Work Anxiety: How To Create a Happy Workplace That Fosters Productivity

Work Anxiety How To Create a Happy Workplace That Fosters Productivity-15

The global economic cost of anxiety and depression is $1 trillion per year.

That is a substantial cost to an issue that is predominantly ignored.

1 in 5 adults in the U.S. will experience a mental health issue each year, with 1 in 6.8 people experiencing mental health problems in the workplace on a weekly timescale.

Work anxiety is one such mental health condition which evokes a sizable economic cost from lowered employee wellbeing and sick leave.

In this Process Street article we explain what work anxiety is – and in that sense, anxiety in general. We then provide information on how you can take action on anxiety from a personal level and at a company-wide level.

Click on the relevant subheaders below to jump to that section. Alternatively, scroll down and read all we have to say.

Capes at the ready, let’s conquer workplace anxiety!

Work anxiety: Mental Health Risk Assessment

Conducting a risk assessment for an employee with mental health issues (Note: With their consent) ensures your company is providing the right support.

This checklist will guide you through all of the critical aspects of mental health issues, providing tools to gather important data and accurately assessing what needs to be done, to help your employee get their life back on track.

Click here to access our Mental Health Risk Assessment Checklist

Work Anxiety: Anxious meaning ≝

To be anxious means to be in a state of worry or nervousness about something when the outcome is uncertain. Sometimes it is work that induces this anxious state. When work causes an individual’s anxiety, work anxiety is the outcome.

But how does work cause anxiety?

To answer this, we turn our attention to another emotional state: stress.

Stress is like anxiety, however, a subtle difference between the two terms defines them apart.

Stress is a response to an external stimulus. This could be a tight deadline, a presentation that is due, etc. Stress will usually subside when the situation has resolved.

Anxiety has internal origins. It is a feeling of unease or dread with no external stimuli cause. You can think of anxiety as stress persisting after the previous concern has passed. Further persistence of these feelings will create an anxiety disorder, the most common mental health issue in the U.S. with 1 in 5 individuals affected.

For clarity, I will describe anxiety as water, manifesting itself in many forms. Anxiety comes in the form of panic disorders, PTSD, social anxiety, phobias, OCD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Once more, like water, anxiety is not a permanent state. It is a flowing feeling that comes from within and is ignited by certain environmental triggers. In reference to work anxiety, work is the trigger.

Despite the difference, stress and anxiety are linked. Although it is possible for anxiety to manifest itself without an external stimulus imposing stress, stress has been attributed as a fundamental anxiety cause.

Coming back to the question: How does work cause anxiety?

Our answer: By causing stress.

Work anxiety - stress

The latest estimate from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) indicated the number of work-related stress cases in 2018/19 was 602,000, a prevalence rate of 1,800 cases per 100,000 workers.

Once more, feelings of stress and unease in the workplace have increased by 20% in the last three decades, quantified by Kron Ferry’s Workplace Stress Continues to Mount survey.

Listed in this report are key sources of stress, the top two are:

  • An individual’s boss, with 35% of respondents citing this as a work-place stress trigger.
  • Leadership change, with 80% of respondents indicating that a new direct manager or someone else higher up in the organizational chart, instigates feelings of unease.

Stresses will impact employees on a personal level. From the survey, work-place stress had:

  • A negative impact on personal relationships, with 76% of surveyed respondents indicating this.
  • Lost sleep, with 66% of surveyed respondents stating this.
  • Resignation as a result of overwhelming job stress, with 16% of surveyed respondents indicating this.

These personal level impacts create even more stress, causing a vicious cycle of negative, stressful events.

Stress can be a good thing, otherwise known as good stress. Good stress helps to keep us motivated and increases our attention and memory.

Prolonged, high-levels of stress, however, can be bad, negatively impacting an individual’s well-being and happiness.

Some people will react to stress by feeling anxious. Prolonged stress and the associated feelings of anxiety could lead to an anxiety disorder.

Why should the workplace care about the anxiety and stress levels of its employees?

