Anxiety in the workplace costs the U.S. economy an annual loss of more than $40 billion1. This is a result of a combination of lost productivity due to stress while at work and extended absences linked to anxiety2. In fact, the average for workplace absences taken for anxiety-related illness is four times longer than the average absence taken for other nonfatal illnesses3.
The occupational impact of anxiety-related illness is more than just time lost to absence. Those experiencing distress in the workplace due to anxiety often cause a drop-off in job performance for those who are not on leave4. This happens because of something called cognitive interference: when we experience intense anxiety that disrupts our ability to process information needed to complete a task5. Without properly processing this information, performance suffers.
Anxiety in the Workplace
Anxiety at work could be caused by difficulties at home: An argument with your spouse, financial concerns, or simply being overtired can contribute to our level of stress and anxiety. Performance anxiety can be particularly challenging in a workplace because it is directly relevant.
The anxiety that we experience about our abilities to accomplish specific tasks related to our jobs can be made worse by tougher consequences for failure, less social support, lack of participation and involvement at work, and hectic job demands6. These stressors have an additive effect: The longer you are exposed to them, the worse the outcomes will be.
How to Eliminate Workplace Anxiety
Eliminating workplace stressors is beneficial to employees and employers. By working to eliminate them, the likelihood of employee absenteeism, organizational dysfunction, and lost work productivity will decrease7. So how do we do this? How can we reduce the anxiety in the workplace? These efforts can come from two places: management and employee.
Strategies for Management
Researchers have identified three main strategies that managers can implement to reduce work-related stress8.
- Remove barriers to effective coping: By changing the work conditions that your employees endure, the environment changes to make it much easier for employees to thrive. A good place to start is to reduce work overload and employee isolation, and to give employees more freedom in selecting tasks.
- Create stress-reduction resources and make them available to employees: Despite the best intentions of management, employee stresses do occur. To prevent escalation and reduce the need for leaves of absence, employers can create programs aimed at helping employees navigate through the stresses they face at work.
- Improving employee cohesiveness: Conflicts between employees can cause new stresses or make worse those that already exist. Team-building activities, proper forums for conflict resolution, and opportunities for collaboration can all help to reduce work-related stress.
Strategies for Employees
But what can you do to help yourself? What if you find yourself in a situation where there aren’t enough supports readily available from your employer? Fortunately, you can do many things every day to help protect yourself from the mounting stresses associated with your job.
- Increase awareness: Simply trying to ignore or avoid your stress is not an effective coping strategy. Although avoiding the problem can feel good in the moment, the stressor will eventually come back with added intensity.
- Breathe: Just as anxiety interferes with our ability to think, it also interferes with our ability to regulate our bodies. By taking time to relax your posture and take slow, deep breaths, you can start to normalize your heart rate and blood pressure. You can return oxygen to the brain where it is needed to help you solve problems and otherwise cope with your stressors
- Tell someone: Put aside your worry that people might see you as a complainer, and share your feelings with someone else. Chances are they’ve experienced workplace stress and can relate. Anxiety grows in isolation, and by reaching out you can stop it in its tracks.
Anxiety and stress are normal parts of life, and they often occur in the workplace. With the cost of mental health leave doubling the cost of leave for physical illness8, employers have plenty of motivation to assist their employees with stresses when they occur.
To all employees, remember that you’re not alone; reach out and tell someone what’s going on. Take care of your body and mind, and if the stress does mount, talk to your employer to get the assistance you need. It’s in nobody’s best interest that you push through and hurt yourself and your work performance.
1. Kessler, R. C., & Greenberg, P. E. (2002). The economic burden of anxiety and stress disorders. Neuropsychopharmacology: The Fifth Generation of Progress, 67, 982–992.
2. American Psychological Association. (2012). Workplace survey: Psychologically healthy workplace program. Retrieved from https://www.apa .org/news/press/releases /phwa/workplace-survey.pdf
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2001). Number and percent distribution of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work by nature of injury or illness. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ iif/oshwc/osh/case/ostb1222.pdf
4. Fay, D., & Sonnentag, S. (2002). Rethinking the effects of stressors: A longitudinal study on personal initiative. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 7, 221–234. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1076-8998.7 .3.221
5. Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: Attentional control theory. Emotion, 7, 336–353. doi/10.1037/1528-35126.96.36.1996
6. Ganster, D. C., & Schaubroeck, J. (1991). Work stress and employee health. Journal of Management, 17, 235–271. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/ 014920639101700202
7. Lazarus, R. (1991). Psychological stress in the workplace. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6, 1–13.
8. Dewa, Chau, and Dermer (2010). Examining the comparative incidence and costs of physical and mental health-related disabilities in an employed population. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 52: 758-62. Number of disability cases calculated using Statistics Canada employment data, retrieved from http://www40.statcan.ca/l01/cst01/labor21a-eng.htm
Christian Hahn is a Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Western Ontario. His research centers on understanding how cognitive and behavioral aspects of social anxiety affect the sustainability of romantic relationships. He also has clinical interests in adult tertiary care, particularly focusing on mood, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders.