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Anxious at Work: Is It Me or This Damn Job?

High pressure jobs = anxiety at work.

For every nine employees at your company, odds are that one of them will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in his or her life. Left untreated, as two-thirds of them are, they can make work a lot harder and a lot less productive. Employees experiencing symptoms on the job often report problems concentrating, excessive fatigue, irritability, and less productivity as a result of having to repeat work or correct mistakes.

What does anxiety feel like?

If your heart has ever pounded before a big presentation or you're stressed about an upcoming performance appraisal, you’ve gotten a taste of what anxiety feels like. Imagine you always felt this way—24 hours a day, feeling antsy, irritable, dreading any amount of additional stress because you are maxed out already.

Or what if your heart would suddenly start racing, you couldn’t catch your breath, and you felt like you were “going crazy” out of the blue—with no warning and for no reason. It wouldn’t take too many of these blitzkriegs before you’d start worrying about when the next wave of anxiety would hit.

“What if it happens again? What if other people notice? What if it happens in front of my boss?” If you do see some kind of pattern to your panic attack (it tends to happen while you’re driving, meeting with your boss, giving a talk) you might begin to avoid those events like the plague—even if it ultimately costs you career-wise.

Anxiety Because of Work

While we don’t know exactly what causes anxiety disorders, we do know they tend to run in families. Apparently, some of us inherit a genetic predisposition that, in combination with our personality and life experiences, can send us down the anxiety path.

However, if our job is stressful enough, it can impact even the hardiest of us. A groundbreaking study out of New Zealand found that 1 in 7 women, and one in 10 men, in high-pressure jobs reported clinical levels of anxiety even though they had never experienced a mental health difficulty. In fact, researchers concluded that half of the anxiety reported by the 900 people they followed over 30 years (and who had undergone regular psychological testing since they were children to rule out other contributing factors) could be attributed to workplace stress.

High-Pressure Job = Distressed Employee

What is it about work that can send us into an emotional frenzy? Researchers are still gathering information but we have some pretty good clues.

Long hours, demanding supervisors, high workloads, and lack of clear direction are culprits, especially when they occur together. In particular, jobs with high demands (such as workload, time pressure, and role conflict) and low control (with low autonomy and authority) and rewards (money, esteem, career opportunities) increase stress and, hence, the risk for psychiatric ill-health.

Perceptions of fairness (or lack thereof) have also been linked to mental health in the workplace. For example, when managers are inclusive and transparent in their decision-making, employees are more likely to feel more secure and less anxious (even if the actual decisions are unpopular).

Another aspect of fairness relies on the quality of the interactions between managers and subordinates. Employees expect the organization, and its managers, to treat them with respect, dignity, honesty, and to extend equal treatment to all its members. When this psychological contract is broken through insensitive, humiliating, or abusive treatment, it adversely impacts the subordinate’s emotional well-being as well as his or her job satisfaction. If it happens often enough, it can be emotionally debilitating.