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A Guide to Managing Work Anxiety

A Guide to Managing Work Anxiety

Work anxiety is causing distress in workplaces everywhere, with over 41 percent of employees reporting high levels of anxiety at work. Nine in 10 workers say job stress affects their mental health, and 83 percent say they feel emotionally drained by their workplace.

Work-related anxiety isn’t just an employee concern, it affects businesses, too. More than half of employees say stress and anxiety impact their workplace performance (56 percent), quality of work (50 percent), and relationships with co-workers (51 percent). It’s a challenge that can stand in the way of individual and organizational success.

What is work anxiety?

Work anxiety, also sometimes called workplace phobic anxiety, involves excessive and enduring worry and nervousness about your job that affects productivity, performance, and physical and/or mental well-being. While workplace-related anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5), some work anxiety symptoms overlap with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Mental health professionals may diagnose GAD if you’re excessively worryful and fearful in several areas of life, like home, work, social situations, and relationships. With anxiety at work, symptoms occur around fears specific to experiences at work versus a generalized fear of something bad happening.

It’s important to remember that anxiety is not the same as stress or burnout. Stress can result from good or bad things that you need to act on; everyone experiences stress and it’s often short-lived. Burnout happens when you experience pervasive and continuous amounts of stress without coping adequately along the way. Stress and burnout can co-occur with work anxiety, and they’re  also taking a toll on the broader workforce. Lyra Health’s 2023 State of Workforce Mental Health survey reports that work-related stress and burnout are the second most common factors affecting employee mental health over the past year, after financial stress.

Work anxiety symptoms

Work anxiety symptoms vary from person to person, but may include the following.

Avoidance

A key symptom of any type of anxiety is avoidance. It can be one of the first signs something’s wrong. With job anxiety, avoidance can look like putting off projects, talking to co-workers less, or opting out of work events.

Mood swings

Frequent mood changes can be an indication of workplace anxiety, whether those moods include  sadness, frustration, or irritability. You may fluctuate between these states and neutral states like apathy or indifference.

Ruminating

You may feel unable to turn off thoughts that fuel anxiety about going to work or dealing with work stress. For example, you may worry about how much your boss likes you, layoffs, being called on in meetings, or making mistakes.

Physical changes

Work anxiety symptoms can be physical, too. You may experience changes in appetite, muscle tension, fatigue, or panic symptoms like a racing heart, excessive sweating, or quickened breath. You may also feel physically ill with headaches and stomach issues.

Sleep issues

Rumination, muscle tension, and other symptoms of work anxiety can make it hard to fall asleep or get back to sleep if you wake up in the night. You may also struggle to wake up or get out of bed in the morning, which can be attributed to sleepless or restless nights.

Dread

When you experience anxiety before work, the “Sunday scaries” can become a nightly event. You may feel better in the evenings because you’re away from work, but nights can also be filled with the looming fear of the next workday.

Poor concentration

A heightened state of vigilance and worrying thoughts can impact your cognitive performance. Job anxiety uses a lot of mental energy. You might be hyper-focused on the things that bring you anxiety, which leaves less focus for other responsibilities, both at work and in your personal life.

Contributing factors to work anxiety

Causes of workplace anxiety often share roots with other mental health concerns like work depression. Some factors that contribute to work-related anxiety may include:

Unhealthy work-life balance

Feeling always tied to work and unable to unplug can also play into work anxiety symptoms. One study across seven cultures found that poor work-life balance was associated with anxiety and depression. It works the other way around, too—healthy work-life balance not only improves job satisfaction and performance, but also reduces anxiety, depression, and psychological distress.

Difficult bosses

Managers can significantly impact employees’ happiness. Some research shows that nearly 70 percent of workers think their manager impacts their mental health more than their doctor or therapist. Those employees also feel that managers have as much influence on their mental health as their partner or spouse.

The way managers interact with their teams can affect employees’ mental health and protect against or contribute to anxiety about working. Leading with a management style that gives team members little to no feedback or say in their work can feel disempowering and fuel anxious thoughts about meeting expectations.

