How to Manage Anxiety in the Workplace
The workplace, whether at home as a result of circumstances relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, or in a factory, healthcare facility, laboratory, office, retail setting, warehouse or one of countless other workplace environments, can be one of the most stressful parts of a person's daily life. Indeed, more than 7 in 10 American workers report daily stress and anxiety associated with their careers. This can negatively impact career development and prevent the attainment of professional goals, such as meeting deadlines, job advancement, and job satisfaction. Managing anxiety in the workplace can be a challenge, but it is not impossible. In fact, it is a necessity; left unchecked, workplace stress and anxiety can grow into an anxiety disorder characterized by persistent and excessive fear or worry, loss of focus, and impaired quality of work.
Workplace anxiety and how it impacts career development
Workplace anxiety describes fear and worry associated with performance of work-related tasks, career development, skills training and more. It can include concerns in a physical workplace, such as interpersonal relationships, productivity (alone or on a team), manager-employee dynamics, and, more recently, the health and safety threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. It could also include anxiety responses related to working from home, such as social isolation, reduced productivity and demands of family life, such as home-schooling, during business hours.
For example, you might experience anxiety when preparing to ask your manager for a raise or when vying for a promotion. Anxiety might also be related to water-cooler conversations, ensuring you are meeting your deadlines or related to a specific team project or presentation to colleagues.
Research suggests that workplace anxiety is a major challenge for many Americans. A staggering 72% of American employees report that daily stress and anxiety related to work interferes with their lives at least moderately, while 40% report "persistent or excessive" stress and anxiety impacts them on a daily basis. At work, this stress and anxiety most commonly impacts work performance, relationships with coworkers, the quality of their work, and relationships with managers.
Similarly, American workers identify the primary causes of this stress and anxiety as production deadlines, interpersonal relationships, management of staff, and conflict resolution. This often leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms for many, including increased caffeine consumption, nicotine dependence, lack of quality sleep and mental health “off” time, excessive fitness, use of over-the-counter medications, and excessive consumption of alcohol.
Left unchecked, workplace anxiety can grow into a more serious problem, perhaps even leading to the development of a full-blown anxiety disorder. Compounding the problem is the fact that many American employees are fearful of reporting their stress and anxiety to their employers. Only 40% of those experiencing anxiety related to work discuss these issues with their employer, with fear of reprisal and negative impacts to their career development causing them to keep quiet rather than seek much-needed support.
Tips to manage workplace anxiety
While it is always best to seek support from a mental health professional in the form of psychotherapy (talk therapy) for the management of stress and anxiety, there are other things you can do to help reduce your levels of work-related fear and worry on a daily basis. Just as there is no one-size-fits-all type of anxiety disorder, these tips are not one-size-fits-all cures, and you should not hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional or licensed clinical social worker for guidance. However, building good mental and physical habits can lessen the intensity and frequency of workplace stress and anxiety.
- Take frequent breaks: If your job allows it, whether working from home or in an office or other workplace, take frequent breaks throughout the work day. For every hour worked, consider a taking a 10- to 15-minute break to stretch your legs and, if possible, get some fresh air. Office workers especially face considerable risk of stress, anxiety, and a workplace phenomenon known as "burnout" when sitting in one place and staring at the blue light of a computer screen for hours on end. Removing yourself from your workflow not only serves to reduce stress, it can also improve your productivity and overall job satisfaction.
- Plan your days in advance: By organizing your work day in advance, you can set realistic goals for yourself and keep your tasks organized. Ask yourself if your list is reasonable or attainable. If it is not, determine which tasks can be deprioritized or pushed to a different day later in the week. Don't try to cram all your work into one day; setting priorities can help you manage one task at a time to ensure you meet production targets in a balanced way.
- Take days off: From time-to-time, it is important to reserve time off for "mental health days," or downtime to rest and relax both your body and mind. These days off should be deliberate opportunities to recharge your batteries in a meaningful way. For example, a mental health day could include an early morning walk, healthy breakfast, and quality time with family or friends. A mental health day off of work should not consist of alcohol consumption, the use of nicotine, binge eating junk foods, or excessive use of social media. Instead, it should be a time to relax, rest, and recharge by enjoying fulfilling activities.
- Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep is a common problem that affects the majority of Americans. People with anxiety disorders often experience insomnia as a symptom. Sleep deprivation is known to exacerbate anxiety and stress as well, affecting mood and ability to focus on work. Prepare to go to sleep an hour or two before you want to actually be asleep. Plan your evenings so you can already be asleep with at least six to eight hours before you plan to wake up. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Avoid the consumption of nicotine or alcohol prior to going to bed, and don't watch television or use a mobile device once you lay down.
- Set boundaries: Identify the sources of your stress and anxiety in the workplace and then list the ones that are under your control. For example, if you know conversation with coworkers leads you to feeling rushed and unable to complete your work, politely request that your colleagues allow you to return to work rather than continuing a conversation. Of course, some stressors are not under our control; essential workers tasked with working through the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, cannot prevent these circumstances. They could, however, take added precautions to social distance and maintain personal hygiene to the greatest extent possible. When it comes to stressors that are not fully under your control, request support from your employer.
- Leverage employer resources: Research available resources through your employer to help you manage your stress. Lost productivity from workplace anxiety costs employers $1 trillion per year, so employers have a strong vested interest in keeping their employees healthy and happy. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are commonplace benefits packages that include access to mental health support, as well as other much-needed resources like childcare and training programs.
Again, it is important to remember that anxiety disorders are highly individualized and there is no one-size-fits-all set of solutions for them. If you are finding it difficult to manage your anxiety and it is interfering with your daily life, you should seek assistance from a mental healthcare professional.
Anxiety disorders and existing treatments
Stress and anxiety are a normal part of everyday life, but chronic, persistent and excessive fear and worry can grow into an anxiety disorder if left unaddressed. Anxiety disorders are common occurrences affecting more than 40 million Americans annually, or about 18.1% of the U.S. population.
There are many varieties of anxiety disorders, including, among others, social anxiety disorder (SAD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whichever form symptoms take, however, treatment plans are typically the same: a form of psychotherapy (talk therapy) alongside prescription medications, when needed.
Oftentimes, the prescription medication for anxiety-related disorders includes a class of sedatives known as benzodiazepines, which increase the production of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits activity in the brain. This makes them highly effective for stopping anxiety responses shortly after they begin, but there is a very dark side to benzodiazepine use as well.
Benzodiazepines carry a long list of potential side effects, including:
- Memory impairment
- Appetite fluctuation
- Weight gain
- Dry mouth
More serious potential side effects of benzodiazepine usage include:
- Respiratory depression
- Suicidal ideation
- Reduced or increased heart rate
- Low blood pressure
Benzodiazepines also carry a high risk of abuse and addiction due to their rapid tolerance buildup. This means many patients with anxiety disorders who are prescribed benzodiazepines for long-term use develop physical dependencies. Of the 30.5 million Americans aged 12 and over who reported taking benzodiazepines, 5.6 million said they have misused the drugs. This misuse can even be fatal, and the problem is growing. In 2017, fatal benzodiazepine overdoses killed 11,537 people, 16.4% of all drug overdoses that year, up from 1,135 fatal overdoses in 1999. This risk is worsened by the fact that anxiety disorders have been linked with an increased risk of substance abuse.
Despite these risks, the prescription of benzodiazepines is on the rise. A report prepared by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics found that benzodiazepines are prescribed at 66 million doctors' appointments every year in the U.S. That means 27% of all doctors' office visits result in a prescription for a benzodiazepine.
The shortcomings of existing anxiety disorder treatments
The high risk associated with medicated responses should, and do, give mental health professionals pause when prescribing benzodiazepines. However, in many moderate to severe cases of anxiety disorders, medication is often the only recourse for treatment. The lack of a fast-acting alternative anti-anxiety medication that is safer than benzodiazepines is a significant problem and a significant need in global efforts to treat mental illness.
Fortunately, there are reasons to be hopeful for the future of anxiety disorder treatments. A new generation anti-anxiety medication entering Phase 3 clinical development, which is the final stage of development required before seeking regulatory approval, has a fundamentally different mechanism of action (the way it works) compared to all current anti-anxiety medications, including benzodiazepines. In clinical studies to date in patients with social anxiety disorder, this fast-acting (within about 15 minutes) potential new medication has not caused the serious side effects and safety concerns associated with benzodiazepines.
While a new generation of medications for anxiety disorders is immensely needed, it is clear that the current standard of care is inadequate to meet the rising need. For American workers, this could significantly impact both their personal and professional well-being. If you are experiencing anxiety or the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, it is important to seek the help of a mental health professional. However, implementing some of the tips above for managing workplace anxiety can also help ameliorate some of the stress associated with the modern American workplace.