What is anxiety? 

Experiencing anxiety from time to time is a normal part of life.  Anxiety is a temporary feeling of fear, dread or apprehension. It can cause physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, a tight chest or sweating. Feeling anxious can have positive outcomes, providing a boost of energy or focus. The root cause of anxiety is unknown. Factors such as genetics, brain chemistry or stress may play a role in causing anxiety. Current life problems can also trigger anxiety.

For example: 

  • exhaustion or a build-up of stress 
  • notable change or uncertainty 
  • long working hours or feeling under pressure at work 
  • being unemployed  
  • financial problems 
  • unstable living arrangements or homelessness 
  • bereavement 
  • feeling lonely or isolated 
  • being abused, bullied or harassed  

What are anxiety disorders? 

Anxiety disorders are conditions in which a person has anxiety that does not let up. The causes of anxiety disorders are not currently known for sure, but involve a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental factors. Anxiety disorders can run in families, suggesting that a combination of genes and environmental stresses can underlie such disorders. These can worsen over time and become overwhelming. The crippling symptoms of having an anxiety disorder can interfere with daily activities such as schoolwork, job performance and relationships. Things which can precipitate a chronic anxiety problem include: 

  • your current life situation 
  • heredity and genetic predisposition  
  • past or childhood experiences 
  • physical and mental health problems 
  • drugs and medication 

 There are several major types of anxiety disorder.
These include: 

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
    Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterised by excessive worry about everyday things, which are not normally a source of dread for most other people. For example, someone may worry that while driving to work, they will knock over a pedestrian. While this event is certainly possible, it is unlikely. People who suffer from GAD may also experience physical symptoms like heart palpitations or emotional symptoms such as unwanted, worrying thoughts. 
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
    Obsessive Compulsive Disorder results in repeated, unwanted thoughts and rituals that interfere with everyday living. For example, a person with OCD may leave their home, worried that they left it unlocked. Even after checking three or four times, they may not be convinced that they locked up and spend the day in a state of anxiety. Coping rituals for people who suffer from OCD include repeated practices such as feeling compelled to wash their hands several times a day to prevent disease. 
  • Panic Disorder
    While experiencing a panic attack once or twice in your lifetime is not out of the ordinary, repeated attacks per week or over several months are a sign of panic disorder. Panic attacks are sudden waves of terror during which a person may have trouble breathing and may think they are having a heart attack. Panic attacks usually subside after about 30 minutes but can leave the sufferer feeling drained and exhausted.  
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
    The traumatic experience that triggers PTSD may be prompted by a variety of events, such as being the victim of rape or childhood abuse – or serving in the police force or military. Traumatic events can recur in the form of flashbacks or nightmares. People suffering from PTSD may be unable to maintain a normal life that includes working or being in a long-term relationship due to bouts of anger and depression that are common symptoms of PTSD.  
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
    For people with social anxiety disorder, everyday social interactions cause irrational anxiety, self-consciousness, embarrassment and even fear. Not only is it difficult for people with a social phobia to maintain friendships, but it may also be hard to hold down a job or go grocery shopping. A person with Social Anxiety Disorder may be constantly worried about what others think of them to the point that they may avoid social interactions altogether. 


Anxiety in the workplace 

Work anxiety refers to stress caused by work that leads to anxiety, or it can be the impact of an anxiety disorder on a person’s job or work relationships. The experience of work anxiety and what causes it is different for everyone. For some, a massive workload or impending deadlines can cause work anxiety. For others, social situations at work, such as a toxic work culture or a disconnect with colleagues or their manager might cause work anxiety. Issues, such as concerns about job security or significant organisational change can also trigger anxiety.  

 What are the symptoms of work anxiety? 

People who deal with anxiety on an ongoing basis may become desensitised to how it feels. They may not notice their anxiety getting out-of-control until it begins to affect their daily life or work performance. Because people spend so much time at work, anxiety can also quickly make its way into other, more personal, areas of their lives. Here are some of the common symptoms of anxiety in the workplace: 

  • A persistent sense of apprehension, worry, dread or hopelessness 
  • Feeling trapped and unable to find a ‘way out’ 
  • Feeling fearful, paranoid and tense 
  • Mood swings that include anger and impatience 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Physical issues like muscle tension and headaches  
  • Sleep issues and fatigue 

Managing anxiety at work 

Everyone experiences anxiety from time-to-time. When people experience stress, feeling anxious is a natural human response. For people struggling with an anxiety disorder, who may experience anxiety intensely and often, it is important to have the coping strategies in place to help manage situations that feel overwhelming – especially when at work.

Here are 3 ways to manage anxiety at work: 

 1. Take good care of yourself 

Good self-care is important, as it can stop stress and anxiety from becoming unmanageable. If necessary, ask someone you trust to hold you accountable for these self-care activities.  

  • Self-care at your desk:  
    • Take proper breaks throughout the working day so that you have a chance to recharge.  
    • Stay hydrated. It is very easy to lose track of how much water you are consuming during the working day. Keep a water bottle on your desk and refill it as soon as it is empty.  
    • Keep healthy snacks on hand. Keeping a few healthy options like nuts, fruit or a protein bar at your desk can help you stay energised throughout the day.  
    • Practice breathing exercises. Breathing exercises are a known technique to reduce anxiety as mindful deep breathing helps the body to relax and release tension. 
  • Self-care at home:  
    • Make sure that you are getting adequate sleep, eating healthily and exercising. 
    • Having a conversation with someone you trust, such as a family member or close friend. This will help you to feel supported and understood. 
    • Being open with your family as to how you are feeling will ensure the symptoms of your anxiety do not have a negative impact on your relationships. 
    • Regularly take part in regular social activities.  
    • Take leave and disconnect completely from work. 
    • Set boundaries around work and personal hours. 

2. Plan ahead 

  • Take the time to plan out your days and weeks. A well-structured plan will help you to feel in control of your work and your working day, which can ease any feelings of anxiousness.  
  • Break bigger tasks down into smaller action points. This will help you to methodically work through tasks so that you avoid becoming overwhelmed by the idea of having to complete a larger project.  
  • Give yourself realistic deadlines. Setting overly ambitious deadlines for projects will add to your anxiety. By breaking down bigger tasks into smaller steps, you can start to get a realistic picture of how long a project will take – use this planning stage to set deadlines that you are comfortable with.  
  • Communicate the different steps needed to complete a task with colleagues and your manager, to help them understand why you have set certain deadlines. 

3. Ask for help 

  • Asking for help at work can be difficult when dealing with anxiety. However, it is important to let your boss know how you are feeling if you need changes at work to help your anxiety.  
  • You can also talk about your anxiety struggles with a trusted co-worker. They may be able to offer advice and support on how to handle anxiety at work. 
  • It can be extremely helpful to talk with a mental health provider if you are struggling with anxiety. Therapy and professional medical support can help you to determine the triggers of your anxiety and help to ascertain whether you have an anxiety disorder – and can help you develop coping skills for the future. 


How leaders can make a difference 

If it is not addressed, workplace anxiety can seriously affect employees. Through chronic anxiety, people will commonly experience loss of self-esteem, physical illness, fatigue and burnout, leading to decreased productivity. When employees lose faith in their abilities at work, it is difficult for them to perform to the best of their ability. The key to reducing anxiety and, therefore, improving employee performance is creating a workplace culture that fosters wellbeing and increases employee engagement. In this way, leaders can take steps that keep temporary stressors from becoming chronic stress and anxiety, while also creating an environment that boosts employee resilience. 

Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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