Over 8 million people in the UK are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time. A recent study specifically aimed at UK employees found that 60% of employees are experiencing anxiety. Of this group, the majority (over 60%) are female and 16-24 years.
With stats like these, it’s no surprise anxiety in the workplace is a growing concern for employers and individuals alike. But what are organisations doing to tackle the ‘anxiety epidemic’?
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week shone the spotlight on anxiety, making Anxiety in the Workplace its theme for 2023. It was encouraging to see so many of our clients booking our signature Managing Anxious Thoughts workshop, prompting heartfelt and productive conversations about experiences of anxiety.
However, considering only 10% of employees suffering from anxiety are seeking mental health support, there’s clearly a need for preventative and proactive support all year around. So what can they do?
Firstly, we urge employers to truly grasp what anxiety is and how it differs from other mental health conditions.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress or threat. In fact, you could see it as a hard-wired safety response – part of the “fight or flight” instinct. When we or someone we care about is at risk, our brain prioritises the danger and focuses its energy on beating it.
Complex thinking processes are shut down to allow us to concentrate on the danger at hand. Meanwhile, signals go out to our body to prepare for action. Our breathing quickens, our heart starts pumping faster, sending more blood to our muscles as we prepare to fight or flee. Both the mind and body adapt in order to give us the best chance of surviving until the danger passes.
Anxious thoughts and feelings are a predictable and appropriate response for many situations. However, the same responses can be triggered when there is no immediate physical danger. Just thinking about a threat, past or future, can be enough to activate intense anxiety. And this can mean that there’s also no clear end point to the threat, so all these anxious feelings can persist. In these circumstances, anxiety can evolve into something that’s problematic.
However, the same responses can be triggered when there is no immediate physical danger. Just thinking about a threat, past or future, can be enough to activate intense anxiety. And this can mean that there’s also no clear end point to the threat, so all these anxious feelings can persist. In these circumstances, anxiety can evolve into something that’s problematic.
When anxiety becomes problematic….
Feeling a little anxious before a presentation, for example, might focus your mind and energise you to give your best performance on the day. But if it becomes too much, it could make you feel sick, prevent you from sleeping properly, and leave you with a shaky hand and a wandering mind when the presentation begins.
In more extreme cases, however, anxiety can become a recognised disorder, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobias, and Acute Stress Disorder which can develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Now we’ve explained anxiety in more detail, we wanted to share some tips to help employees who may be struggling.
Symptoms of Anxiety in the Workplace
Anxiety can manifest in different ways for different people. You may notice an employee suffering from anxiety displaying some of these characteristics and behaviours:
- A persistent sense of worry, apprehension, dread or hopelessness.
- Feeling trapped and unable to find a ‘way out’
- Feeling fearful, paranoid and tense – Perhaps avoiding meetings, new projects, or work events
- Anger and impatience.
- Difficulty concentrating and having a hard time focusing on work-specific tasks
- Diminishing motivation
- Procrastination over work-related tasks.
Anxiety in the workplace can also display itself in physical symptoms, including:
- Panic attacks
- Muscle tension.
- Fatigue and difficulty sleeping
- Sweating palms
- Consistent stomach pain or nausea
So whilst it’s not immediately obvious if an employee is anxious at work, the general rule of thumb is to keep an eye out for any uncharacteristic behaviour.
How to support an employee who’s suffering from anxiety
So, you have an employee you suspect is suffering from anxiety. What can you do? If you have an inkling, or are certain an employee is suffering from anxiety, there are number of ways you can support them.
1. The first (and most important) step is starting a conversation
Talking about mental health doesn’t need to be awkward. Consider what is holding you back from approaching a colleague you think is suffering from anxiety and needs support. Is it fear, of rejection or reprisal? Fear of saying the wrong thing? Stigma? If you’re unsure about starting a conversation or what steps to take, use the ALGEE model
Introducing the ALGEE Model
A – ASSESS for risk of suicide or harm.
Before approaching someone, have you studied his or her behaviour? Are they acting different? Do they go cold when someone mentions a particular subject? Try to identify any anomalies (using the list above). If you notice self-harm, imminent distress or something out of the ordinary, then this person may be in a crisis situation and require immediate help. This would most likely be the emergency services. However, if the individual shows more passive signs of anxiety, then we can approach them with the next step.
L – LISTEN non-judgmentally.
This is probably one of the most important things to remember as people with little experience often overlook it. It is important to listen, however it’s even more important to listen without judging the speaker. If someone is experiencing an episode of anxiety, then offering open arms and an ear to listen is the best thing to do. Most people desire empathy more than an answer, so don’t worry if you don’t know what to say – listening to them and showing sympathy is all someone could need to get through their bad day.
Remember, being judgemental or disrespectful to the individual’s views or troubles can make things worse. If you want to help somebody suffering form a mental health issue, then you will need to adopt patience and understanding. Head over to our listening wheel blog for more tips on listening well.
G – GIVE information and encouragement and SUPPORT.
It can be difficult to get someone to take action on their anxiety, even with encouragement. However, if you are speaking to someone who is suffering, then your encouragement will be the best thing. People often feel ‘alone’ when enduring anxiety, therefore knowing they have someone there in their corner is all they need.
E – ENCOURAGE professional help
This can be hard too, however it’s the right thing to do for anyone you see really suffering. The sooner they’re able to confront their fears and seek help, the sooner they‘ll recover. Someone suffering from anxiety requires intensive encouragement, especially as many people don’t want to appear to be ‘bothersome’. The best thing to do in this scenario is discuss what options there are and how you will help them get there. All someone needs is encouragement and they’re more likely to seek help than they were previously.
E – Encourage self help or other support.
Here it may be good to talk to the person about taking part in activities or hobbies that may distract them from their anxiety. By providing them a way to maintain their mental health, they can help themselves on the road to recovery. Activities that you can introduce them to include; exercise, socialising, reading, gardening and other pastimes.
2. Make reasonable adjustments
Depending on the individual and the severity of their anxiety, it may be helpful to offer some of these reasonable adjustments:
- Working from home, or staggered start times. A colleague suffering from anxiety may want to avoid public transport during busy times, or get home before it’s dark. Ask the employee what working patterns would best suit them.
- Help with workload. Can you take some tasks off their hands and delegate to other colleagues. Perhaps there’s a big presentation coming up that someone else could present?
- If they need time off work, gradually phase their return. And whilst they’re off work, check in frequently and kindly. If a colleague was off work with a broken leg, you’d check in, perhaps even send a card or some flowers. It should be no different for a mental health issue.
3. Create a supportive and compassionate workplace culture
It’s imperative the whole organisation is compassionate and sympathetic to anxiety in the workplace (and any other mental health issues). This will most likely require on-going mental health training for all staff and managers specifically. As well as role-modelling from more senior members of the business. By opening discussing their own mental health struggles, or proactively championing mental health support in their workplace, managers are setting the tone for future generations at work to talk more openly about mental health.