Well, for one, it’s about being a decent human being of the 21st century.

Two, if we are talking facts and figures, you want your employees to be happy, as happier workers…

Bad stress and anxiety are not positive emotions that align with happiness. If you want happier employees, work anxiety and its cause (stress) must be dealt with head-on.

To assist you as you proactively deal with workplace stress, we have put together our Critical Incident Stress Management Checklist, embedded below.

Click here to access our Critical Incident Stress Management Checklist

Dealing with workplace anxiety begins with:

  1. Understanding anxiety
  2. Incorporating individual strategies to reduce anxiety
  3. Reducing anxiety at work

Anxiety explained: Understanding anxiety and the biological causes

Work anxiety - the anxious chimp

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking” – Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and ancient inspiration for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

A great reflection from the ancient philosopher and Roman Emperor, attributing positive thought processes to happiness, dating back into the Roman Consul around 140-161.

Aurelius has a point. According to the National Science Foundation, 80% of our thoughts are negative, with 95% of those thoughts being repetitive. With this in mind, it makes sense that replacing negative thought processes with more positive ones can reduce stress and anxiety for a happier life.

Do you agree?

I, partly agree.

You see, in my humble opinion, Aurelius’s quote isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s incomplete.

With human thought patterns being predominantly negative, shouldn’t everyone be unhappy, anxious and stressed?

My point is, these are normal emotions that every person feels, and do not impose a great deal of suffering when managed appropriately.

What then, separates these normal emotions from a person who identifies themselves as suffering from anxiety, stress, and unhappiness?

I, along with many professional psychologists believe that anxiety manifests when our innate needs are not met.

As humans, we have innate needs and have an instinctive desire to fulfill them. Not filling these needs causes unavoidable suffering and stress.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, individuals strive to meet the following:

  • Physiological needs
  • Safety needs
  • Love needs
  • Belonging needs
  • Esteem needs
  • Self-actualization needs

In simplified terms, when one of our innate needs is threatened, we will feel stressed. For instance, if we are rejected in a relationship, our innate need for love is threatened, and so we feel stressed. Self-actualization (the recognition of one’s talent) is threatened when our work is put under scrutiny, again meaning we feel stressed.

Stress activates our hereditary response system, termed the fight-or-flight response.

The body’s fight-or-flight response is an acute psychological reaction that occurs from something terrifying either mentally or physically.

Fight-or-flight is a term coined by American physiologist Walter Cannon, who recognized the rapidly occurring reactions in a stressed-out body. These reactions mobilize resources so that we can deal with the threatening circumstance. When faced with danger, our ancestors had two choices, to fight or to flee.

These reactions stem from the body’s sympathetic nervous system. Under a stressful circumstance, this nervous system is activated, stimulating the adrenal glands for the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates. After the perceived threat has gone it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal state.

Work anxiety - fight or flight

Some physical signs indicating that the fight-or-flight response has kicked in include:

  • Diluted pupils: Diluted pupils bring better vision of surroundings for greater awareness and observations.
  • Pale or flushed skin: As the stress response takes hold, blood flowing to the skin’s surface is reduced and re-directed to the muscles, brains, legs, and arms. The blood’s clotting ability is also increased to prepare for injury.
  • Rapid heart rate and breathing: Increased heartbeat and respiration rate provides oxygen and energy to the body in response to the threat.
  • Trembling: Muscles will become tense and primed for action, which can cause muscle trembling or shaking.

Plonk yourself back in time, roaming around the planes of Africa, and these physiological changes will determine the difference between life and death, enabling you to fight or flight away from danger.

In our modern world, however, stress is less welcome. We no longer have to run away from saber-tooths or battle down full-grown mammoths. We are relatively safe, pretty-much all of the time. Intense worry can be instigated during working life from missing deadlines, forgetting to send emails, making mistakes, not getting on with your boss, or even, as I had yesterday, worrying about my accidental coffee splodged top.

Compared to being consumed by scary-looking tigers, I would say these fears are insignificant, wouldn’t you?

