How not to deal with anxiety in the workplace
One in six people in the UK report experiencing a mental health problem every week and anxiety disorders top the list as the most common. As well as employee wellbeing, this impacts finances too. The LSE reported the cost of mental health problems is equivalent to around five percent of the UK’s GDP annually.
Those numbers make it clear this is an area HR professionals and management teams need to be clued up on. So, how can we create a supportive atmosphere and show up for our teams in kinder, more meaningful ways?
We spoke to two social enterprises with extensive experience in the mental health space and a Fortune 500 company to find out. Here’s what we learnt about everything from how biophilia (our innate love of the natural world) can reduce anxiety to the benefits of mental health first aiders.
How your workplace might trigger anxiety
Every workplace has potential triggers for anxiety, whether we’re a one-man band or in a company with countless departments. It might be deadlines, sales targets and big workloads building up to workplace burnout, or hectic commutes and overstimulating workspaces. Inevitably, toxic cultures where employers experience poor treatment or harassment can also be anxiety-inducing.
For some businesses and organisations, emotionally draining work might take a toll on employee mental health. Climate anxiety is on the increase too, with the risk of emotional burnout when people feel their employer’s environmental impact doesn’t align with their own values. As if these pressures weren’t enough, right now employees also have the cost of living crisis to contend with, another source of stress and anxiety.
Symptoms of anxiety show up differently for everyone. Here’s a handful of signs you might spot among anxious colleagues:
- Declining productivity or interest in their work
- Restlessness and irritability
- Extreme perfectionism
- Social withdrawal
Dos and don’ts for dealing with anxiety among your team
Don’t underestimate people with anxiety
Many employers unthinkingly stigmatise people with anxiety and other mental health problems. For Kris Scotting, whose social enterprise Seed of Hope supports people experiencing mental health issues through horticultural therapy, this often comes from expectations about how such disorders will impact their work.
“Lots of people in the HR and employment world think those with mental health problems can’t cope,” says Kris. “But people with anxiety have a lot of skills and knowledge to bring to the table. Employers are missing an opportunity if they’re not helping to bring these out.”
In fact, for Kris and his team, helping people find purpose in their life and work is a cornerstone of their recovery. “If you have mental health problems, you often just don’t want to get out there in the morning. So it’s important to find work that fires you up, work you love.”
As an employer, you can make a real impact on employees experiencing anxiety in this respect. Perhaps through matching them with more meaningful work assignments, reorganising responsibilities or mapping out career development plans.
Don’t ignore that anxiety might be a problem
Mental health is a hard (and anxiety-inducing!) topic for people to open up about to employers – especially because of the potential stigma. So it’s important to be proactive. Instead of waiting for team members to approach you, acknowledge that anyone could be struggling at any time. Start the conversation.
Unfortunately, when Scintilla founder Rebecca Dallimore developed panic disorder in her previous job, there wasn’t any communication about mental wellbeing. “I was working in quite a fast-paced consultancy, with big targets over my head. I didn’t have the mental support I needed but I also didn’t recognise I needed that support.”
“If I could go back to that time, I’d have a more open conversation with the senior leadership team. I wish I had encouraged them to think about how to handle mental health issues.”
For Rebecca, ever-increasing sales targets and long working days partly triggered her anxiety. It’s worth asking your team directly what pressures put the greatest strain on them. Once you know their challenges, you can address them – hopefully before they pile up into anxiety.
Don’t expect the same solutions to work for everyone
As well as symptoms of anxiety presenting differently for everyone, the type of support people respond to is also personal. There’s a need to be flexible when it comes to offering resources and support.
As Rebecca from Scintilla puts it, “a really important quality of any leader in a company these days is being extremely empathetic for the way different people work and understanding the differences between various personalities.”
Listening to employees’ individual needs is key here. Where more time to take care of their mental health outside the office might be helpful for one person, anxiety management strategies within the workplace might be needed for another. It’s all about communication and taking the time to understand.
A more positive approach to anxiety in the workplace
Do back up words with action
Once you open up the conversation about anxiety, follow it with consistent, concrete action. That often looks like making reasonable adjustments to your working conditions – something that will help you get the best out of people, urges Kris. “We should treat anxiety like other disabilities. Imagine if they hadn’t put ramps around the university for Stephen Hawking – we’d never have heard of him, one of the greatest minds the planet’s ever known.”
Kris sees the post-pandemic shift to flexible, remote working – free from arduous commutes – as a great example of how a change in working conditions can create a more accommodating environment for people with anxiety. “Sometimes just getting to work is an achievement. So working from home took a lot of stress out of their workplace for many people.”
It’s also worth pointing out here that if an employer invests in employee wellbeing, they can see a return on investment of up to nine times. What’s good for your team is good for business, too. At Motorola Solutions May 26th is now designated a paid mental health day, with all employees being encouraged to ‘take the day to pause and re-energize – to do something that brings you joy’.
Do organise workplace mental health training
Workplace mental health training is an excellent example of impactful action you can invest in. Any courses and activities that raise awareness of the issue will help unravel stigma around anxiety, promoting greater understanding and a more caring attitude.
At Motorola, regular mental health training is the norm. They offer webinars on topics like workplace burnout and return to work anxiety, as well as having a team of trained mental health first aiders. Just like normal first aiders, these are volunteers who have stepped up to provide initial support to colleagues experiencing mental health issues.
Employees might feel more comfortable talking to someone who’s trained in mental health and not part of the management team. It can also be an opportunity for early intervention in mental health problems, which can aid recovery.
Do create a greener, calmer office environment
Open-plan offices are usually seen as a positive – a sign of a social, collaborative workplace. But for people with anxiety, the set-up can be a sensory nightmare.
“There’s a lot of noise and activity. It’s very difficult to calm the nervous system down from all that input,” explains Kris. “Our neurology is wired to save us from the tiger behind us, that fight and flight kicks in. So if you’re anxious in an open-plan workspace, your physical body is being constantly triggered.”
What does a more anxiety-friendly environment look like, then? Kris thinks the more green space, the better. That can start with bringing the outdoors in, popping lots of plants around the office. A leafy outdoor space, whether a garden or a nearby park, where people can take breaks can also help reset the mood of your team.
“Thinking back to the pandemic, the minute they removed the lockdown everyone flocked to the beach. That’s people’s innate knowledge of what’s good for them. It’s called biophilia – our bodies and minds know we should be somewhere where we can hear the birds, hear the wind in the trees, see water. And that helps to calm those anxious thoughts and feelings.”
Soaking up the wellbeing benefits of being outdoors is something Motorola is encouraging among their employees, inviting them to attend a ‘Power of Nature’ webinar on the topic. Access to green space could be especially helpful for reducing climate anxiety, as research from the Woodland Trust highlights.
Kris recommends creating calmer spaces within the office too. Ideally places for people to work or at least take a breather, away from the noisier atmosphere of the main office.
Useful mental health resources and links for HR and management teams:
- Free resources to support staff mental health from MIND
- Free resources for educating staff on mental health from the Mental Health Foundation
- 10 free mental health resources to share with your employees by NaturalHR
- Headspace for Work
Fresh takes on mental health, especially for Gen Z team members:
- Campaign Against Living Miserably’s guide to work issues
- Planet Woo for wellbeing advice aimed at Gen Z
Wellbeing pick-me-ups for all the team, from social enterprises: