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Managing Workplace Anxiety: Practical Strategies for Leaders and Employees



Anxiety has become increasingly prevalent in workplaces. According to a 2017 Kaiser poll, 60% of employees report feeling stressed and anxious on the job. Left unaddressed, anxiety can negatively impact both individual and organizational performance. While it may seem like a personal issue, anxiety in the workplace should be viewed as an employee wellness concern requiring leadership support.


Today we will explore practical strategies organizational leaders and employees can employ to manage workplace anxiety proactively. Through cultivating the appropriate culture and providing resources, leaders can help employees perform at their best while maintaining work-life balance and mental wellness.


Understanding Workplace Anxiety


Before addressing solutions, it is important to briefly examine what anxiety is, how it manifests in the workplace, and why it should concern leaders. Anxiety is a normal human emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Most people experience occasional stress or anxiety in adaptive ways, but for others it can become frequent or excessive as a result of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.


While individual experiences vary, common workplace anxiety triggers include:


  • Unrealistic workloads and deadlines

  • Role ambiguity or conflicting job expectations

  • Performance pressure and fear of failure

  • Interpersonal conflicts

  • Lack of control over workflow

  • Job insecurity or concerns about the future of the organization


Physiologically, anxiety causes the body's "fight or flight" response to activate, even when facing non-life threatening stressors like work demands. Over time, chronic anxiety leads to physical health issues like fatigue, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues. Behaviorally, it can manifest as poor concentration, procrastination or avoidance, emotional outbursts, excessive worrying, detachment from coworkers, and reduced productivity.


For leaders, unaddressed anxiety poses several risks. It negatively impacts employee engagement, innovation, creativity, satisfaction, and retention. It also increases absenteeism due to health issues and "presenteeism," where employees are physically at work but too anxious to fully focus. Overall, anxiety significantly undermines both individual and team performance.


Strategies for Leaders


The following four strategies can help leaders proactively address anxiety in healthy, productive ways:


  1. Cultivate a Supportive Culture: Leaders set the tone. Developing a organizational culture where anxiety and personal wellness are treated with compassion and support, instead of weakness or liability, allows employees to thrive. Leaders should communicate clearly that mental wellness is as important as physical wellness. Policies like flexible work schedules and paid time off to attend medical appointments also signal support.

  2. Provide Resources and Normalize Help-Seeking: Make confidential counseling, employee assistance programs, wellness workshops, and other mental health resources easily accessible. Promote their availability frequently to normalize help-seeking and ensure all employees feel empowered to access them. Leaders who are open about their own self-care help others seek assistance without fear of stigma or career jeopardy.

  3. Build Resilience through Training: Offer training in anxiety management, coping skills, stress reduction, and self-care. Help employees understand their own "warning signs" of increasing anxiety and healthy strategies to address it proactively. Training in mindfulness, resilience, and managing emotions can help employees confidently handle pressure without letting anxiety spiral.

  4. Address Organizational Stressors: Assess workflow, deadlines, communication, job roles, performance metrics, and other systemic factors that may unintentionally fuel anxiety. Implement changes to ensure workload is reasonable and employees have appropriate autonomy and support to do their work effectively without undue stress or pressure. Leaders shoulder responsibility for proactively identifying and addressing anxiety-inducing organizational dynamics.


Strategies for Employees


While leaders play an important role, employees must also take responsibility for their own mental wellness. The following individual strategies can help manage anxiety at work:


  • Set Boundaries and Prioritize Self-Care: Avoid bringing work issues home and minimize time spent engaging with work outside of normal hours. Make time for relaxing activities to recharge like exercise, hobbies, socializing. Employees who protect non-work time tend to experience lower stress and greater focus at work.

  • Connect with Support Systems: Rely on colleagues, friends, or counseling as needed to diffuse anxious thoughts. Strong social support networks boost resilience against workplace stressors. Employees should not struggle in isolation and should feel comfortable approaching coworkers or leaders for help as well.

  • Practice Stress Reduction Techniques: Employ calming techniques as needed like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or visualizing peaceful scenes. Activities like brief mindfulness exercises or stepping away for a walk can reduce anxiety levels in the moment. Maintaining regular stress-management practices helps build coping skills over time.

  • Communicate Needs Appropriately: Advocating for necessary support and adjustments prevents small issues from escalating into larger problems. Whether via performance reviews, one-on-ones with leaders, or workplace accommodation requests, respectful communication is key. However, over-explaining challenges can fuel rumination, so being concise is ideal.

  • Seek Counseling If Needed: While less intensive strategies are appropriate for manageable anxiety, employees experiencing debilitating symptoms that impact work should confidentially seek counseling. Short-term counseling or medication often effectively treat anxiety so work performance is restored. Productivity often improves faster when individuals accept help for issues beyond self-management.


Putting Strategies into Practice


To demonstrate how leaders and employees can collaborate to reduce anxiety, consider practical applications in specific industries:


  • Healthcare Sector: In health professions prone to burnout like nursing, build resilience training into orientation. Provide on-site counseling and relaxation rooms. Monitor workload and staffing levels to prevent intense pressure. Encourage employees to request schedule changes or temporary leaves if needed without stigma.

  • Technology Sector: Reframe unrealistic workaholic or “hustle culture” expectations that fuel anxiety over keeping up. Standardize procedures to provide transparency into projects and deadlines. Normalize flexible scheduling and encourage employees to unplug during non-work hours using out-of-office messaging.

  • Public Sector: In roles with high public contact and accountability like education, establish procedures for incident debriefing and emotional support. Train leaders to identify colleagues displaying anxiety warning signs. Promote employee resource groups where peers can share challenges and solutions confidentially.

  • Manufacturing Sector: Address environmental triggers in safety-sensitive roles prone to anxiety over mistakes, like fast-paced assembly lines. Implement error prevention processes, train new hires extensively, provide regular breaks in quiet spaces away from machinery noise and chaos. Leaders should communicate support for production adjustments as needed.


Conclusion


Managing anxiety requires comprehensive strategies from leaders and personal responsibility from individual employees. When leaders cultivate a supportive culture that addresses organizational stressors and provides mental health resources and training, employees are empowered to manage anxiety effectively using communication, boundaries, self-care, and help-seeking as needed. A collaborative, compassionate approach to workplace mental wellness allows both individuals and organizations to overcome anxiety and perform at their best. While challenging to address systematically, the significant performance costs of unmanaged anxiety make proactive efforts worthwhile.


Reference


 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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