Anxiety in the Workplace
Most people can probably identify with having felt anxious every now and then, as it is the body’s natural response when confronted with fear, danger or threat. However, it is important to distinguish between healthy, productive levels of anxiety and stress in everyday life regarding work, relationships, and health, and the more severe and excessive accounts of stress and anxiety that can impinge on an individuals’ satisfaction, motivation, mental focus and ability to carry out their everyday duties.
Some common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Increased irritability or aggressiveness
- Avoiding social situations, or becoming withdrawn
- Decreased ability to focus and lack of concentration
- Decreased tolerance to stress or handling challenging situations
- Feeling overwhelmed by the pressures in everyday life
Workplace anxiety is a learnt response to stress and can be triggered by a range of factors, with some cases being more severe and debilitating to the individual than others. It differs from general anxiety disorder as the symptoms are specifically related to the work environment. However, workplace anxiety may develop as generalized fears, workplace bullying, phobias, or hypochondrial anxieties regarding working conditions, interacting with colleagues and superiors, and fears of inadequacy or judgement. Some common anxieties include fear of public speaking/ speaking up in meetings, working in groups, fear of not meeting deadlines, worrying that work may not meet expectations of others or that others are constantly judging them.
If an individual fails to challenge and address their anxiety, they may only worsen and can cause serious implications to both their emotional wellbeing and workplace performance. If an individual’s employer(s) or co-workers are unaware of their anxieties, their behaviour may only be assumed to reflect arrogance, avoidance, or a lack of interest in the job. In some circumstances this could result in missing valuable opportunities and promotions, reduction in work hours, salary reduction, and even job losses.
Some typical examples of anxiety in the workplace include:
- Fear of interacting with authority figures
- Fear of speaking out
- Fear of public humiliation
- Fear of noticeable embarrassment or nervousness
- Avoidance of committing to new and challenging tasks
- Fear of not performing to the highest standards
- Fear of negative evaluation of performance or professional standards
What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying is defined as repeated unreasonable behaviour, inflicted upon individuals in the work environment, creating a risk to their physical safety and/or mental health and wellbeing. These unreasonable acts may be intentional or unintentional, taking form in direct actions such as name calling, teasing or scolding, or through indirect actions such as withholding important information, treating them as inferior, or socially excluding them. This can make the individual feel humiliated, subordinate, ashamed, victimised or threatened.
Some examples of bullying in the workplace include:
- abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
- unjustified criticism, complaints or blame
- deliberate exclusion or being shunned from workplace meetings, or social activities
- withholding important information to deliberately affect a worker’s performance
- setting inappropriate timelines or constantly changing them
- setting tasks that are unreasonably below or over exceeding an individual’s skill level
- denying access to information, appropriate training, supervision, consultation, or appropriate resources
- spreading misinformation or malicious rumours directly or indirectly through implied notions
- changing work arrangements such as rosters and holiday leave to a particular worker(s) without appropriate notification
Ways to reduce and prevent anxiety in the workplace
While it may sound counterintuitive, the best way to overcome workplace anxiety is to face the fears that are causing the distress head on! This will be different for each individual, depending on what the main causes of their anxieties may be. Some effective methods for decreasing common workplace anxieties are listed below
- Be assertive
Make a deliberate attempt to assert your viewpoint on a matter, or objectify your rights or role when you feel they are being questioned
- Push yourself outside your comfort zone, even if that means doing something as little as asking a question in the next work meeting, or deliberately assigning yourself to present the next company announcement. However big or small, the point is to make the commitment to yourself and do it! The more you do it, the easier it will become and the more confidence you will gain.
- Practise self-compassion
Be kind to yourself
Only let yourself criticize your behaviours to the extent you would to someone you cared about. When you are experiencing negative mind chatter and unhelpful self-criticisms, try to imagine if you would think or say the same things about your friends or family to their face. Chances are you wouldn’t, so why treat yourself with any less respect?
- Think optimistically
The more you let a negative thought unravel, the more havoc it can wreck. Make a conscious effort to recognise when a negative thought springs into your mind. Instead of dwelling on the undesirable implications of that thought, try to flip it around and find at least one positive that can come from it.
Try to practise positive affirmations and being grateful for being alive. Remember, there will always be positive and negative outcomes in every situation. You can either chose to dwell on your misfortunes or make the most out of what you have. Instead of looking at your glass being half empty, see it as half full.
Although these suggestions are helpful to reduce common work related anxieties, it is important to recognise when to draw the line and access help when they become unmanageable.
How can a psychologist help?
Often, individuals may feel uncomfortable talking to their fellow workers or employers about how they feel, for fear of discrimination or being treated differently, or fears of losing their job. Alternatively, if individuals’ are the victims of bullying in the workplace, they may feel they are unable to assert themselves and express their rights. In addition to the procedures outlined by their workplace regarding reporting of workplace bullying, the individual may benefit from seeking help from a healthcare professional in the field of anxiety. From there, the psychologist will work with the individual, helping them to develop techniques for reducing and managing their work related anxieties, and advising and supporting them to overcome their fears.
Hansen, A., Hogh, A., Persson, R., Karlson, B., Garde, A., Ørbæk, P. (2006). Bullying at work, health outcomes, and physiological stress response. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 60 (1).DOI:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2005.06.078