Full confession: Over the last 15-plus years of my career, I have struggled mightily with anxiety.
Sometimes, it's a minor nuisance: slightly increased irritability, butterflies in the stomach before weighty presentations, a jittery angst that makes it difficult to slow down and properly think through a problem.
I call these "minor" because I can usually identify them quickly and address them with the standard breathing exercises, or a moment of disengaged calm.
Then there are the tsunamis: Going blank in the middle of a sentence, usually the ones I'm saying in front of supervisors or stakeholders; heart palpitations that feel like an oncoming heart attack; exhaustion after only a few hours of work; inability to focus or complete tasks.
Does any of this sound familiar, even vaguely?
More than likely, it does. About seven million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, though untold millions more are suffering without a diagnosis. Of those who are diagnosed, less than half are getting treatment.
And just to punctuate the obvious, six million adults in the U.S. suffer from panic attacks.
Suffice it to say, anxiety is no small issue. And our work lives are a big part of the problem. While studies are not entirely conclusive, there are startling correlations between countries that work a lot and those that suffer from generalized anxiety disorder.
So what do we do about it? Some advocate chemical treatments: A bevy of pills designed to keep you calm while you go about your life. Others are strongly in favor of meditation and mindfulness practice.
These are treatments, yes. But there's one big one we're missing: Reshaping our work culture.
CEOs, managers, and supervisors have the power to create environments that reduce, not increase, anxiety caused by work. I, for one, can cite several periods when my work life caused the majority of my stress and anxiety. And it was entirely avoidable.
Given my observations and the studies noted above, here are some key things leaders and managers can do to reduce anxiety for their employees:
1. Set reasonable expectations.
Do not assume an employee can handle any/all tasks; stay true to the job for which you hired them and the skills they evince. In many cases, employees will continue to say yes to please their superiors, while burning out and fighting overwork anxiety in the process.
2. Communicate frequently.
Don't leave your employees guessing. The unknown causes tremendous anxiety. Communicate regularly about tasks, expectations, and general work performance. Give them a chance to reach out to you directly if they have concerns or questions.
3. Let employees know they're appreciated, especially in high-stress times.
When projects are piling up and deadlines are looming, there's no better time to step in and say how much you appreciate the hard work your employees are doing. This will take the edge off.
4. Keep your personal life personal.
Introducing your private life into the workplace is tricky. It may seem like a good way to create connections, but story sharing should be kept superficial. Otherwise, you run the risk of making employees feel uncomfortable and anxious. They may even start assuming that they're expected to share details of their personal lives too, which is inappropriate.
5. Avoid discussing politics or incendiary topics.
In most cases, these are inappropriate for the workplace anyway. But to avoid possible tension and the anxiety that ensues, steer clear of politics or divisive subjects.
6. Break up the routine.
Make a point to host/plan events that get your employees away from the desks and computer screens: Little things that allow them to unwind during the workday, endorsed by their higher-ups. Let them know they are appreciated and that you understand the value of downtime. Not everyone can be going 100 miles per hour all the time.
7. Consider hiring an occupational therapist for your team or providing outside resources for counseling/therapy.
Part of the problem with workplace anxiety is that no one is willing to talk about it. Be the first. Make it known that anxiety is sometimes an issue at work, but that you want to address it by offering resources to help manage anxious moments. (Sondermind is a resource I've used and recommend.)
8. Lastly, be willing to accept responsibility and say 'I'm sorry.'
Sounds simple, but this role modeling will teach your employees that mistakes are human and shouldn't cause undue anxiety. The goal is to accept responsibility and learn from those mistakes. And the best way to teach this is by doing it yourself.