Never-the-less, our stress response remains as an in-built system. Helpful in the short-term, but with heightened or prolonged stress, these physiological changes impose hazardous complications in the long-term.

One of which – as we have already mentioned, and is central to this article – is anxiety.

With anxiety, it is as if your stress response is permanently switched on. As if your body has learned that life is scary, therefore, it has prepared itself to be aware, on-edge, and ready to fight or flee most of the time.

To conclude, we have two processes that go something like this…

Process one: A healthier scenario

A person feels an innate need is threatened they feel stressed, ready for action to take back this need their stress response is triggered good stress prepares the person for action the person’s innate need is met once more, their body’s stress response is switched off

Process two: An unhealthy anxiety-inducing scenario

A person feels an innate need is threatened they feel stressed, ready for action to take back this need their stress response is triggered bad stress is prolonged and heightened causing fatigue the person finds it difficult to switch off their fear response developing intense unease and worry an anxiety disorder could manifest

The exact mechanism by which bad stress can lead to anxiety is unknown. However, some sort of neurological understanding has been proclaimed.

Work anxiety - brain

The fight-or-flight response has a neurological basis. You see, this response is controlled by hormones, which are controlled by regions in our brains. Namely the Limbic system that includes the following brain divisions:

  • The Hippocampus: Regulates motivation, learning, memory, and emotion.
  • The Amygdala: Responsible for emotions, survival instincts and memory.
  • The Hypothalamus: Plays a key role in hormone production, regulating body processes such as temperature control, sleep cycles, sex drive and the balance of bodily fluids.
  • The Thalamus: Relays motor and regulatory signals to other parts of the brain.

The limbic system and its constituent areas feed emotional processes to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex then integrates this emotional information for decision making. An anxiety disorder pops up with changes to the signals in the limbic system, resulting from stress.

Obviously, we cannot go around digging into people’s brains to understand anxiety and its effects. Therefore scientists view a patient’s brain via non-invasive means such as fMRI scans. Individuals with anxiety disorders have a hyperactive amygdala, the region termed as the fear center of the brain. However, there is more to it than that.

As previously stated, anxiety is a fluid term, as a disorder, it can manifest itself in many forms. There are panic disorders, social anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD and Generalised Anxiety Disorders. These disorders have slight neurological differences, for instance…

  • Individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorders have a larger hippocampus.
  • Individuals with a panic disorder have a heightened level of the neurotransmitter GABA, leading to less inhibition of emotional circuits.

My main point is this: Anxiety is complex, something that professionals do not understand fully yet. It is a normal emotion that everyone experiences. Sometimes though, anxiety levels have been turned-up and start impacting every-day life. Heightened levels of anxiety arise when an individual’s environment induces psychological and physical responses to the body, usually when their innate needs are not met, leading to stress. Work anxiety can manifest when an individual’s working life challenges their innate needs.

Work anxiety: Take action on anxiety, what you can do as an individual

Strategies to reduce anxiety function by keeping anxiety at manageable levels. We give you our top individual strategies to reduce anxiety, and therefore anxiety in the workplace.

Once the biological mechanisms of anxiety are understood, it becomes easier to strategize and alleviate anxiety to a manageable level. To re-iterate, everyone experiences negative emotions – stress, anxiety, and unhappiness. Whether this is work-related, family-related, or an exact cause cannot be upheld, the principles remain the same.

Whether this is impacting your day-to-day life or not, being aware of your mental state is vital. It is drilled into us to brush our teeth, exercise and eat well for our physical health. Our mental health, and incorporating strategies to take care of that, is as important and should not be cast-aside from ill-disposed stigma.

Only 36.9% of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment. Yet anxiety is highly treatable. There is a flood of new research guiding clinicians and patients to the most effective treatments.

In the spot-light is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a goal-orientated psychotherapy treatment, that takes a hands-on, practical approach, changing negative thought patterns to help patients break the anxiety cycle via facing their fears/triggers eyeball-to-eyeball.

Other treatments can include medication or traditional talk therapy.

