Minimizing Workplace Anxiety
Why we really need to start paying attention to work anxiety
In a recent groundbreaking report by the World Health Organization, “workplace burnout” has now been recognized as a medical condition. The World Health Organization defines workplace burnout as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress and anxiety that has not been successfully managed”.
This action by the WHO represents long-awaited recognition of an alarming trend in workplaces globally. People are feeling the stress of the workplace, and it is impacting them so significantly that it becomes a medical condition. It not only affects their mental health, but also affects their physical health and contributes to chronic disease, mental illness, loss of work, purpose and meaning, and earlier mortality.
This rising trend is very true here in Canada. In a 2017-2018 survey by the Globe and Mail and consulting company Morneau Sheppell, with over 14,000 responses, 70% reported that their work significantly impacted their mental health, and a surprising 78% reported missing work due to mental health issues, ranging from less than one week to over a year of leave.
Where does burnout come from?
Burnout is a gradual process beginning with anxiety, stress and overwhelm at work. Subsequently, the stress begins to seep out into other areas of one’s life, over time restricting self-care, eroding self-worth, and resulting in shame, doubt, and depression. The key in preventing the later stages of burnout is to recognize and treat the early stages of excessive workplace anxiety and stress.
Not surprisingly, the number 1 reported concern in the aforementioned survey for employees under age 35 was anxiety, while for employees over age 35 the main concerns were burnout and depression.
People with “trait anxiety” or generalized anxiety may be more susceptible to workplace anxiety, but the condition is not limited to those who have struggled with general anxiety in the past. Workplace anxiety can begin at any age, and can be brought on by transition, new roles, new coworkers, restructuring, promotion, and other changes.
Recognizing workplace anxiety early
Common symptoms of early-stage workplace anxiety:
Clear stress and worry around specific job tasks and expectations
Avoidance of travel, presentations, or public speaking
Making excuses to get out of office parties, staff lunches, and other events or meetings
Taking on unrewarding but easier tasks
Irritability with coworkers, new or excessive frustration
Over-preparation and fretting over every small detail
Delaying deadlines, procrastination, taking very long breaks, missing work
Increasing perfectionism, excessive reassurance-seeking
Poor sleep before big events or meetings
Fatigue and sleepiness at work, progressing to fatigue outside work (not having any energy to do anything before or after work)
Frequent colds and flus, especially after a big deadline or project finishes
Reduction of leisure, self-care and social time outside of work
These symptoms may or may not be accompanied by the usual hallmarks of anxiety: racing mind, quick heartbeat or palpitations, sweatiness, jitteriness, digestive upset, dizziness, high blood pressure, headaches, insomnia, teeth grinding, and panic attacks.
Eventually, cumulative effects of repetitive workplace stress lead to higher susceptibility to minor illness like colds and flus, but also increase risk of chronic disease like cardiovascular conditions, obesity, diabetes, hormone imbalances, autoimmune conditions.
How to minimize workplace stress and anxiety
The good news is that most people respond very well to treatment when there is enough attention, time, and resources available to address the anxiety. The first step is building a personal wellness plan. If you’re getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and engaging in social activities outside of work, then your odds for balancing workplace anxiety are much greater. This may be common sense, but self-care is often the first thing that gets de-prioritized when one is busy.
1. Recognize the level of stress and your symptoms
Do you do any of the things on the above list of symptoms? Do you have physical sensations when you think about work? Back ache, stomach upset, chronic constipation or diarrhea, etc? A good starting place is identifying how high your level of stress is (for example, think back to a time when you were stress-free, how different do things feel now?). Keeping a journal or tracking symptoms on an app is helpful for this.
2. Establish self-care basics
Eat a proper diet of whole foods, and don’t skip meals. Blood sugar instability is one of the biggest culprits for daytime anxiety, often caused by irregular mealtimes and high-carb and high-sugar diets. Stabilize blood sugar by focusing on a healthy breakfast that prioritizes protein and fats. Try reducing caffeine by switching to decaf, half-caf coffee, or green tea.
Prioritize sleep by setting a bedtime that allows for 8 hours of sleep. Start to wind down one hour before this time by turning off screens, putting your phone away, and drinking a sleepytime tea. Here is my favourite. If you frequently wake up at night thinking of work tasks, try getting out of bed and making a list to get it out of your head, then go back to bed, knowing that sleep is the most important thing you could be doing in that moment.
Build in mini meditations or breathing practices throughout your day. This is a simple 3-minute meditation. Do it between tasks and before meetings, before you leave for the day. Save it to the main screen on your phone and set reminders to make it a habit.
Make movement a part of your routine. Whether it’s gym time, at-home online yoga sessions, or lunchtime walks, make movement an intentional part of your weekly routine. Schedule it in like an important meeting. Read more about the benefits of movement on anxiety and stress here.
Investigate and rule out any other causes of anxiety that may be making your experience of stress worse. Vitamin, mineral and macronutrient deficiencies, as well as blood sugar imbalances and inflammation are physical conditions that reduce the body’s resilience to stress.
Supplement when necessary. Some herbs and supplements like Lactium, Relora, Ashwaghanda, Passionflower, and L-theanine can be very helpful for short-term stress adaptation, concentration, and other symptoms. However, in the long run, the body’s best resilience tool is reducing the source of stress. Talk with a professional before starting any supplements for your health as some supplements have interactions and cautions.
3. Establish Boundaries
Be realistic. Avoid over committing or taking on projects at work or at home if you don’t realistically have enough time or resources.
Establish limits. Determine how late you are willing to work, and how much time outside of work are you willing to spend on work-related things. Make your after-hours email/contact policy clear so that the expectation is set where you can handle it. Then, give yourself permission to really turn off outside those times.
Communicate clearly. Speak up for yourself and don’t feel like you have to do everything you’re told. Get official if you have to by going to Human Resources or a manager. There is a lot of attention on employee mental health right now, and the market signal is right for companies to really be listening to what their employees feel about it. Let them know.
4. Set up resources
Get to know your company mental health policy. Many companies have protocols for accommodations, stress leave, or employee wellness programs to benefit their employees. Ask about the resources available to you. Use your benefits steadily through the year as prevention, instead of trying to use them up at the end of the year. If you are self-employed, give yourself time off and accommodations like you would an employee. Don’t expect more of yourself because you are your own boss.
Tell a trusted coworker or friend so that someone in the office knows how you feel and is aware of how to support you.
Build in personal support: enlist a counsellor, ND, MD, or psychotherapist so that you have established resources for difficult times, even if you only visit periodically.
Recognizing workplace anxiety is important for preventing burnout. Work has a big impact on life, but there is a lot you can do to mitigate the negative effects if you pay attention. If you are experiencing anxiety about work, reach out and take action to build resilience. It may not be realistic to expect workplace stress to disappear, therefore it is important to support ourselves for long-term health both in and outside the workplace.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Mark Gorkin, StressDoc