Woman sits at desk with fingers on her temples.

To talk about anxiety, it’s important to talk about stress first. Workplace stress is so pervasive that the American Institute of Stress found that 83% of employees suffer from workplace stress. But what is stress?

Stress is the body’s response to an external event or stressor such as a tight deadline or medical test. Symptoms include a clammy hands, a fast heartbeat, and shallow breathing. But when that stress is pervasive, long-lasting, or debilitating, it could develop into anxiety.

Anxiety is a lot like fear, except it’s the body’s reaction to an unknown or uncertain outcome. It is possible to be anxious about things that will likely never have an effect in our lives. Symptoms can include tension in the body, sleep disturbances, nausea, shaking, and shortness of breath.

There is, however, a difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety disorders greatly interfere with someone’s ability to function at their best for extended periods of time.

Warning Signs of Anxiety

While there are many diagnoses possible in those cases, each with their own sets of symptoms, there are common ways that anxiety shows up in the workplace.

  1. Diminished productivity. When employees are feeling anxious, they are likely having symptoms of lack of sleep, loss of interest in their work, and constant worrying. This could lead to them not producing as usual.
  2. Mood swings. Employees could have inconsistent emotions or switch quickly between high and low emotional states, they could cry, and/or they could feel irritable or tense.
  3. Absenteeism. Everyone needs time off, and the occasional “mental health day” is expected. However, some employees may have a combination of problems that need more attention and time to address. Mental Health America’s 2017 Mind the Workplace survey found that 53% of people that take off for stress or anxiety missed 6 or more days in one month.

Triggers of Work Anxiety

There are several internal and external factors that can affect an employee. While you may not be able to fully address external factors, there are internal triggers you can help ease such as:

  • Tight deadlines and heavy workloads
  • Relationships with their peers
  • Issues with direct managers
  • Conflict resolution
  • Job insecurity

You may be wondering “If anxiety is an issue, why don’t my employees speak up?” An ADAA study asked respondents this exact question, and here is what they said:

  • 34% are fearful that managers will see it as a lack of interest or unwillingness
  • 31% fear being labeled as “weak”
  • 22% think it would affect promotions
  • 20% think they will be laughed at or not taken seriously

How L&D Can Help

Managers and leaders are there to support employees’ well-being as they face stressors and concerns, and it should be no different with anxiety. But they can’t do it on their own. Here’s how L&D can help.

  • Knowledge sharing and support. One of the most effective stress busters is incredibly simple: encourage your employees to share the problem causing them stress. By doing this, it’s possible to get advice, hear similar stories, and offload some of the stress.  By facilitating a culture of openness, workplaces can reduce stress. 
  • Providing the right tools. When employees don’t know how to do their jobs properly, it can be incredibly stressful to them – and it’s likely a  strong driver of workplace stress overall. That means L&D needs to help learners grow in their confidence and ability. By simply empowering learners with the right tools, L&D can help decrease stress.
  • Provide content for learning. Providing managers with training on skills they can use to help support their mental health is a crucial strategy for alleviating anxiety and setting an example for employees. Our training library is a vast repository of videos to help manage stress and anxiety at work. Check out our newest video on this topic!
  • Establish a wellness initiative. This is a large undertaking and is outlined below.

Establishing a Wellness Initiative

It’s important to address the mental health of employees. There are myriad ways to help address anxiety in the workplace. One way is to create a wellness initiative.

Benefits of a Wellness Initiative

First, a few statistics to consider.

  1. The World Economic Forum found that, globally, mental health disorders will cost countries $16.3 trillion between 2011 and 2030.
  2. Every year, 217 million days are lost due to absenteeism and presenteeism. One million of them are people missing work because of stress.
  3. 41% of stressed workers said it has impacted their productivity. That’s $16.8 billion in lost productivity every year.
  4. Stress.org shared that 63% of U.S. workers are ready to quit their jobs due to stress.

All these statistics show that the benefits to the employees and business are compelling.

Consider that an employee has a mental illness. They seek treatment and at home, it’s openly discussed and accepted. But at work, no one talks about it, or they do so negatively. Coworkers say people use mental illness as an excuse for less work or special treatment. Now that employee feels conflicted – they can’t be their authentic self at work and it’s an added stress. Through education and open discussion, the organization can break down the stigma surrounding mental health allowing for employees to be open and honest and not anxious about their experiences and the organization further establishes a culture of acceptance, employee retention, an inclusivity!

What to Include

Now that you have an idea, what can you include in a wellness initiative?

Open communication. One of the most important steps in a wellness program is what was just mentioned – a psychologically safe environment where employees feel safe discussing their experiences.

Mental health-forward policies. Having clear mental health policies serves as a preventative measure and informs staff on how to handle issues that do arise. Examples of some policies include: the organization’s stance on discrimination, bullying, and harassment, the consequences of those actions, using inclusive vocabulary, and safety measures.

Training opportunities. Educating employees is a key part of a wellness initiative’s success. By training everyone, they know what to look for and how to help employees they see struggling. Topics to include are coaching, noting the warning signs, stress management, resilience, and emotional intelligence.

Rest is vital. It’s important to take brain breaks. By spending more time resting and less time engaged in work, employees can boost creativity and problem-solving skills and increase efficiency when work is being done. But this needs to be modeled by leaders as well. When employees see their managers and leaders stepping away for a moment, it becomes part of the everyday routine instead of being shrouded in guilt – was I gone too long? Did someone need something? Set some boundaries, but also trust that the work is getting done. Work anxiety happens to everyone. The more you fear it, the worse it gets.

Knowing the difference between stress, fear, and anxiety, and implanting these strategies can help you build stronger, closer teams, while opening a dialogue about mental health in the workplace. Check out our ebook on mental health in the workplace for even more tips!