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Overcoming Anxiety at Work

To enable a healthy work culture, we must first tackle anxiety at work.

Key points

  • Anxiety at work is on the rise, causing people to leave the workforce and making it impossible to maintain a healthy work culture.
  • New research based on surveys of 1 million employees sheds light on the problem and solutions.
  • There are steps that individuals, leaders, and organizations can take to address anxiety at work.
Christian Erfurt/Unsplash
Anxiety at work leads to a toxic work culture.
Source: Christian Erfurt/Unsplash

Anxiety at work is nothing new. It impacts both employers and employees, and the COVID pandemic exacerbated the problem. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that by May of 2020, more than 30 percent of all Americans disclosed anxiety symptoms. This problem is especially prevalent in college-aged kids, 42 percent of who claim to have an indication of anxiety.

Our up-and-coming workforce won’t stand for it. In a 2019 study published in the Harvard Business Review, more than half of the millennials and 75 percent of the younger Gen Z left their jobs due to mental health reasons. If we do not address this problem, we will be left without a workforce.

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, preeminent thought leaders in corporate culture and leadership, explain that you cannot have a healthy work culture when anxiety is high. Creating a healthy workplace is no longer a nice-to-have idea; it is now something we must have. In their new book Anxiety at Work, Gostick and Elton offer a blueprint to leaders and employees to help reduce anxiety at work and home.

Building resilience, handling uncertainty, and crossing things off our endless to-do list are at the cornerstone of this body of work. Gostick and Elton and their research partners surveyed over one million employees over the last 10 years and found that micro-changes can have a lasting positive impact. Together, they developed eight strategies with actionable steps for alleviating anxiety in the workplace and helping employees and leaders.

1. Deal with uncertainty.

Few things are more anxiety-producing than the unknown, and our workplace is the biggest enigma. By July 2020, 60 percent of Americans were concerned for their job security. COVID is the latest problem, which followed a stock market crash, 9/11, and civil unrest. As a leader, consider how you can alleviate feelings of uncertainty as a root cause for anxiety.

2. Balance an overwhelming workload.

Work is great, but times for rest are warranted to recharge. Have a clear direction of the task with milestones you should reach along the way. Chunk the work, balance the workload among the team, rotate people, closely monitor progress, help people prioritize, avoid distractions, and encourage rest and relaxation.

3. Plan their career paths.

Two-thirds of Gen-Zers say they believe they should be promoted within their first year on the job, while 90 percent of younger workers highly value career development and growth opportunities. To provide comfort to the junior employees, present a path of progress for them within the organization. Create more steps for them to grow, coach and mentor them on how to succeed in the organization, help them assess and elevate their skills, develop customized career development programs, and encourage them to learn from each other.

4. Manage perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a leading cause of stress, burnout, and anxiety. Perfectionists spend so much time trying to get things just right that they get little done. To help overcome this, clarify what is considered "good enough," treat failures as learning opportunities, continuously check on progress, and discuss issues openly before they fester.

5. Find their voice.

Avoiding conflict might make you feel good at the moment, but it does not create a psychologically safe work environment. To help employees find their voices, consider addressing issues in real-time and stick to the facts. In short, be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

6. Feel valued and accepted.

Marginalized groups often have to deal with microaggressions and biases that make them feel undervalued and overlooked. To help them feel valued, listen to their concerns, sponsor them for an opportunity, speak up when you see injustice, and advocate on their behalf.

7. Build social connections.

Being ignored at work is more harmful to physical or mental well-being than harassment or bullying. To help your team bond, work to build camaraderie, foster connections and friendships, and offer frequent validations.

8. Promote confidence by leading with gratitude.

Employees can perceive a lack of attention as a sign of trouble. Silence can cause them to worry. Regular expressions of gratitude can promote confidence. Make your appreciation clear and specific, and be sure it matches the magnitude of the achievement.

Stress and feeling of overwhelm are to be expected. To help prevent anxiety at work, there are steps organizations, leaders, and individuals can take to optimize their well-being. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton offer valuable tools and resources to overcome these reactions, with empathy as the core and compass.

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