Managing employees

Supervising staff isn’t easy, either, and managers aren’t immune to mental health concerns like workplace anxiety. In fact, Lyra’s latest survey found that managers were even more likely to report work-related stress compared to non-managers. Feeling responsible for your team’s happiness, making hard decisions that affect others, and mediating employee conflicts can take a toll. Some research finds that 18 percent of managers are anxious or depressed—twice as many as individual contributors. Other data indicate middle management experiences the highest levels of burnout, stress, and poor work-life balance, which add to work-related anxiety.

Misaligned workplaces

Perhaps unsurprisingly, toxic work cultures are breeding grounds for anxiety in the workplace. Research has found that 18 percent of employees consider their workplace toxic, and 30 percent report violence, harassment, or abuse at work. Toxic environments can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout, and spread negative feelings to co-workers. People in toxic workplaces may face bullying, poorly defined roles, dismissive supervisors, feeling undervalued, and frequent turnover and reorganization.

Unrealistic expectations

Working long hours due to heavy workloads and unrealistic timelines can also contribute to work anxiety and depression. Always feeling like you’re playing catch-up or struggling to make deadlines is stressful and fuels burnout—both risk factors for anxiety at work.

Lack of self-confidence

Imposter syndrome often accompanies anxiety. This comes up when you believe you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re worried people are going to find out. Feeling incompetent at your job and believing you’ve somehow tricked everyone into thinking you’re qualified can fuel performance anxiety at work.

Job-related trauma

Experiencing trauma at your job can lead to multiple mental health concerns as well as anxiety about going to work. Work-related trauma can include sexual assault or harrassment, bullying, accidents, injuries, regularly encountering danger, or witnessing others’ trauma.

How to deal with work anxiety

If you regularly experience anxiety related to work, there are strategies you can use to help manage your symptoms.

Name it

Naming what’s happening when you’re feeling anxiety from work, then asking yourself what you can do about it is actively working toward a solution. Sometimes we get stuck in, “I just want the thoughts and feelings to stop,” but if we’re not doing something about it, change is unlikely. Naming and normalizing anxiety can get us unstuck and open the door to healing.

Know your job anxiety triggers

If you’re aware of situations and people at work that rev up the worry wheel, take preventive measures to maximize your ability to handle them. Journal about factors contributing to your workplace anxiety. Read it over and make a list of the most common anxiety-provoking circumstances. Beside each one, write down what you can do about it. For instance, if you feel intimidated and nervous around a particular co-worker, you could ground yourself with deep breathing exercises or rational and loving self-talk. A mental health coach or therapist can help you come up with ways to slow down rumination and ease physiological reactions to anxiety.

Check in with your body

When you’re feeling work-related anxiety, notice how it lands in your body. Do you clench your jaw? Is your breath shallow? Does your stomach churn? Are you talking faster? Try a body scan by slowly noticing what’s happening physically from head to toe. This can uncover important clues as to how you hold anxiety in your body. Then you can work on managing these physical reactions, which can help you slow racing thoughts and worries.

Learn about work anxiety

Understanding why anxiety about work happens can help you feel in more control of it. For instance, learn about anxiety’s purpose and how it’s sometimes a good thing because it keeps us functioning. It becomes a problem when we have too much. Understanding what’s happening in your mind and body when you have anxiety about going to work can help you address it.

Do the opposite action

When something is making us anxious, we naturally want to avoid it. But this avoidance means we don’t get the project or the presentation done, or submit the answers we’ve been asked to provide. That will only increase our anxiety about going to work over time. We can acknowledge that avoidance may feel better in the short term but will only make things worse in the long term. When you find yourself feeling like you just want to avoid an anxious situation, ask yourself what you’d do if you were feeling the opposite emotion, then do it. Say you’re nervous about presenting in a meeting. Ask yourself how you would act if you were feeling happy and calm, then move forward in that way.

Talk with your manager

If you feel comfortable sharing with your boss, let them know what’s going on with you. You can brainstorm together how to make anxiety from work feel more manageable, so you’ll be more productive and perform better. Maybe that’s asking for more feedback about your work performance or having regular check-ins so you’re less worried about timelines, expectations, or workloads. This isn’t an easy conversation, but it’s one that will ultimately benefit you both because you’ll work more effectively.

