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- Workplace anxiety is a feeling of stress or discomfort experienced in relation to someone's work environment, characterised by feelings of worry or unease.
- There are different types of anxiety disorder, including generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Common causes of anxiety in the workplace are job demands, difficult work relationships, lack of control, unclear expectations, job insecurity, and poor work-life balance.
- Anxiety symptoms can be hard to spot but include low self-esteem, avoiding social situations or meetings, lack of concentration, difficulty making decisions, time off, overly scripting presentations or conversations, and turning off the camera in a video call.
- As well as understanding the symptoms of anxiety, managers should ask their anxious employee what support they need, point them towards anxiety resources, and make practical adjustments to the workplace and their role.
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.
What is 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.
Workplace anxiety is a form of stress or discomfort experienced in relation to someone's work environment, characterised by feelings of worry or unease
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)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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.
What causes workplace anxiety?
Feelings of anxiety can be triggered for lots of different reasons either directly related to the role requirements, working relationships, or internal pressure. Here are some of the most common causes of anxiety in the workplace:
1. Job demands
When an employee feels overwhelmed by their workload, they're given unachievable deadlines, or when they feel like they are expected to perform tasks that are beyond their abilities, it can lead to feelings of anxiety.
2. Difficult work relationships
A negative work environment and conflict or tension between colleagues can create a stressful atmosphere.
3. Lack of control
Employees often feel anxious when they feel like they have no control over their work or their work environment.
4. Unclear expectations
When an employee is unsure of what's expected of them within their role it can feel like the goalposts keep shifting, which is often unsettling.
5. Job insecurity
A looming restructure or period of redundancies, or concerns about performance, can lead to growing concerns about the stability of an employees job and their financial situation.
6. Poor work-life balance
If the balance between work and personal life is out of kilter, stress and pressure can build up quickly.
7. Traumatic events
Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or accident at work can trigger feelings of anxiety.
Download our full anxiety support guide for managers
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.
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
- Physical symptoms like sweating, trembling and nausea
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.
Therapy with Spill reduces symptoms of employee anxiety by 74% in six weeks.
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.
1. 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.
2. 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…
3. Point people towards anxiety 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.
Treatment for workplace anxiety
Treatment for anxiety usually involves a combination of medication, lifestyle changes and therapy depending on the severity of the anxiety. Here are some options that may be helpful for your team:
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for anxiety
CBT can be particularly helpful for employees struggling with anxiety, where a therapist will explore the ways in which anxiety is affecting an employee's health and performance day to day and suggest coping strategies to manage triggers when they come up.
Spill therapy has been shown to reduce symptoms of employee anxiety by 74% in six weeks
Talking to a qualified therapist who specialises in anxiety is the best way to break the cycle of negative thoughts and rebuild confidence and belief in yourself.
Coping or grounding techniques for anxiety
You can’t stop the worry arriving, but what you do with these thoughts can be managed. Worry is just a feeling and not always a truth; we need to learn to see it but not always act on it. When this emotional thought pops in (which they do), build in a pause. This pause is crucial, and allows you space to choose what you do next. Here are some grounding techniques recommended by Spill therapists to help you pause:
- Take five deep breaths. Notice how you feel. Take 5 more if you need. Repeat as required. Breath is the one area of our nervous system that we have power over. We can choose to calm the system by slowing it down. Don’t underestimate the power of breath
- Recite the alphabet/your name backwards
- Notice five things around you starting with the letter ‘T’
- Notice what you can smell, hear, see, touch
- Feel your feet grounded into the floor or your hands on a desk. Connect with your environment. Take a breath
- Massage your hand with your thumb from your other hand. Focus on the sensation
- Press your palms together hard
Download our full anxiety support guide for managers
Spill works with fully qualified BACP- or NCS-registered counsellors with 80+ areas of expertise, including specialists in supporting anxiety.