Workplace Anxiety is on the Rise — How Leaders Can Help

Workplace anxiety and stress are on the rise. A recent Gallup State of the Global Workforce report found that 44% of the world’s workers experienced and 40% experienced worry for “a lot of the previous day”. Gallup also found that 60% of people are emotionally detached at work, and 19% describe themselves as miserable!

These statistics are striking, and these levels of employee unhappiness equate to high costs for employers. According to the American Institute of Stress, “after including factors such as absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, increased medical costs, and increased legal costs, the total economic impact of stress to US employers was estimated at $300 billion.”

Key Signs of Workplace Anxiety

When discussing workplace anxiety, we mean something beyond getting nervous about a big presentation or worrying about an upcoming deadline. When stress and worry grow beyond a normal reaction to a specific event and begin to affect all aspects of someone’s life, it is likely becoming anxiety. However, people dealing with high levels of stress and anxiety over time can become desensitized to the feeling, causing them to ignore the symptoms until it begins to affect their work performance or personal life. Here are some key signs of workplace anxiety you should be on the lookout for in yourself and your team:

  • Getting sick more than usual
  • Being irritable or short-tempered
  • Brain fog and difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling physically ill when thinking about work
  • Increased procrastination
  • Daytime fatigue, aches and pains

Effects of Workplace Anxiety on Individuals

If it is not addressed, workplace anxiety can seriously affect an individual. Some people experience loss of self-esteem, physical illness or chronic pain, poor work performance, and reduced self-efficacy. When employees lose faith in their abilities at work, it is difficult for them to perform well. Individuals suffering from workplace anxiety will often miss deadlines, begin to have more absences from work and struggle to manage their time. High levels of stress make people more likely to leave their job, impairs their ability to think strategically, and dulls their creative ability.

How Leaders Can Make a Difference

Clearly, workplace anxiety is a serious problem around the globe. As leaders, how can we reduce stress and anxiety at work? The key to reducing stress and improving business performance is creating a workplace culture that fosters well-being and increases employee engagement. There is no way to eradicate stress from our lives— there will always be difficult clients, unexpected challenges, and difficult deadlines. However, leaders can take steps that keep temporary stressors from becoming permanent while also creating an environment that boosts employees’ resilience.

  • Increase psychological safetyBuilding a culture of trust throughout an organization is the first step to reducing workplace anxiety. Setting clear expectations and goals, ensuring everyone feels able to speak up in meetings or talk about their challenges, and letting teams know it’s ok to make mistakes will go a long way toward creating a psychologically safe environment.
  • Insist on regular breaks during the workday – The human mind can only focus for 90-120 minutes at a time before we need a break. As leaders, we must encourage employees to take appropriate breaks during the day, and the best way to do that is to model that behavior. Suggest breaks for a short walk, send out calendar invites to take a 15-minute break, and if you notice an employee regularly not taking breaks, take time to find out why. Anxious workers may believe the only way to keep up at work is never to rest, but actually, the opposite is true.
  • Set clear boundaries about time outside of work – Leaders must set clear and explicit boundaries about what is expected from employees outside of work hours. The pandemic and remote work have caused a blurred line between work and personal time, to the detriment of people’s mental health. If you are a leader who prefers to work on email at odd hours, you must explicitly explain to employees whether you expect an immediate response or not. Don’t assume they know you don’t expect a reply until regular work hours. Even better, use an email scheduling feature to send the email during work hours instead of right that moment. Frequent notifications and messages during off-work hours increase stress and anxiety and don’t allow people time for necessary mental rest.
  • Create opportunities for growth and progression – Show your commitment to your employees’ well-being by supporting opportunities for them to learn and grow as professionals. Investing in employee development and upskilling is a great way to show you care about your team and their personal success. This acknowledgment will improve employee engagement and increase your team’s skills and knowledge. It’s a win-win!

Author and leadership expert Simon Sinek once said, “the responsibility of a company is to serve the customer. The responsibility of leadership is to serve their people so that their people may better serve the customer. If leaders fail to serve their people first, both customer and company will suffer.” Creating a workplace environment that supports the well-being of employees must be a priority for any successful organization.