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Managing panic attacks at work

How to support an employee with panic attacks

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What is a panic attack?Recognising a panic attack: signs and symptomsWhat to do if someone has a panic attack at work6 ways to support an employee who has panic attacks

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Panic attacks can happen to anyone, and for no obvious reason. Although visceral and frightening, panic attacks aren’t physically dangerous, and will usually subside in about 20 minutes. Of course, 20 minutes feels like a really long time when you’re struggling to stand, think or catch your breath. 

The really nasty thing about panic attacks is that they can create a cycle of fear about when, where or whether another one is going to happen. And that can have a big impact on someone’s day-to-day life. In this guide, we’ll look at how to recognise a panic attack and how to support a member of your team if they tell you they experience panic attacks at work. 

What triggers a panic attack?

A panic attack is a strong physical reaction that happens when a feeling of anxiety – a sense of worry or unease – tips over into intense fear or terror. Panic attacks can be a reaction to prolonged stress (like being overworked), sudden stress (like public speaking, intense exercise or crowds), or a symptom of a mental health disorder. They can also be triggered by some medications, or drugs like caffeine and alcohol.

There’s still a lot that science doesn’t know about exactly what tips a feeling of anxiety into a full-blown panic attack, but the prevailing wisdom is that it’s based on our brains misinterpreting signs of stress and danger.

Our bodies respond to danger by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This ‘fight or flight’ response is automatic, and was designed to keep us safe as cavepeople. It makes us breathe harder and diverts oxygen to our muscles so that we’re primed and ready to escape a woolly mammoth. When someone experiences a panic attack today, those same hormones flood their system – except there’s no physical danger to respond to when a panic attack is happening at work. For that person, it’s a sudden and scary episode, which might be made worse by being surrounded by your co-workers or the commuters on the no. 42 bus. 

Panic attacks can be a one-off, or a symptom of an ongoing condition. Someone might experience panic attacks as part of a wider anxiety disorder, but panic disorder is a distinct mental health condition, too. You might be diagnosed with panic disorder if you experience regular panic attacks, and are living with a continuous fear of having more in the future. This fear can stop people wanting to go out in public or on their own, so it’s best to seek treatment as soon as possible.

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Recognising the symptoms of a panic attack at work

Someone having a panic attack in the workplace may have a combination of physical and mental symptoms, including:

  • A tight chest and racing pulse
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or nauseous
  • Shortness of breath or a choking feeling
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain
  • Shaky legs
  • Chattering teeth
  • Ringing ears
  • Feeling too hot or too cold
  • Distorted vision
  • A sense of dread or apprehension
  • A feeling of dissociation from your mind, body or the world around you
  • A strong fear that you’re going to faint, die or lose control

It might sound obvious, but when someone’s having a panic attack, they will be unable to work. They’re likely to feel exhausted, shaky or shaken for a while afterwards too, so it might also be difficult for them to work for a few hours.

Therapy is shown to help people cope with underlying feelings of anxiety, fear and stress which can lead to panic attacks

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What to do if someone has a panic attack at work

The first time someone experiences a panic attack, it’s difficult to know what’s happening or when the symptoms will stop. Understandably, plenty of people think they’re having a heart attack. If someone you work with experiences sudden symptoms like these and they can’t communicate with you, then it’s always worth calling an ambulance and letting the pros take over – just in case. 

If you know for sure that your colleague is experiencing a panic attack, then there are some simple ways to help them while it’s going on. 

1. Stay calm. Try to keep your voice and movements measured and predictable. 

2. Ask what they need. Use clear yes or no questions like “Would you like me to go outside with you?” If they refuse your help, give them a bit of space (but stay nearby). They might just be feeling overwhelmed or embarrassed that this is happening while they’re at work. 

3. Find a quiet place. Steer them towards somewhere private to sit, if you can. 

4. Help them to control their breathing. If they’re open to your help, model slow and deep breaths (in through your nose for 5, out through your mouth for 5) and ask them to breathe along with you. Some people find that stamping on the spot helps them to control their breathing. 

5. Remind them that this will pass. Reassure them that these symptoms are not dangerous and will be over soon. Getting them to place their hand over their heart and focus on the beat is another way to tune into their senses and remind them that they are still okay and breathing.

If you’re their manager, encourage them to take some time to recover once the panic attack has passed. It might be nice for them to hear that you know panic attacks can happen to anyone, and this won’t change the way you see them at work.

6 ways to support an employee who has panic attacks

If an employee tells you as a manager that they’ve been having panic attacks or have a diagnosed panic disorder, it’s important to find out which adjustments you could make to help them feel more comfortable at work. Every employee is different, so ask open questions and try not to second guess what might help them most. 

1. Consider more flexible working

If your colleague finds that your workplace environment is making their anxiety worse, then think about whether working from home or from a different location for a while would help. Tweaking their hours slightly to avoid a busy commute might also make a big difference, depending on what situations seem to trigger their panic attacks.

2. Have regular check-ins

More one-to-one meetings with your colleague will help you to keep an eye on how they’re doing, and give them an opportunity to say whether they need any further adjustments to their role. A robust employee wellbeing survey could also help you to recognise and step in if your team’s mood takes a dip.

3. Keep them safe

If your employee drives as part of their role, then a panic attack could put them (and others) in a dangerous position. Move them away from driving duties until they are no longer at risk. Legally your colleague needs to disclose a panic disorder to the DVLA, too. Find out more about driving with a health condition on

4. Break the stigma

Talking about mental health in your workplace is the best way to get employees to open up when they’re struggling. Panic attacks have no reflection on how capable someone is as an employee. And in the right environment, the person who’s experiencing panic attacks might actually find it liberating to discuss their challenges with colleagues. Besides training up your management team to recognise poor mental health when they see it, there are plenty of other low-cost ways to make mental health more visible in your company. 

5. Encourage everyone to take their breaks

Both long term stress and short-term stressors can trigger a panic attack. Stop stress from building up in your team by making sure everyone actively prioritises a healthy work/life balance. Normalise taking all of your holiday allowance by talking about your days off – you could even set a KPI around taking time off, if you notice that people are hesitant. Encourage your team to take regular breaks from work and to get outside at lunch, too. One good way of making breaks more visible is by adding an emoji to your Slack status when you’re taking a walk or stepping away from your desk. 

6. Point to the right resources

As a manager, you can’t diagnose a colleague with a panic disorder, and it’s not your responsibility to recommend treatment options, either. But once you’re having a conversation with your employee about panic attacks, it’s a good idea to remind them of any professional mental health support that your business offers. If you haven’t got any external support, then a good place for your colleague to start is with their GP.

If your employee is experiencing panic attacks as a symptom of an anxiety disorder, take a look at our tips for managing someone with anxiety at work.

Treatment for panic attacks

Panic disorder is treatable, and the sooner someone seeks help, the better. Treatment usually involves a combination of medication, lifestyle changes and therapy, where a therapist will talk through the circumstances that surround a panic attack and suggest coping strategies to manage triggers when they come up. 

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This PDF poster acts as a useful guide for helping a colleague or employee who is having a panic attack in five easy steps

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