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Julian P Humphreys Ph.D., PCC


You Can't Escape Anxiety At Work—But You Can Manage it

Here are the five most common forms of anxiety in the workplace

Image courtesy of pixabay
Source: Image courtesy of pixabay

In my work with leaders in organizations I have come up against anxiety time and time again, in many different forms.

It shows up in individuals, with leaders waking up at 4am in the morning worrying about all sorts of things, from the seemingly inconsequential to the potentially catastrophic.

It shows up on teams, with the productivity of team members negatively impacted by anxieties that cause them to complain about each other behind each other’s backs.

And it shows up in organizational structures, with whole divisions restructured because of underlying anxieties that were never addressed through courageous conversation.

The more I look for anxiety at work, the more I find it, to the point that now I can barely see an organization without thinking of it in terms of anxiety.

Organizations literally run on anxiety, with the important question being not ‘How can we get rid of anxiety?’ but rather ‘How do we channel anxiety so it works for us rather than against us?’

Making Anxiety Work For You

The first step in making anxiety work for you rather than against you is to recognize it when it shows up. So much of our behavior is driven by anxiety, yet we rarely notice or name it.

One of the reasons anxiety is so difficult to notice is because it’s not one thing. There are many different kinds of anxiety, each with their own associated thoughts and feelings.

The most common forms of anxiety at work are:

Performance Anxiety

‘Am I doing a good enough job?’ This question is common in organizations where ambitious people are looking to get ahead, and is not a problem so long as there’s a viable means of answering it. Too often in organizations, though, feedback is rarely given, and workers are left not knowing with any certainty whether they are performing adequately or not. That’s only half the story, though. The flip side is that there are many workers who, no matter how much feedback they receive, will always crave more – and normally only the positive kind.

Status Anxiety

‘Am I keeping up with my peer group?’ This question is answered by looking around and comparing yourself to others. The specific points of comparison may vary, but are often socially-sanctioned markers of success, especially material markers. Who has the higher income, the nicer house? Who is taking the better vacations? Although our rational minds may chastise us for these petty comparisons, our anxiety on hearing that a colleague just got a promotion (and we didn’t) is inevitable. What does that say about us? Where does that leave us in society’s pecking order? And what can I do to redress this new challenge to the status quo?

Existential Anxiety

‘Who am I really?’ This question is key to individuation, the psychological distancing from the values and attitudes we grew up with and adopted before we had the critical capacity to decide for ourselves what to think and believe. Leaders in particular grapple with this question when they receive feedback, through a 360 process or similar, that punctures their subjective bias. Faced with a more objective view of themselves, they are called upon to reconcile their own, often long-standing, conception of themselves with the reality of how others perceive them. This can be a shocking discovery, one that raises all sorts of questions about how they have come to be how they are, and whether they want to continue being that person or change in some significant way.

Social Anxiety

‘Do people like me?’ This question is just as present at work as it is everywhere else in life. Although some people care more about being liked than others, humans are pack animals and very naturally live in fear of being disliked and excluded.

Death Anxiety

‘What are you saying!?’ Death anxiety is so powerful that it is almost impossible to put into words. It shows up in the absolute panic many people experience when told that they are being let go. Losing a reliable source of income, even temporarily, can be so scary to some that they imagine all sorts of worse case scenarios - living under a bridge in some God-forsaken part of town, unloved and unappreciated, with the inevitable next stop being the graveyard.

It's not a question of when, but how

Image courtesy of pixabay
Source: Image courtesy of pixabay

All of these different kinds of anxiety show up in different ways, every minute of every hour of every day at most workplaces. They are the unavoidable stuff of life, and consequently unavoidable in the workplace.

The question is not, then, whether or not to experience anxiety, but rather how to experience it. We can manage our anxieties effectively, seeing them for what they are and using them to focus our energies on results that matter to us. Or we can manage them ineffectively, failing to notice the ways in which they drive us to engage in behaviors that, while offering short-term psychological relief, will ultimately fail to deliver anything of lasting value.

So, when you go to work tomorrow, try this:

  • Notice anxiety, in all its different forms, both in yourself and in others.
  • Then imagine a world in which all that anxiety no longer exists
  • Then imagine a world in which all that anxiety still exists, but everyone has learned to manage it, in themselves and in others.

Share your observations in the comments.


About the Author

Julian Humphreys, Ph.D., PCC is an executive and leadership coach in Toronto.