Anxiety at work can derail employees’ productivity and engagement, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
This article discusses mental health challenges. If you need help you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you’d like more information or helpful resources, you can visit the Black Dog Institute.
Many people reading this will be familiar with the feelings of becoming gripped with anxiety: your chest might feel tight; your breathing might become shallow; and your heart palpitations become more rapid.
“We all experience anxiety. It’s part of the wiring of our brain. It’s our physiological reaction to perceived threats in our environment which is an important survival mechanism,” says Dr Jodie Lowinger, clinical psychologist and Founding CEO of the Sydney Anxiety Clinic.
When these anxious feelings result in prolonged fear, suffering or avoidance, that’s when the scales can tip towards clinical anxiety, she says.
“That’s when a specific thing that we’re worried about gets in the way of us living our life and results in various physiological experiences, such as fight or flight behaviours,” says Lowinger, who is also the author of Mind Strength Method.
Perhaps the reason that some employers don’t know how to adequately support people experiencing anxiety at work is because they don’t understand the difference between highly anxious people and clinical anxiety.
The former is still important to address, but as it’s often induced by contextual elements (e.g. a stressful boss or a looming presentation etc.), it gives the impression that all anxiety is experienced sporadically and fleetingly, but that’s not the case.
Many people live with an anxiety disorder for a good portion of their lives (it affects around 14 per cent of Australians). Understanding how you can help them lean into anxiety at work and use it to their advantage can be a powerful way to help them gain a sense of control.
(The advice shared in this article is general in nature. People who are experiencing high levels of anxiety should speak with a medical professional to ascertain the best course of action for their specific circumstance).
Anxiety is the shadow of intelligence
Our hard-wired response to the threat of a dangerous predator now manifests in different ways, such as fear of social exclusion, damaging our self-esteem or social standing, or not meeting expectations.
Contrary to what some people might think, we need anxiety for situations like these, says Lowinger. In fact, experts have referred to anxiety as “the shadow of intelligence”, as moderate levels of anxiety serve a critical function: to help us plan for the future.
This good type of anxiety or stress is what experts call ‘eustress’ – i.e. the adrenaline that’s generated when we feel positive about a specific stressor, such as a challenging task that pushes you out of your comfort zone.
Research from France also suggests that we’ve misinterpreted how anxious individuals (non-clinical) process and respond to anxiety.
The researchers found that anxious individuals detect threats in different parts of their brain compared to people who are more laid-back. The latter do so via their sensory circuits (the part of the brain responsible for facial recognition), whereas highly anxious people, in this experiment, processed threats in the part of the brain responsible for action.
Lead research author Marwa El Zein, Research Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College London, told ScienceDaily, “In contrast to previous work, our findings demonstrate that the brain devotes more processing resources to negative emotions that signal threat, rather than to any display of negative emotion.”
El Zein and her research colleagues found that non-clinical anxiety shifts the neural coding of threat to motor circuits, which produce action. This means anxious people (non-clinical) are often better positioned to act quickly.
Anxiety can also be indicative of a certain personality type that’s valuable to any organisation. Anxious people are usually hyper empathetic, says Lowinger, because anxiety occurs when their protective instincts go into overdrive.
“People who experience anxiety at the most severe levels of intensity are often people with a deeply analytical mind and a caring heart,” she says.
Other experts have suggested that anxiety, when managed properly, can result in stronger resourcefulness, productivity, creativity and attention to detail. Anxious people are often also better at preparing for a potential worse-case scenario.
“People who experience anxiety at the most severe levels of intensity are often people with a deeply analytical mind and a caring heart.” – Dr Jodie Lowinger, clinical psychologist and Founding CEO of the Sydney Anxiety Clinic
So certain amounts of anxiety at work are a good thing, which is why employers need to add more nuance to conversations about anxiety at work.
Of course, they also need to be careful that highly anxious individuals don’t lean too far into their natural fight or flight responses, which Lowinger says can result in unhelpful behaviours such as aggression, perfectionism, finger pointing, frustration or gossiping – all of which are fight responses – or procrastination and avoidance, which sit in the flight category.
So it’s important employers know how to help anxious people, clinical or otherwise, to channel their anxiety in a thoughtful and helpful way, and that they refer them to medical experts for further assistance.
Helping employees manage anxiety at work
Our physiological responses to anxiety aren’t necessarily undermining our performance, says Lowinger. It’s our mindsets that get in the way – meaning we can coach ourselves to benefit from anxiety at work.
“We want that adrenaline rush… as that can drive peak performance, rather than undermining our capacity for productivity and performance,” she says.