Below is a chart comparing the effectiveness of the different anxiety treatments.

Work anxiety - CBT with medication is the most effective treatment
Work anxiety – CBT with medication is the most effective treatment

As you can see, CBT outperforms most other treatments and has the lowest relapse rate. Medication, although effective, has a high relapse rate. However, using a combination of medication and CBT proves to be the most effective treatment, offering a 90.5% clinically significant positive change.

Personal treatment of anxiety can also occur via adopting self-help strategies. These self-help strategies are about taking charge of your mental health, regardless of whether you are suffering from anxiety or not.

Work anxiety: Personal, self-help strategy #1, meditation and mindfulness

Work anxiety - meditation

Numerous psychological studies show that regular meditators are happier and more content on average. These positive emotions are linked to longer and happier lives, with regular meditators experiencing decreased anxiety.

Despite the proven benefits, many people are wary of the terms meditation and mindfulness. To dispel some common myths:

  • Meditation and mindfulness are not part of a religion, they are methods of mental training.
  • You can practice meditation and mindfulness from wherever you are. On the bus, walking to work, sitting down on a chair or in your bed.
  • Mindfulness and meditation practice don’t take a long time, although persistent practice is key.
  • Meditation and mindfulness are not complicated. There is no success or failure. Even when difficult, with each practice, something new about the workings of your mind will be learned.
  • Meditation and mindfulness are not about accepting the unacceptable. The practices allow you to cultivate deep and compassionate awareness of your goals and find the optimum path towards realizing your deepest values.

With mindfulness and meditation, you are stepping back from your thoughts, observing them as a bystander. It is about focussing on the present moment, on your body and breathing, without judgment.

To begin regular mindfulness and meditation practice, I highly recommend the book – Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

Work anxiety: Personal, self-help strategy #2, exercise

Although exercise won’t cure anxiety, it can significantly relieve the physical symptoms. Research shows that at least 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week will make a substantial difference.

For me, I find running always puts me in a good frame of mind. If I am stressed, or anxious over a certain article or deadline, a good blast of high-intensity cardiovascular exercise releases my built-up anguish. Exercise reduces the levels of stress hormones – remember: adrenaline – and stimulates the production of endorphins – your body’s natural pain-killers and mood elevators.

Climbing is another form of exercise I have adopted as a means of coping with work associated anxiety. Rock climbing has taught me that falling is okay, and that, as often is the case, my mind conjures worst-case scenario’s when in reality the consequences are insignificant. Climbing teaches you to let go of complete control, have faith in your ability and feel the fear but manage the emotion and continue.

Yoga, another one of my mental-health, me-time workouts. Yoga focuses my breathing, teaching me how to be present with my body and emotions. In a way, you could say Yoga incorporates mindfulness in a full-body workout routine, obtaining the benefits from both.

In summary, humans are not designed to sit still behind a computer desk and the stale walls of our concrete jungles. Getting outside and moving is one of the best things you can do to proactively manage your physical and mental health.

To track your fitness goals, and keep yourself motivated, try our Fitness Planner checklist.

Click here to access our Fitness Planner checklist.

Work anxiety: Personal self-help strategy #3, get out in nature

Nature is soothing to the soul. Research has shown that even a pot-plant can induce feelings of ease and relaxation. Human brains evolved in nature, we are genetically programmed to find trees, plants, water, etc, absorbing. Take time out, and leave the frantic world behind for your own sanity.

Work anxiety: Personal self-help strategy #4, eat well

Correlations between anxiety and a lowered antioxidant state have been shown through research. Although no proven cause has been ascertained, nothing can be lost in making the effort to eat foods rich in antioxidants. This includes fruits, beans, nuts, and vegetables.

Other specific foods have been shown to reduce anxiety, including:

  • Foods high in Magnesium – leafy greens, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
  • Foods rich in Zinc – oysters, cashew nuts, beef, and egg yolks.
  • Omega-3 fatty acid-rich food – fish.
  • Probiotic foods – natural yogurt.

