According to research, anxiety and depression are amongst the top 4 most common reasons for absence from work, contributing to approximately 17.6 million days’ sick leave, or 12.7 per cent of the total sick days taken in the UK.
Mental health problems are believed to affect one out of every six employees in the UK, and anxiety is one of the most common conditions among stressed or overworked staff. From avoiding certain situations, affecting your confidence and lowering ambitions, left unchecked anxiety can sabotage your career prospects and your mental health.
If you're suffering from anxiety and it's impacting you at home and at work, we take a look at how anxiety in the workplace may be affecting you and what you can do about it.
What is workplace anxiety?
Workplace anxiety, refers to anxiety that arises when we're at or thinking about work. It can arise in response to any situation that causes you to worry excessively or fear a negative consequence occurring e.g. a conflict with a colleague, an intimidating boss, an unrealistic workload or a fear of making mistakes that could result in something awful happening.
Workplace anxiety is common in roles where there are unclear expectations placed on you, if you have a workload that is impossible to achieve in the time you have available, if you are working with difficult personalities or have high levels of responsibility with limited support.
Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all feel from time to time. It alerts us to real or perceived dangers and helps us recognise when a threat is present. However, if you are experiencing persistent or excessive anxiety that interferes with your ability to do your job, impacts on your mental or physical health and your ability to enjoy and manage your personal life then it may be time to take action.
How to tell you're experiencing workplace anxiety
If you are frequently experiencing any symptoms of anxiety while at work or thinking about work, then it may be that you are experiencing workplace anxiety. Some of the most common symptoms include:
A strong desire to avoid work
Trying not to think about specific tasks you have to do or the opposite and being unable to switch off
Feeling irritable or getting easily frustrated
Avoiding friends and family
Feeling tired, low and unmotivated
Checking your work excessively
Feeling sick or having an upset stomach
Frequent muscles aches and tension
Feeling restless and on edge
Panic attacks or a feeling of dread
Continued workplace anxiety may erode your confidence over time, causing you to ignore your strengths at work so that you focus only on your limitations and underestimate your ability to cope with difficulties if they were to arise.
It can also impact on your efficiency at work if it causes you to procrastinate or become easily distracted or if it impacts on your ability to make decisions, for fear of making “the wrong” one.
You may also notice that you are worrying a lot about certain tasks or situations at work, catastrophising or imagining only the worst case scenario. In severe cases you may find that you are unable to switch off from work at all, worrying about outcomes, deadlines, work tasks and potential conflicts even in your free time.
How to deal with workplace anxiety
If you are experiencing workplace anxiety, here are some steps you can take both at work and outside of it that can help you to feel more relaxed:
1. Talk about your anxiety
If you feel that there are individual factors which are increasing your anxiety, such as unreasonable deadlines, an unmanageable workload or a company culture which doesn’t encourage taking time off, make a list of these issues and schedule time to speak to a manager to address your concerns.
Alternatively, talking about your anxiety and the way you have been feeling with friends, family a therapist or your GP can be a huge relief. It can help you to offload, detach from your experience and see your difficulties from a new perspective. If you don't have anyone you feel comfortable talking to, you can call a helpline such as the Samaritans.
2. Learn anxiety-management strategies
Becoming more aware of the factors that are contributing to your anxiety can help you to learn how to manage these difficult feelings. Making a note of the specific triggers to your anxiety as well as the specific thoughts you are having when you feel anxious can really help.
Research has shown that it isn’t things or the situation that make us feel unhappy or anxious, but the way that we think about them. Making sure that your thoughts are realistic and fair, towards yourself and others and that you are not placing unrealistic expectations on yourself or taking responsibility for things outside of your control can all help reduce anxiety.
3. Maintain your boundaries
If you are experiencing anxiety, maintaining your work-life balance and prioritising your free time is really important. In response to your anxiety, you may find that tasks are taking you longer and you are working longer hours as a result. This can exacerbate your feelings of anxiety and stress in the long-term and maintaining boundaries, eg by arriving and leaving work on time and taking a lunch break every day, will not only help you to manage your anxiety but also your overall efficiency in the long-term.
