How to Overcome Workplace Anxiety

Anxiety can affect performance at work, relationships with others, quality of sleep and is endemic in high flyers and millennials alike, reveals EMILY HOURICAN

In the 1980s it was “stress”, in the 1990s “burnout”, now it’s “anxiety.”
But whatever we call it, there is no doubt that workplace mental health is an issue. Anxiety is a latter day epidemic, tearing into all aspects of our lives and relationships. And for many, work is a core component in a deeply vicious cycle. Stress heightens anxiety, which then disrupts mood, sleep and relationships, which in turn feeds back into making work more stressful, and so back around in an ever-decreasing, ever-depressing cycle. In the last five years, the numbers have become steadily more alarming – a recent survey in this country put the figure at 80 per cent of corporate workers concerned over their mental health, with one in five admitting they have missed work in the past year due to stress, anxiety or depression – and the personal stories more harrowing.

“Ask any psychologist what they see most and the common response will be panic disorders with a combination of panic attacks, GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) PTSD and social anxiety,” says psychologist Allison Keating, founder of the bWell clinic and author of The Secret Lives Of Adults. “The silent anxiety epidemic that I see too frequently happens within the office cohort. And although anxiety typically affects women more than men, clinically I see an even divide in relation to workplace anxiety.”

There is a backlash – law schools at Yale, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of San Francisco have begun offering mindfulness courses. After decades as the poster girl for relentless achievement, Arianna Huffington spectacularly re-routed and is now a global champion of sleep, time off, digital detoxing and other “slow” working habits – but alas the rest of the working world is slow to follow. Even though we know how toxic wearing our 60-hour weeks like a badge of honour is, it still happens. Emails still get sent at 4.30am and 11pm and on weekends. We still boast of being “too busy”, and routinely cancel friends, social engagements, us-time, in order to be more available to work.

“I don’t know which came first, the auto-immune disease or the stress,” says Sarah Wilson, New York Times bestselling author of First, We Make The Beast Beautiful, of the events that led her to completely change the course of her life. “I was in my mid-30s, editing Cosmopolitan magazine in Australia, and I got to a point where I was suicidal.” She means that literally. She has tried to kill herself. Twice. “That was a high adrenalin job, and it was exciting. But what feels like excitement can tip into anxiety. I had suffered childhood anxiety, and been diagnosed as bipolar when I was 21. My big mental health flare-ups seemed to coincide with times of intense stress in my career path. The job became more pressurised, and I responded by turning up the dial. I’m a Type-A personality, so I kept going faster and faster, working harder and harder. I was also running 10km to work every morning, taking part in 24-hour cycle races, and drinking a bottle of wine a night. Until I was in freefall.”

Eventually, Sarah was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an auto-immune disorder that, she says wryly, “tends to strike A-type women in their 30s and 40s, and is the perfect disease for us. The only thing that will stop us in our tracks. Your hair falls out, you get fat and lethargic, it strikes your ego so that you have to do something! I got to the point where I couldn’t walk. I hit rock bottom in every possible way,” Sarah says. “I was so sick I couldn’t work for nearly a year, I had doctor’s bills coming in, and I lost everything. I had to find a different way.”

This kind of response is, says Fiona Brennan, clinical hypnotherapist and author of The Positive Habit, a worryingly likely conclusion to extreme work-related stress. “This always-on culture naturally leads to heightened anxiety. Our sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated and as a result, we have too much cortisol going through our systems. Each email and alert that we don’t respond to immediately can be interpreted as a threat and anxiety is based on a feeling of fear and being overwhelmed. A feeling that we can’t cope or manage the never-ending emails and deadlines contributes to workplace anxiety.” 

For Caroline Foran, best-selling author of Owning It and The Confidence Kit, “the anxiety that got me was stress building up and up and up. Like a bag getting heavier. The accumulation of daily stress led to a lower threshold for coping and a shorter fuse.” Foran, who is now freelance but used to work in media, had “made a move from a job I really liked, to one I soon knew was a mistake.” The anxiety, she says, was made worse by “the feeling that I had no right to be anxious, because other people had it worse. I felt such shame.” Eventually “I started feeling the anxiety in my stomach, and then I began having panic attacks.”

She left that job and “didn’t work for a few months, because I was so unwell. Then I went into a different job that was much better for me, and then I went freelance.” These days, Foran, as well as writing, gives talks in corporate settings about her experiences. “I describe what happened to me, how stress turned into anxiety, and what can be done about it, and I see people nodding their heads, going ‘oh yes!’ in recognition. I have a lot of respect for the companies that invite me in to talk, but it can’t just be lip-service. Change needs to come from the top down. It’s all very well to destigmatise by talking about our mental health, but it’s not enough. Awareness is all well and good, but change needs to happen from the top.”

