Workplace Wellbeing

Anxiety at Work: What It Is and How to Manage It

Soaring rates of workplace anxiety have become their own form of pandemic over the past few years. Here's what People leaders can do to help employees manage it.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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An anxious man with glasses on looking out a window while on his laptop

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    The importance of addressing workplace anxiety

    Soaring rates of workplace anxiety have become their own form of pandemic over the past few years, contributing to even worse conditions for employees. This has led, in part, to mass resignations and workers leaving the labor force altogether. According to recent research, “More than 40% of all employees were thinking about leaving their jobs at the beginning of 2021, and as the year went on, workers quit in unprecedented numbers.” Resignations are showing no signs of slowing down, as nearly 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in February. Burnout, stress, and workplace anxiety are three of the primary, interrelated causes of the Great Resignation. When employees are struggling with workplace-induced anxiety, they are going to look for new work environments that are better for their mental health—which has become one of the most important criteria for job seekers.

    Addressing workplace anxiety is key to stemming the tide of resignations. Let’s take a look at exactly what this is, what causes it, and how HR leaders can help employees manage it. 

    What is workplace anxiety?

    When an employee experiences daily, ongoing work stress, it increases the presence of anxiety-causing hormones. Those hormones can lead to decreasing quality of life as the sufferer deals with insomnia, exhaustion, dreading work, and generally feeling unsettled in daily life. These feelings tend to stick around for as long as the person remains in an anxiety inducing environment.

    What are some of the symptoms of workplace anxiety?

    • Feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and exhausted, both at work and during non-work hours
    • Dreading going to work
    • Insomnia, poor productivity, and inability to focus
    • Feeling of having a pit in the stomach or sinking feeling when thinking about work or while going to work
    • Worrying about work during off hours, unable to “turn off” from work mode
    • Feeling isolated, burned out, and having a bleak outlook on life

    These symptoms are likely to be present for as long as the employee stays in the environment that’s causing them. Workplace anxiety is not an individual failure or caused by personal weakness. It’s a product of systemic working conditions, and can affect anyone spending time within them.  

    What causes anxiety at work?

    During the pandemic, many workers have begun to question why they’re remaining in toxic workplaces that drive anxiety and poor mental health.

    There are two distinct ways that systemic practices lead to workplace anxiety. The first set of traits are symptoms of a toxic corporate culture:

    • Lack of inclusion and diversity
    • Employees feeling disrespected
    • Unethical behavior
    • Workplaces that are cutthroat and not collaborative
    • Normalized toxic interpersonal dynamics and bullying, especially when coming from supervisors and people in power

    Why is this important for HR leaders to address and change? Toxic corporate culture is such a disincentive for remaining with a company, that it’s "10.4 times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate compared with its industry.”

    When anxiety is part of company culture 

    The second, related set of anxiety-inducing traits within a workplace culture include:

    • Promoting an environment where stress and busyness are normalized and valorized, part of a mistaken belief that these are signs of productivity. For example, “It’s normal for everyone to check email 24/7 and always be available.”
    • Lack of empathy regarding employee mental health
    • Employees constantly feel like there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done
    • Employees feeling as if they are always “on” due to supervisors and/or coworkers not respecting work/life boundaries
    • Lack of autonomy
    • Failure to recognize performance and hard work

    While these conditions can lead to anxiety in any employee, workers who experience marginalization in the wider world face even more of a burden when dealing with workplace anxiety. 

    The impact of workplace anxiety on marginalized social groups

    Workplace anxiety doesn’t affect every employee in the same way. Employees bring their full selves and identities to work with them, and the ways in which people experience the wider world are deeply tied to workplace anxiety. According to this study, “Marginalized communities include, but are not limited to, groups excluded due to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, language, and/or immigration status. Marginalization occurs due to unequal power relationships between social groups.”

    The key phrase in that definition is, “unequal power relations between social groups.” Unequal power relations present in wider society are often recreated within the workplace. Marginalized people necessarily experience more anxiety from harmful power relations, compounding the effects of regular workplace anxiety.

    It is imperative that HR leaders take into account the multiplicity of people’s experiences when thinking about how to create workplaces where anxiety isn’t part of the culture.

    How can HR leaders restructure workplaces to help employees deal with anxiety?

    Workplace anxiety is such a common issue among employees because, as a society, we’ve moved toward a model of work that is unsustainable. This is clear by the millions of people quitting their jobs and searching for new ways of doing work. In other words, it’s a systemic problem, not an individual employee problem and can’t be fixed with individual solutions. There are numerous ways that HR leaders can begin to integrate a philosophy of centering mental health and wellbeing for employees so they’re able to better mitigate workplace anxiety.

    Rethink work schedules

    Allow employees more autonomy and flexibility, so people with care work and other responsibilities can better handle multiple burdens. Burnout is less of a factor when people have the ability to adapt their work schedule to the complexities of their lives. Hybrid work is one way to institute flexibility.

    Offer DEIB training

    In order to account for the complexity and differences within people’s experiences, HR leaders must be at the forefront of ongoing DEIB training and continually learning about intersectionality. Although the impact of workplace anxiety is relevant for all employees, there are also specific burdens unique to the individual circumstances of their lives.

    Address toxic power relations

    Another issue that’s become apparent during the Great Resignation is how ill-equipped most supervisors are to lead with empathy and diplomacy. Often, supervisors are the primary cause of workplace anxiety as they focus solely on short term productivity, without taking into account the humanity of the people they have power over, and how toxic those power relations can be. There are options for rectifying this widespread issue. For example, leadership training and instituting policies that make it clear to supervisors that they must lead with respect for their employees' humanity.

    Encourage work/life boundaries

    Employees must have space to be off work, without expectation to be available 24/7. This ties into the previous point about supervisors not recognizing employees boundaries and needs. It may seem counterintuitive, but allowing employees space away from work is actually better for productivity and reducing anxiety. Everyone in the office must abide by this.

    Make space for “deep work”

    Employees are constantly bombarded with email, Slack, Zoom calls, and various forms of digital distraction. It’s not possible to dig in and think deeply about an important project or formulate long-term strategies while flitting back and forth between email, messages, and meetings. This creates a feeling of constant sensory overload and can contribute to anxiety. Creating specific days or times for deep work also allows employees to be more productive while doing work that actually matters. According to a recent survey, employees spend over half their day on busy work.

    HR leaders are the vanguard

    HR leaders are uniquely positioned to take on workplace restructuring in a way that creates environments where systemic anxiety is not the norm. Rethinking how work spaces can reduce anxiety is more important than ever, in a time when millions of people have left their jobs to flee miserable working conditions. Employees are realizing that no job is worth feeling constant anxiety, and striving to find peace while also making a living. HR leaders can help advocate for and institute policies that put employee wellbeing at the forefront, and make workers feel heard, respected, and cared about. Unsurprisingly, employees who feel like their humanity and wellbeing are taken seriously are less likely to experience workplace anxiety, and more willing to stick with their employer, even during difficult times. 

    Read this blog next to learn ways to reduce stress and support employees as they transition from their own living spaces back to a more structured office environment.

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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