Set boundaries

Boundaries are hard for many of us, but they can go a long way to ease anxiety at work. People who are anxious can be hypersensitive to what others think about them. You may think saying no to working overtime or taking on more than you can handle will cause co-workers to think badly of you. The problem is, not setting boundaries can fuel the underlying causes of work anxiety. While setting boundaries can feel scary in itself, once we try it we usually learn that it helps us feel better in the long run.

Make a schedule that includes breaks

People with anxiety can get stressed about time. You may worry about deadlines and feel like you never have enough hours to get everything done. Mapping out your days to cover your top priorities can help ease time-related work anxiety symptoms and provide you the comfort of knowing how your day will look. Make time blocks for each task you need to complete, and make sure to take breaks to ground yourself. You may also ask yourself what time of day you feel most empowered, and plan to tackle your hardest tasks during that time.

Practice self-care

Taking care of yourself can be a protective factor for work-related anxiety and ease existing anxiety. Self-care means different things to different people, but some forms of self-care that have been shown to reduce anxiety include:

When to seek treatment for work anxiety

Some of us like to power through our problems, but workplace anxiety is like driving a car. In the short run you may be able to keep going, but at some point you’ll run out of gas. Your well-being will suffer along with your work performance, which just adds more stress and anxiety at work.

Work anxiety may be getting serious if you’re noticing unhealthy patterns in your life. Maybe work problems are bleeding into your relationships or home life. Maybe you find it hard to enjoy the weekends or you’re taking out stress on your partner or children. If your attempts to self-manage anxiety about work aren’t effective, it could be time to reach out to a mental health provider. What you think is workplace anxiety may actually be a different mental health condition, like generalized anxiety disorder, but you may not fully be aware of how it’s showing up in other thoughts, situations, or places yet.

How to help an employee with work anxiety

If you’re concerned an employee is dealing with workplace anxiety, there are some telltale signs to look for. Behaviors tied to anxiety about work may include:

  • Calling in sick often
  • Missing deadlines
  • Not being as prepared as usual
  • Showing up late to meetings
  • Overseeking approval (asking for lots of feedback and reassurance)

Check in with the employee, and see how they’re doing. Ask questions like, “Is there anything especially difficult for you right now?,” “Do you feel timelines are appropriate to your workload?,” or, “What can I do to support you?” People will feel more comfortable sharing if you’ve created a safe environment.

It’s not a manager’s job to diagnose or address mental health disorders, but it’s your job to refer your team member to any mental health resources your company offers if you notice them struggling. If you’re unsure what these are, ask your human resources team.

Another best practice is transparency. When companies and managers are more open and straightforward, it can help allay anxiety at work because it limits the “unknown.” A big part of anxiety is worrying about worst-case scenarios.

There’s help for workplace anxiety

It’s been said that “If you don’t have some anxiety in today’s world, you don’t have a pulse.” Some anxiety is normal and even adaptive. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also manageable with the right skills. You can try some things on your own to learn how to deal with work anxiety. Talk to co-workers and managers about it. The more we stay silent about our struggles, the harder it gets. Most importantly, know that there’s hope and help—whether that’s support groups, a mental health coach, or therapy—and you can get through this.

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About the reviewer
Lauren Cunnningham

Dr. Cunningham has over a decade of clinical and administrative behavioral health experience. She received a doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Ball State University and has authored publications on crisis prevention in schools and sexism toward women in the military. Previously, she held several mental health-focused roles in the United States Air Force, receiving many honors including the Air Force Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service and the Air Force Achievement Medal. She also served as CEO of Blackbird Psychological Services, providing and supervising psychological evaluations for the Department of Defense and Veterans.

About the author
Nicole Ehlert, MS, LMFT

Nicole earned a master's degree in couple and family therapy from the University of Maryland, College Park and has a decade of behavioral health experience. She is a therapist for Lyra Health and uses approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and family systems to help clients with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), parenting challenges, and relational issues.

Clinically reviewed by
Lauren Cunnningham
9 of May 2023 - 12 min read
Mental health at work
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