication
    Anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants may be prescribed by a healthcare professional to help manage the acute or chronic symptoms associated with workplace anxiety. However, medication is typically used in conjunction with therapy and it is important to discuss any potential side effects with a doctor.
  • Relaxation techniques
    Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation all have known benefits in helping reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
  • Exercise
    Regular exercise can also help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and promote an overall sense of well-being.
  • Workplace accommodation
    Being open and honest with your workplace about workplace anxiety can help hugely. Many workplaces offer flexible schedules and reduced or modified workloads or tasks that can help to reduce stress in the workplace and help people manage their anxiety symptoms.
  • Support groups
    Joining a support group for those with stress-related disorders or anxiety can provide a sense of community and support and help those suffering from feeling alone in their experience.

If you or someone you know is suffering from workplace anxiety, many organisations can help:

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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

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