4. Know your rights
If you find your boss is not sympathetic, be aware of the specific regulations your company should adhere to. If you think these aren’t being met, it might be time to speak to a member of HR. Legislation is on your side here, giving anyone experiencing a long-term mental health issue, protection under the Equality Act 2010. This means all employers must make reasonable adjustments to work practices and provide other aids and adaptations for those in need. Beyond statutory health and safety duties, employers also have a general obligation to take reasonable care of the health and safety of employees in the workplace, including their mental wellbeing. ACAS has a confidential helpline if you want to find out more about your legal rights.
5. Use workplace support
Read up on your organisation’s wellbeing and mental health programmes to make sure you’re aware of your workplace policies and the support options available. Many businesses provide support for stress and personal problems through employee assistance programmes (EAPs). EAPs offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with anxiety and emotional distress, from family issues, work-related problems, addiction and mental ill-health.
6. Face your fears
We often avoid the things that we fear. Although this can help avoid anxiety in the short-term, this often doesn't help in the long-term and can make working life feel very hard. If there is something that you have been putting off doing at work, taking the plunge and doing it can not only bring a huge sense of relief, it will also give you the opportunity to see whether your worst case scenario will happen or not. Even if it does, it can be liberating to have taken action and therefore can improve your confidence in yourself and your ability to cope.
7. Practise mindfulness
It might feel as though you are unable to control your worries or can't stop thinking about work when you are not there. When we focus on the present moment, the 'here and now' it can help us to realise we are safe in this moment and feel calmer and more grounded. The mind is like a muscle and it takes some training to be able to select where you focus your attention. Focusing your attention on what you are doing during your every day tasks eg whilst brushing your teeth as well as practising formal meditation can help to develop your ability to do this, enabling you to more easily switch off outside of work.
8. Develop a bedtime routine
It can be hard to fall asleep when feeling excessively anxious, or you may find that you're waking more frequently in the night. When we are well rested we have more resources to deal with life's challenges including feeling anxious. It also gives our nervous system a chance to calm down and recover which helps us to feel less anxious. Developing an evening routine to give yourself a chance to wind down before going to bed can really help e.g. having a warm bath or shower, writing worries down on a piece of paper or a journal, creating a cosy bedroom environment and avoiding screen-time can all help improve your chances of a good nights sleep. If you are unable to sleep, doing something calming and relaxing like reading or listening to music can help.
Physical exercise can help to reduce feelings of anxiety as it produces brain chemicals that reduce anxiety, positively affect your mood and can also help you to feel better about yourself and your ability to deal with challenges.
10. Be aware of your diet
It can be tempting to eat more snacks and comfort foods and reach for an alcoholic drink when feeling anxious and whilst this may provide some short-term relief, it can lead to increased feelings of anxiety in the long-term. Eating regularly and healthily to balance blood sugar levels and moderating the amount of caffeine, sugar and alcohol that you consume can all help you to feel less anxious over time.
11. Make time for relaxation
Relaxation exercises can help to reduce the mental and physical symptoms of anxiety. Relaxation exercises include visualisation eg imagining yourself in a calming environment, confidently dealing with upcoming situations and/or breathing exercises, eg breathing in slowly for a count of four and out for a count of six. These can be done at your desk, on the train on the way home or in bed at night. The more you practise these exercises, including when you're not feeling anxious, the more helpful they will be when you really need them.
12. Seek professional help
We can all experience anxiety and feelings of fear from time to time. However, if your anxiety has become so severe and long-lasting that it is affecting other areas of your life, it might be worth seeking a short course of therapy to help you to understand and overcome the anxiety you are experiencing.
Mental health support
For additional support your first port of call should be your GP. Alternatively, try one of the following resources:
BABCP: help finding an accredited CBT therapist here.
Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.
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