Mental Health Awareness Week: Understanding anxiety in the workplace
May 16, 2023
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme for 2023 is ‘Anxiety’. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 60% of UK adults experience anxiety which interferes with their daily lives and 25% say that anxiety has stopped them from doing the things they want to do some or all of the time.
Over half of UK workers say they commonly experience stress in the workplace, and work-related stress, anxiety and depression cause an estimated 17 million lost working days in the UK each year. Anxiety is an important human emotion but, in some circumstances, it can get out of hand and become a mental health problem. A lot of different things can contribute to feelings of anxiety including relationships, a new job or a big life change and specifically in the workplace, itself – job performance, working relationships, deadlines and workload, job security, workplace culture/environment and working hours. We might also find specific anxiety impacts our job performance, for example social anxiety can prevent us from speaking up in meetings or sharing our ideas. Workplace anxiety can also find its way into other areas of our life making it harder to ‘switch off’ at home and potentially impacting on our relationships and physical health.
A small element of workplace stress is normal and can be helpful to get us motivated (read our article on Eustress), but excessive stress or anxiety can negatively impact our overall health and wellbeing. This can include failure to meet deadlines, procrastination, forgetfulness, anger, fatigue, inability to concentrate, loss of focus, sick days or physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach ache.
The CIPD Health and Wellbeing survey in April 2022 found that mental ill health is one of the top causes of long-term absence (over four weeks), and a significant cause of short-term absence. Although there is unfortunately still some stigma around mental health, there is an increased openness through growing awareness and development of more supportive cultures in organisations, but also generational differences. Younger staff are more likely to openly discuss anxieties with colleagues and have different expectations around the support that their employer provides.
For many organisations, the first step to reduce the prevalence of workplace anxiety, or the impact that it has, is to ensure their culture supports employees being able to speak up about anxieties and stressors. This means supporting line managers and team leaders to be able to communicate with their teams, spot the signs that someone might be struggling, have conversations about mental health and signpost when support might be needed.
For individuals, it is important to learn to recognise our signs of stress and what might trigger our anxiety. We can then develop strategies to deal with these difficult emotions – trying to avoid them and just hoping things will get better is not going to lead us to the best outcome. We can adopt certain practices into our work routines to help such as listening to music, getting out for a walk during lunch, making sure we are taking the right breaks, and (where possible) consider the impact of our physical environment. It is also important to access support, talking to a manager or utilising wellbeing initiatives.
It may also be helpful to consider if there is training or coaching you can access within your organisation as this can help target areas that might cause stress or anxiety and increase your resilience and ability to deal with these issues going forward.
It is important we recognise the difference between low level worry that can help to motivate us or can be resolved through problem solving, and higher-level anxiety or burnout. And when we identify these emotions, we know what our support options are.
Mental Health Awareness Week