Supporting an anxious employee's future at the company
Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees dealing with anxiety.
One of my team has been signed off work with anxiety - she said she has always struggled, but she finds our workplace stressful. We're probably not the best environment for her to thrive, but how can I best support her until she reaches that conclusion herself?
Start with an open conversation
Be careful not to jump to conclusions. If you go into a situation that requires you to support a team member struggling with her mental health you will compromise your ability to do so if you’ve already decided what the best outcome is.
There are many reasons why someone might find their workplace stressful and not all of them are related to the work itself. For example, when we feel as if we need more guidance, aren’t sure about whether or not we are performing to expectations, or feel unsure about what those expectations are, we are likely to feel stress and anxiety.
It's expensive to recruit and train employees, so you'll be scoring a big win both for your organisation and you personally as a leader if you can find a way to resolve this situation and help your team member to feel more comfortable and perform better. Why not start by having an open conversation with her in which you seek to find out specifically what it is that sits at the root of her anxiety?
Make it clear to her that you want to help and that you are happy to hear whatever it might be that is getting in the way of her being successful. It’s important that she feels there is no jeopardy in telling you the truth and that she is given the space to talk honestly. It might be that she really isn’t suited to the work that she is doing in your company but it could also be that with a little bit of the right guidance and support she is able to turn the situation around and begin to thrive.
If she does, you'll have done a great job for her, yourself, and the organisation. If not, you will know that you have done everything that could have been expected of you as a good leader.
Ask how to be supportive
Thank you for your question. Although I’m sorry to hear about your team member being signed off with anxiety, it’s great that she has a manager that wants to support her. That said, this is a question that is probably best addressed with her rather than me. Despite the fact that anxiety is a common issue these days, it affects different people in different ways.
Your team member is an individual with unique needs, which means asking her what support she needs from you is likely the best approach with her. Not only does this take the pressure off you trying to guess what she needs, but it also empowers her to think about herself, which in this case might include her coming to the conclusion that the workspace isn’t the best environment for her to thrive. That said, it may be useful for you to reflect on why that is the case; surely all workplaces can be environments that allow their employees to thrive, regardless of any mental or physical health conditions, so are there any changes you could make that could make that happen for this particular team member?
If you haven’t already done so, it may be useful for you to suggest to your team member that she speak to a therapist about her anxiety. Having a safe, confidential space for her to talk about the cause and also to learn some tools to cope with it may mean that she is able to deal more with stressful situations. A few other things you might suggest include identifying her stress triggers as much as possible and helping her to reduce or eliminating these, having a good daily routine in place which allows clear structure to her day, having regular breaks through the day and clear boundaries between the start and end of the work day, and finally having realistic expectations about what she is able to achieve when she returns to work and helping her have realistic expectations of herself so she can accept them.
The final important thing to remember is to be patient with her. Yes, she has a job to do, but living with anxiety isn’t easy and adapting to a workplace that fuels it is likely to be extremely challenging. Be patient with your team member, have regular check-ins, and don’t judge her. Asking this question suggests you care about her so don’t be afraid to let her know you want to support her in whatever way you can.
Offer time and attention
It's so lovely you’re concerned for your colleague. Just her knowing you want to support her will be a huge help. Just be mindful about wanting to ‘rescue’ them or ‘fix’ her situation. Supporting someone is about standing by their side as they walk their difficult walk. It’s about letting the other person be in control of their world whilst making it clear through messages or gestures that you are part of their scaffolding.
The easiest way to do this is to ask someone ‘What do you need?’. They may not know or they may say ‘nothing’, and we need to respect this. We can still offer gestures along the way such as check-ins, homemade food, cups of tea, etc. Anything that eases their world. We can also invite them to do things with us so they stay connected — ‘fancy a walk?’ or ‘I’m doing X later, would you like to join me?’. Ultimately though, everything is their decision and choice. We stand back and honour their needs.
When we try to rescue someone it’s more about OUR needs. WE want this person to be OK and WE want to make it all better for them. This can be unhelpful to both parties as the rescuer is always trying to find new ‘solutions’. They can be left feeling utterly helpless as it is not, as we know, up to the rescuer to make the person well — it is up to the person.
When someone we care about is in a difficult situation, the greatest gift we can offer is our time and attention. We listen to them and hear them; we reflect how we hear they feel, like saying ‘that sounds tough’, rather than come up with answers. I know it can feel frustrating and helpless at times to see someone struggling but do not underestimate the amazing gift you are giving your colleague by showing them you are there.
If you believe the work environment isn’t suitable for them, this feels an important observation. You’re right that you don’t want to just ‘tell’ them this but it may be OK to reflect on it with them when you’re in conversation about her needs. For example, 'I’ve noticed that you seem more stressed by X or Y', or 'I’m wondering how the work environment affects you?' And then offer some adjustments — is there anything the office can do to help X or Y, such as work from home more, work in a breakout room, prepare or distribute meeting notes, etc.? Offer them power over their decisions but sometimes we may need more help with what the options are.