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How to manage an employee with anxiety at work

How to deal with an employee who discloses they’re feeling anxious

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Causes of workplace anxietyRecognising symptoms of anxiety at workHow to manage an employee with anxietyMaking practical adjustments for anxiety at work

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It’s natural to experience workplace anxiety from time to time. That nervous energy you shake out before a big presentation or performance review can even be used to your advantage. But if you manage an employee whose anxiety is affecting their health and performance day to day, there are things you can do to help. 

Causes of workplace anxiety

Anxiety, or being anxious, is a natural response to stress, and it affects people both psychologically and physiologically. A rush of adrenaline and cortisol tries to prepare your body for anything and everything – freeze, fight or flight. Your mind races, your heart rate goes up. In many situations, this is helpful: adrenaline and cortisol can help you to keep going before a big deadline or focus during an especially difficult task. But as well as being triggered by tangible stressors, anxiety can also be brought about by an unknown ‘threat’ of some kind in the future. 

Life is uncertain, and a certain level of worrying or trying to anticipate what might happen next is only natural. But it can become debilitating if your anxiety is triggered constantly, affects your ability to function normally, or if your anxiety response is disproportionate to the situation at hand. For example, a few hours before a big presentation at work, it’s normal to be anxious: your heart might feel like it’s racing, you might have knots in your stomach, and you might think about the presentation a lot. But when it’s over, you’re likely to feel more relaxed again.

Types of anxiety disorder

If you continually (and for no discernable reason) feel like something bad might happen to you at work, and those knots in your stomach don’t seem to ever leave, then that may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

There are different types of anxiety disorder, including:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
  • Panic disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

As a manager, it’s not up to you to diagnose an employee with an anxiety disorder. But if you can spot the symptoms of workplace anxiety, you may be able to start an open conversation with your colleague about whether they need any adjustments to feel more comfortable and productive at work. 

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Recognising symptoms of anxiety at work

Anxiety symptoms can be hard to spot in an employee, because they may be driven to over-prepare for their normal responsibilities, or even become fixated on their work performance. Some signs of employee anxiety to look out for include:

  • A loss of confidence or self esteem
  • Avoiding social situations or meetings
  • Difficulty making decisions or meeting deadlines
  • Being overwhelmed by situations that they would have handled easily before 
  • Lack of concentration
  • Scripting conversations or presentations in detail
  • Increased conflict with co-workers
  • Turning their camera off on video calls
  • Absenteeism

This is not an exhaustive list, and anxiety symptoms will present differently in different people. If you have a fairly open workplace culture, you could check in with your colleague and ask them about any behaviour that’s given you cause for concern. The alternative is to wait for your report to tell you that they are feeling worried, anxious or overwhelmed at work. 

The process of signposting the right support will be easier if your workplace has a robust mental health policy in place. 

Spill therapy reduces symptoms of employee anxiety by 74% in six weeks.

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How to manage an employee with anxiety (without giving yourself anxiety, too)

As a leader, you need to be prepared to respond to mental health issues that arise in your team. But it can feel like a lot of pressure. We asked a Spill therapist how to deal with an employee who approaches you to disclose they’re feeling anxious at work. Besides making some practical adjustments to their working day or environment, there are some important steps you need to take to have frank and open communication with your colleague and protect both them and yourself from unnecessary emotional distress. 

🙅‍♀️Be conscious of your professional boundaries

It’s perfectly possible to maintain your professional distance while showing your colleague that you care. For empathetic people, setting boundaries can feel counter-intuitive, but absorbing someone else’s emotions is not helpful to either of you. It’s appropriate to ask whether there’s anything at work that’s contributing to their anxiety, but it’s important to avoid rooting around for any causes of anxiety outside of the workplace. Your first instinct might be to ‘fix the problem’, but you’re not best placed to fix someone else’s anxiety, and you can’t get personally involved. You risk blurring those boundaries, giving the wrong advice and ultimately doing more harm than good. What you can do is listen to your coworker, point them towards professional help and make changes to their workday – all with your manager’s hat firmly in place.

❓Ask them what support they need

Don’t assume that taking pressure off by reassigning work or pushing back deadlines is the right thing to do. In some cases, this can create a new source of anxiety. If your report has identified presentations as a trigger for their anxiety, for example, removing this responsibility altogether may set them back further. Find a practical way to support them that makes giving a presentation easier – whether that’s acting as a practice audience or sharing a technique for making notes in bullet points. Whatever it is, you can support them with practical tools. Any underlying issues with confidence that are contributing to an overwhelming sense of anxiety when giving presentations can (and should) be dealt with by a mental health professional. And that leads us on to…

🚩 Point people to the right resources 

Signpost your colleague to an appropriate mental health resource, like an Employee Assistance Programme or (even better) a Spill therapist. Therapy is highly effective at treating anxiety and anxiety disorders. A qualified therapist can teach people to recognise the warning signs, increase mental resilience through coping strategies and change their relationship with negative or anxious thoughts. 

Making practical adjustments to support someone with workplace anxiety

Once you have an idea about what triggers your colleague’s anxiety at work and what support they might like, there are a few low-cost measures you can implement straight away. It’s worth noting, too, that making reasonable adjustments to accommodate employees who are experiencing mental health issues is a legal requirement (not just a moral one). 

⏰ Offer more flexibility

A tweak to your report’s working hours might be valuable for a few reasons, whether that’s helping them to reconnect with family by doing the school run, taking time off to attend therapy sessions, or avoiding rush hour if they’re commuting into the office. Bear in mind that the structure and routine of work can be helpful for some people managing anxiety. 

💻 Communicate any changes to workload

If you both decide that there’s work which should be reassigned, then make sure to mention to all parties involved that the changes are temporary. You don’t need to give a reason for the re-shuffle to the wider team – respecting your colleague’s sense of privacy is important. It might also be helpful to break down big projects into smaller steps with more regular deadlines to stop deliverables feeling overwhelming. 

🗓 Avoid mystery meetings

A message saying “Can we talk on Monday?” is a quick way to send someone with anxiety spiralling. Adjusting to “Can we catch up about applicants for the junior role on Monday?” avoids ambiguity and unnecessary stress. 

🗣 Arrange personal check-ins

Flag your continued interest by making space in the diary for a personal check-in. This helps your colleague to know that they’re being noticed and cared about, and it also keeps you in the loop. Remember to respect the emotional boundaries you set upfront, by framing questions to avoid oversharing: “How are you doing? I don’t need to know everything, but I’d like to hear where you’re at.” Respect their boundaries, too, if they say they’re fine. 

🧠 Respect alone time

Social anxiety is a specific fear of social situations. Make sure there are easy ways to opt out of social meetings, events and gatherings at work. If your colleague travels a lot as part of their job, remember to include downtime on their schedule.

We hope these ideas help you feel better prepared to manage an anxious employee. It's worth remembering that the symptoms of anxiety are broad and have some overlap with the symptoms of burnout – a kind of emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged or mismanaged stress at work. Find out more about spotting the symptoms of burnout.

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