Keating is in complete agreement. “One thing that irks me are ‘wellness weeks’” she says, “treating over-worked employees to a quick stress-reduction chat over their lunch-break, often with the caveat to the facilitator not to mention the word ‘stress’! Fancy mission statements need to be taken out of folders and put into daily action.”

Much of this action is simple – actively discourage desk-lunching, email-checking and responding after office hours, a face-time culture, busyness-bragging. And discourage by example. There is no point in the company boss saying ‘take your time off seriously’ if she/ he is going to send ‘catch-up’ emails at 5am. Internalise the idea that this isn’t ‘self-care’ or ‘kindness’ or any other woolly notion of wellness; this is vital people-management, for everyone from CEO to interns. We are in this for the long haul – retirement age will be pushed back and back in the coming decades; we cannot, any of us, afford to peak in our late 20s and burn out by 40. 

It would be a mistake to believe that only those with pre-existing tendencies to anxiety will experience it. Or, that there is a pre-set profile. “High achievers can be more susceptible to workplace anxiety as they have a desire to prove themselves that can never be satisfied,” says Brennan, “but there is no age or gender profile for this. Although I would say that women in predominantly male environments are conditioned to be more doubtful of their ability and less assertive in certain situations. Also, the workplace is particularly competitive for younger generations and this can lead to accepting circumstances that are less than ideal, for example, working long hours for little remuneration.”

In fact, what’s astonishing, and troubling, is how easily stress – something we all feel, that can even be a positive motivator – can tip over into anxiety. That troubled 80 per cent of us are not entering the workforce with a history of anxiety; we are encountering it there.

Figures suggest that the millennial generation is more affected – or at least more open – about anxiety than those older than them, but as Caroline Foran points out, this is emphatically not a “snowflake” issue. “It’s not that we’re sensitive, it’s that something is fundamentally wrong with the working culture. And if we are going to bring down the anxiety epidemic, there has to be fundamental change.”

It’s change we need to ask for. We are all part of the working culture, and we all need to indicate that being “always on” is unacceptable, and counter-productive. Start by politely ring-fencing your time off – evenings and weekends. Keep work to work hours. That goes for everyone, whether they are suffering with anxiety, or not.

And if you are suffering anxiety, there is a major question around telling, or not telling. Do you reveal to your employer that you are suffering from anxiety – either brought on by or exacerbated by, work? Should you be honest, ask for help, expect to get it? Or carry on silently, in case openness changes perceptions of you and damages your career? “It’s very hard to do,” says Foran, “but I think it’s a good idea to tell. We all have ‘mental health’, it’s not something that only some people have. Being able to say it was a huge thing for me.” Your employer “has a duty of care to your mental health,” says Allison. “Be courageous,” she continues. “It’s never going to be easy but it may be less hard than you imagined. It’s the anticipatory dread that dissuades so many.”

The Equality Act means all employers in Ireland have an obligation to take reasonable care for the wellbeing of employees in the workplace, including their mental wellbeing. It’s an obligation that most take seriously. But it’s worth remembering that your anxiety affects your employer too, insofar as it may impact your ability to perform. You have a reasonable expectation of care, and your employer has a reasonable expectation that you will do your job.

The kind of stress that leads to anxiety can take years to build up, and there are no quick fixes to make it go away. “You need to look after your mental health every day, not just sometimes,” says Foran. “Stress and anxiety are going to be part of our lives, unless you become a Tibetan monk. We need to be able to step out of our comfort zones, and then step back in.” Her advice? Find what works for you. “Find your balance. For me, running can heighten cortisol levels, so I do weight training. It’s slower, more controlled, it suits me better. If I’m in an anxious phase, I’ll limit coffee, alcohol, prioritise sleep. There’s no one size fits all. Do whatever soothes you.”

Finally, be ready to “reframe” your anxiety. “It’s my superpower,” Sarah Wilson says. “It’s the thing that drove me and has allowed me to achieve. And, it’s the thing that, if I’m not doing something right, gives me an itch I can’t ignore. I used to think that was a punishment, now I realise it’s my soul’s way of telling me ‘wrong way, turn back’. We can’t run from pain, or put a pill in our mouths and hope it goes away. I have learned that, if you jump from a great height, you always land somewhere better – but you have to jump first.”

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