Basically, eat a healthy diet, one that is highly diverse in fresh foods, vegetables, and fruits. This will help with general, all-round health, support your immune system and act to regulate weight. You will feel more confident, healthier and stronger.

Work anxiety: Personal self-help strategy #5, rest-up

By rest up, I don’t mean to get more sleep, although prioritizing sleep is essential. Sometimes, sleep may not be simple when stress and anxiety kick-in. Which is okay, as long as you do your best and practice sleep hygiene.

By rest-up I mostly mean to schedule me-time. Time to concentrate on what makes you, you. During this time you could be reading your favorite book, practicing meditation, playing ping-pong, binge-watching Scrubs, drawing, cooking, or trying to do a hand-stand whilst juggling three balls. Life is about having fun, so do what makes you feel good and happy.

It is important to not chip-away at your happiness to achieve something, that in perspective, is far less important. Your mental health is a priority and comes at no cost.

Work anxiety: Personal self-help strategy #6, communicate

I have a weekly private counselor, who I pay for, and probably will continue to do so indefinitely. My counselor gives me an outlet for my emotions, thoughts, and feelings. As a professional, she helps me work through my thought processes, understand them, and act on them in the most productive, positive way. In our modern-frantic lives, I believe we all need counselors to keep us grounded.

But, by communication, I don’t just mean talking through your thoughts with a professional. I also mean establishing strong relationships, with open communication with friends, relatives, work colleagues, managers, and bosses.

An ongoing Harvard study, that started in 1938 during the Great Depression, tracked the lives of men and women from all walks of life. From those with little money, or education to those from wealthy backgrounds and strong educational credentials. The study concluded that, no matter what happens in life, whether individuals lose great swaths of money, move up the social ladder ect, good relationships take a pedestal in defining health and happy emotions. This means connecting with family, friends, your community at home and at work.

Work anxiety: Personal self-help strategy #7, face your fears

Work anxiety - anxiety fear cycle

Anxiety can be a kidnapper, holding you captive and back from full, free living. If left unchecked, this stranglehold can get worse, impacting your everyday life, classifying as an anxiety disorder. What begins as a work presentation fear, can domino into fears of meetings, speaking to clients, or/and opening conversations with strangers.

This is termed as the anxiety cycle:

  • You perceive danger – this would be a trigger event. As an example, let’s say this trigger is fear to do a work presentation.
  • You avoid danger – anxious feelings arise with the trigger event. To avoid these feelings you avoid the trigger, you make an excuse to not do the presentation.
  • You feel brief relief – from avoidance, the relief you feel is brief, and your anxious emotions calm down.
  • Anxiety grows – you become warier of the trigger event, in this instance presentations. This increases anxiety around the situation. This avoidance can be addictive as it feels good at the moment. A situation spirals, shrinking your world. Your fears could grow and manifest to fears of public speaking, meeting clients, etc.

By facing your fears, overtime anxiety diminishes and an individual’s world widens once again.

Work anxiety: Take action on anxiety, what you can do as a company

Stress and anxiety at work are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean to say it cannot be managed appropriately. As a manager or colleague, you should be encouraging personal-level anxiety self-care for everyone – not just those who are struggling.

For instance, in my last job, a group of us came together to start a company-wide lunch-time running club. This encouraged employees to get out in nature and to keep active. This is an example of the small changes a company can make. Other examples include:

  • Providing workplace healthy meal options
  • Incorporating nature into the workplace (pot plants, water features, etc)
  • Having quiet rooms for meditation and relaxation

These can all assist in maintaining employee happiness and satisfaction with little cost.

To help you get started, why not dive into our Work Anxiety Resolution Checklist. You can use this checklist to track work-related anxiety.

Click here to access our Work Anxiety Resolution Checklist.

Alleviating work-anxiety on a company-wide scale means to target the cause. As we have learned, that cause is stress.

Stress is a normal part of working life, but too much can have dire impacts, one of which is workplace anxiety.

