Managing workplace anxiety

Apr 09 2008 by Myra White Print This Article

Too much anxiety kills performance. Yet anxiety is often ignored in the workplace or considered a sign of weakness that needs to be swept under the desk. So what can those who manage others do about it?

The right amount of anxiety can improve work performance. But if people's anxiety levels become too high, anxiety can interfere with people's ability to work effectively. Managers need to be attuned to the anxiety levels of their reports in order to create an environment that elicits employees' best performances.

Anxiety originally evolved as a valuable survival mechanism. When early man heard a tiger rustling in the bushes, the rush of anxiety that he experienced geared him for action and helped ensure his survival.

In a world where most people are no longer threatened by tigers the utility of anxiety has diminished, but it continues to have an impact because people are extremely good at creating their own "mental tigers." If these "mental tigers" are too vivid, people become flooded with anxiety and can no longer work effectively.

Anxiety typically arises when people feel that they are about to become victims of situations over which they have no control. Workplaces are particularly fertile grounds for generating such situations. Most jobs no longer come with long-term guarantees and companies can implode in a few weeks resulting in huge layoffs.

Company reorganizations, mergers and change initiatives are a common phenomenon. Current efforts by companies to pare their workforces to a minimum by overloading employees with more work than they can handle are another great source of anxiety.

To monitor employees' anxiety levels managers need be aware of the various ways in which people manifest anxiety. The stereotypical picture of a person in the grip of anxiety is someone who is tense and agitated. This is misleading and overly simplistic.

Anxiety has many faces. It has physiological, cognitive, emotional and motor effects.

Physiological effects can include a pounding heart, sweaty hands, headaches, muscle stiffness and soreness, tightness of breath, indigestion, excess blood sugar, and frequent urination or diarrhea.

Cognitive effects impact people's memories and ability to focus and process information. People forget names of people they know or forget what they need to do. They have trouble concentrating on their work and often don't process information well.

For example, when people are anxious, they have trouble understanding and following instructions. No matter how carefully you explain what you want them to do, they can't seem to get it right. Because cognitive effects directly interfere with the ability of knowledge workers to do their jobs, it is easy for managers to mistake these effects for signs of incompetence or a lack of motivation rather than being the byproduct of high anxiety levels.

Anxiety can also elicit strong emotional reactions. When people are anxious, they are more likely to lose their temper or become impatient with their fellow workers which can lead to damaging office conflicts. Other emotional symptoms are more internal. People become socially withdrawn, eat compulsively, magnify problems, engage in endless checking behaviors or just become too overwhelmed to do their work.

Even motor skills are affected by anxiety. People drop and break things, trip over things, and have trouble performing fine motor movements.

If anxiety is a problem in your workplace, how can you reduce it? One of the best ways is to identify the underlying fears that drive it.

Are there situations in the workplace that are activating people's anxieties? Is your company going through a lot of changes? Are earnings dropping? Have new policies or initiatives been introduced which employees find threatening? Have there been layoffs? Is there something in your own behavior as a manager that inadvertently raises employees' anxiety levels?

Once you've identified possible sources, you should sit down with your employees to determine if you are on the right track. Listen to their fears and find out what you can do together to help minimize them.

Can you make changes in the way that work is allocated or shared? Do they need more resources? Do work schedules need to be changed? Do they need more feedback and training? Do they simply want to be kept up-to-date on what is happening within the company and how it will affect them?

Even if there are no easy answers, just by bringing people's fears out into the open and showing that you care and support them will help to reduce employees' anxiety levels. It is always the unknown rustling in the bushes that is most likely to raise our anxiety levels.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.