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Overcoming anxiety in the workplace, what can organisations do to help?

Even before the outbreak of Covid-19 and the global pandemic, workplace anxiety was gaining recognition as a significant issue for organisations to manage. Mental health charity MIND reported that 1 in 6 workers are dealing with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or stress. These conditions can stop people from performing at their best if employers don’t take steps to understand and manage the issues.

Of course, 2020 has seen workplace anxiety rise to unprecedented levels. Uncertainty about job security and the threat of redundancy, money issues, coping with home life under lockdown, lack of communication from employers while on furlough - the pandemic has only added a raft of contributory factors. Indeed, Monkey Puzzle covered guidance for leaders in managing anxiety surrounding returning to work back in May. 

This blog has been written to help organisations be more aware of the problem of workplace anxiety, identify where they may be contributing to it, and suggest a number of interventions that will reduce anxiety levels and minimise the impact on productivity.


What causes anxiety to spread?

Regardless of the extra pressures associated with Covid-19, anxiety can spread like wildfire in an organisation. Negative stories, memes, and myths can quickly fester and take hold in teams and in whole organisations occasionally. Often organisations can unintentionally set off anxiety in many people by triggering some of our general human fears around safety, security, and belonging. Therefore, it impacts nearly everyone. Without a doubt, instances of poor or non-existent communication from leaders and line managers do nothing to help.

Often people don’t know consciously what they are reacting to, they just feel it, find something to blame it on and then it spreads. This can be debilitating for team morale, effectiveness, and productivity. The good news is that there are ways to mitigate this probability, by taking some key steps organisations can make a real difference to the experience of their employees.


Managing workplace anxiety

Through our work with organisations as organisational psychologists, we’ve spotted actions that contribute to anxiety - as well as identifying solutions that can help.

Here are 7 workplace anxiety related tips:

1. Address concerns surrounding safety: With the pandemic heading towards a second spike, safety will be everyone’s first concern. The ability to remain working from home, adequate social distancing at work, provision of PPE, and procedures for coming into contact with customers - all need to be well thought out. Be very explicit and clear about what is happening and when. The pandemic is causing people to experience mental and emotional overload which means that they may miss subtle cues or forget something you have told them. Be very clear and communicate through a variety of means.

2. Where there are predictable routines or rhythms of work - let them happen:  As we’ve seen with sudden enforced home working, a change to routine brings uncertainty and anxiety. This is why any activity centred around preserving team relationships have been so vital and welcome. There’s more depth to office Zoom parties than you might think - they act as a reminder of colleagues and routines and make the current fractured state of work feel more like normality.

3. Don’t overplay change as exciting: Change happens, but not everyone is a fan. Organisations often present change from their perspective, wanting everyone to get on-board. They’ll major on what they see as exciting, often not realising that some find change unnerving and a contributor to anxiety. To reduce anxiety levels, as well as talking about the exciting part of the change, point out also what is staying the same. It will act as grounds for stability which may in turn make the actual change seem less daunting.

4. Understand what has hit the fear buttons: When something happens and people react for no apparent reason, remember that whatever it was has probably hit their fear buttons. Rather than arguing about the thing itself, think about how to reassure people instead.

5. Look for the signs of anxiety: The signs are often there - individuals' work may have deteriorated, there may be an obvious change in mood - but perhaps not to them. Has their behaviour towards others changed? Ask if they need any support or if there’s anything they would like to discuss. Asking open questions gives people the opportunity to speak, for example, "I was wondering how you are doing?” Likewise, what are you sensing around the general mood and morale? Have engagement levels dropped? In particular, are incidents of sickness absence going up? This might be a sign of mental health and anxiety issues.

6. Focus on developing an inclusive culture of empathy and openness: How supportive is your culture? With Covid-19 related levels of anxiety, a supportive culture has never been as important as now. Many people are feeling hugely apprehensive which is why we support the notion that your people should feel that it’s ‘ok not to feel ok’. So, focus on developing an inclusive culture of empathy and openness where employees feel supported to seek help from management and colleagues when they need to. Particularly in a pandemic, normalising peoples' fears and anxieties can be more supportive than trying to positively reframe them.

7. Invest in competent line managers: This is essential to the emotional stability of your organisation. The competence of managers is often underrated but they are a totally critical lynchpin in your organisation who can smooth over bumps, keep things calm and see off difficult situations. In the current pandemic climate, the line manager really becomes the organisation and maybe the only point of contact employees have. With remote working now commonplace, a more trust based coaching led style of management helps to talk through the issues and identify coping strategies.


In conclusion

Workplace anxiety is now centre stage and will remain this way for some time. The more aware the organisation is of the issues and signs - and particularly through good line management, the more able it will be to help their people manage and cope. Equally, promoting an inclusive, caring and open culture will help those feeling anxious that they are not alone and that understanding and support are not only available to them but encouraged.


For further information

If you are affected by these issues - either as a leader or are dealing directly with your own work related anxiety, we can help.

Find out more about our Leadership Development and Employee Wellbeing Programmes. We also have a network of inspirational associate coaches, highly qualified in a range of coaching interventions.


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