I have detailed 10 ways workplace stress can be reduced below, as given by Just Works:

  • Encourage open communication : Research shows workplace stress mainly comes from the boss. But it does not have to be that way. Management classes tackle leadership development to work with employees and teams in a positive and constructive way. Incorporate open training, coaching employees on how to be more aware of their stress levels, anxiety triggers, how to respond to negative feedback and how to give negative – but constructive – feedback.
  • Offer mental and physical benefits ‍⚕️: Provide a safety net to address physical and mental health issues. Although this may be expensive in the short-term, the long-term savings will outweigh initial costs. One such benefit is company loyalty, with 26% of small company employees willing to move to larger companies for better benefits.
  • Bring in meditation classes ‍♀️: According to Harvard Business Review, many CEO’s are taking up meditation and finding ways to bring it to their employees due to the immediate benefits they have seen. If you can’t afford to bring in a mediation coach, think about subsidizing apps such as Headspace.
  • Offer paid time off : Unfortunately 42% of Americans don’t take vacation. By not doing so, it has been shown to diminish mental and physical health.
  • Encourage employees to take breaks ☕: A non-stop workplace culture is damaging for your employees. Encouraging breaks relieves stress and enhances productivity. You can encourage your employees to get outside in nature during their breaks by setting up a communal outside space.
  • Take out the team on company offsites : Take your employees out of the workplace and a chance to bond together. The activity you choose is not important, you simply want to encourage the spirit of fun and strengthen your team.
  • Bring diversions into the office : A team that plays together will work better together. You can bring in fun activities into the office, such as a basketball hoop, a ping-pong table, board games, or even a dog-friendly office. Although it may sound counter-productive, allowing your employees to let loose during the working day will give you happier employees, boosting productivity and morale.
  • Consider flexible work schedules ⏱: Sometimes the demands of work and home can become overwhelming. Flexible work schedules can allow employees to meet their home obligations, and therefore be more present at work.
  • Know your paid and unpaid leave policies : You have to consider the varied needs and circumstances of your employees. Workplace stress can result from difficulties in fitting life events around work. Make sure you know country-specific leave policies to offer excellent employee support.
  • Set an example : The most influential step for any boss, department manager or employee is to set an example. Do not de-prioritize your mental and physical health at the expense of work as you know to do so is counterproductive in the long-run.

For more information on how you can keep your employees safe, secure and stable, alleviating work-place anxiet read: EAP Program: How to Keep Employees Safe, Secure, and Stable (Free Templates)

Work anxiety: Take action with Process Street

Process Street is superpowered checklists. With Process Street you can create any checklist to implement your anxiety action plan. Whether this is incorporating a mental health risk assessment as part of your support measures, or establishing meal plan processes or fitness planners to distribute on a company-wide or at a personal level.

By incorporating the following features into your Process Street checklists, you will create dynamic, interactive processes.

For more information on how to create checklists using Process Street watch our below video – you can get started for free.

Take action on workplace anxiety to foster a positive and productive work environment

Whether you or your colleague is suffering from workplace anxiety, anxiety in general, or any other mental health condition, adopting the strategies given in this post will help on both a personal and a company level. Most of these strategies should be applied as part of every-day routines for optimum mental well-being.

Taking care of your mental health, and the mental health of your employees is of paramount importance for all-round improved life quality.

Sometimes though, all you need is a simple reminder to the ethos of life. I leave that to Bazz Luhrmann, my go-to pick-me-up.

Sign up to Process Street to start your anxiety action plan today.

Have you experienced workplace anxiety? If so, how did you manage this? What strategies does your workplace incorporate to manage work anxiety? Please comment below, as we would love to hear from you.

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Jane Courtnell

Hi there, I am a Junior Content Writer at Process Street. I graduated in Biology, specializing in Environmental Science at Imperial College London. During my degree, I developed an enthusiasm for writing to communicate environmental issues. I continued my studies at Imperial College's Business School, and with this, my writing progressed looking at sustainability in a business sense. When I am not writing I enjoy being in the mountains, running and rock climbing. Follow me at @JaneCourtnell.

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