Lowinger uses the term ‘helpful’ instead of ‘treatable’ when discussing her advice because she wants to push back against the notion that anxious people need to be fixed.
“I want us to stand up to the stigma and shame around emotional experiences. I want people to feel empowered and proud of who they are. If they’re experiencing anxiety, it simply means that they care and they want to protect and make sure everything goes well.”
Lowinger’s four-step methodology to assist people to manage anxiety at work might be a helpful place to start to help anxious employees take back control. The goal isn’t total elimination, as that’s near impossible, but rather learning how to live with the ebb and flow of anxiety.
It goes as follows:
- Develop an awareness of your fight or flight thoughts, feelings and actions. “Awareness is our superpower. When we can build awareness and acceptance of those experiences, and validate our emotions, that’s incredibly important.“When we try to push our feelings down… that keeps us in the boxing ring with our emotions, and that reinforces our fight or flight response and intensifies the anxiety.”
- Be clear on your personal values. “Fight or flight is the push away from something bad happening, and values are the pull towards a desired direction in life.” In a work context, the ability to identify these values not only improves wellbeing, it also increases performance levels, she says.
- Develop a toolkit to build resilience. “These are [tools you can utilise] to move out of step one and into step two.”
One of the common tools Lowinger suggests is developing a ‘worry story’ that helps people to distance themselves from their worry and move into problem solving mode, rather than getting stuck in anxiety. A simple trick to do this effectively is to visualise the worries as something like the leaf on a tree or a train pulling into the station. Acknowledge it’s there, then visualise the leaf getting blown away in the wind, or the train pulling away from the station. This helps you to create space to enter into a problem solving mindset.Lowinger also suggests keeping a worry list. You might spend 15 minutes each day reviewing the list from the prior day, eliminating the points that are no longer relevant and then categorising the remaining items into things that are within and outside of your control.”Then you can build out an action plan around the things that are within your control.”
- Create long-term sustainability. Embrace a long-term wellbeing resource kit, which will look different for everyone, that you can refer back to during times of high anxiety.
Learn how to address and normalise mental health challenges in your workplace with this short course from AHRI. Book into the upcoming session on 20 September 2021.
How else can employers help? First of all, if an employee says they’re experiencing anxiety, fight the urge to leap into ‘fix it’ mode. Many managers might try to lighten an employee’s workload in an effort to help, but as work is often an anchoring experience for people, this could contribute to their anxious feelings.
“Allowing a person to escape into their work can be helpful,” says Lowinger. “If they’re doing something that gives them satisfaction, fulfilment and a sense of wellbeing – let’s say a person loves their work and it gives them a challenge and sense of achievement – then that would be helpful to encourage.”
“I want us to stand up to the stigma and shame around emotional experiences… If they’re experiencing anxiety, it simply means they care.” – Dr Jodie Lowinger, clinical psychologist and Founding CEO of the Sydney Anxiety Clinic
Secondly, leaders and HR professionals have a role in normalising and validating different types of anxiety disorders, she says, especially when dealing with complex disorders such as anxiety disorder, OCD, panic disorders or social phobias, as these tend to be less understood and discussed in the workplace.
“Leaders and HR need to be championing values-driven actions and messages such as ‘It’s okay to not be okay’, as well as normalising courageous conversations. That’s critical.”
When engaging in conversations that require a level of vulnerability, Lowinger suggest leaders follow these four steps:
- Think about your specific goals for the conversation and ensure they’re clear before you go into it. You’re there to listen to the other person and then co-create a solution alongside them.
- Validate their emotions. This acknowledgement connects to her four-step process above by helping people to acknowledge the fight or flight inclinations and steering them towards the values they want at the forefront – i.e. ‘I want to be more confident in client presentations’ or ‘I want to be able to join my colleagues in social events without panicking about it for hours beforehand.’
- Guide the individual towards action. Often this comes down to asking open-ended questions that empower the person to tell you what they need, such as, ‘What is it that would make this experience easier for you right now?’ or ‘How can I change my behaviour to be of greater help to you?’
- Share personal experience without making it about you. Sometimes people might not know what they need for support, so this is an opportunity for you to say something like, “When I’ve felt this way before, I did XYZ and that really helped me.” This helps to normalise the experience and further validate. Just be careful not to dominate the conversation with your own experience.
Lowinger’s final message for HR, especially today for R U Okay? Day, is to remember to also look after yourself.
“HR professionals have got it tough because they’re absorbing and containing so much stress at the moment.”
So take time to practice your own self-care rituals and seek out support for yourself when you need it.
What are some of your go-to self care tips when you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed? Share them in the comment section below.