Workplace anxiety can become an obstacle when wanting to improve workplace productivity, especially when we normalize it and don’t do anything to prevent it.
When we talk about anxiety, we refer to a pattern of high physiological activation, generally associated with a stressful or threatening experience accompanied by thoughts, conduct, and emotions related to the feeling of fear, overload, or negativity over excitement.
Therefore, in anxiety, the emotional experience is related to fear, generally disguised as insecurity or vulnerability.
This can occur due to particular stimulation or situation, which is traceable and can be identified easily. It can also come in a hazier form and is recurrent in time, not necessarily associated with anything in particular, but simply being life as it is. For example, when employees realize it’s not something, in particular, that has happened in the last couple of days or weeks, it’s always like this. It’s a general atmosphere or the way we work daily, always related to tension, hurry, demands, or constant and poorly managed uncertainty.
How we respond to the symptoms of workplace anxiety
Fear and its many branches are natural and necessary emotions, especially when dealing with workplace anxiety. Its function is to alert us and prepare our defense mechanism. The answers to fear are basic. When faced with a threat of any kind, there are two options: run away or attack.
Running away as a response to fear
Flight can come in various forms: the most common is to distance yourself, that is to say, to increase the distance from the source of threat, from what is causing discomfort, anxiety, etc. For example: when the atmosphere at work is unsustainable, and I can detect it will worsen if I have an alternative option, I’ll leave (with positive and negative consequences for both the company and me). Or: I need to speak to my manager, but I’m afraid of how they will react, and facing that situation makes me nervous, so I avoid knocking on their door and having that conversation (at the cost of the matter remaining unresolved).
Another way of fleeing from danger is to hide. A sophisticated form of hiding is not to expose oneself, not be visible, and not manifest oneself. This can make people feel secure when they feel like their psychological well-being is being threatened. On the other hand, it is not good for them or the company: it causes creativity, proactivity, initiative, and action to decline.
To inhibit oneself is a form of protection, a way of shielding. This is the opposite of openly facing a threat and, therefore, being exposed to possible harm and asserting it. For example, I see that the atmosphere at work is strange, so I will not give my opinion; I will not get involved.
Attack as a response to fear
A primary response to danger is to attack. It’s not about an offensive attack but a defensive one. As its name suggests, its function is to protect. In this case, it’s a preventative action: I see a storm, I take a deep breath, and I confront it. I anticipate events, I take control, I destroy it before it destroys me, I issue a warning, I reaffirm my position.
This has substantial emotional and physical tension, a waste of energy, and a risk to interpersonal relationships. Even if it seems to come out naturally, it happens because we aren’t relaxed -but we have become activated, we are anxious- and it is a response that cannot happen if we are relaxed: it requires us to keep active and in tension. No one can face issues in life without defending themselves with a bit of tension, activation, or anxiety. The problem is when it is excessive or inconsistent with the situation.
Workplace anxiety symptoms
Workplace anxiety can be an experience that varies from person to person, as each person reacts in their own way to potentially threatening stimuli or situations that make them feel insecure. However, although exploring it in a more detailed way with a professional psychologist is always advisable, we could preliminarily determine specific indicators that suggest anxiety symptoms at work.
- Always acting with more urgency than necessary.
- Attempting to cover many tasks or respond quickly to requests due to a heightened fear of the consequences of not doing so.
- Overreacting to stimuli that are initially not so relevant: being easily startled, interpreting a criticism or a bad result catastrophically, feeling a high level of concern when faced with relatively neutral situations…
- Experiencing some aversion towards the workplace or the tasks, essentially at a physical level: need to move away, high physical activation accompanied by negative thoughts…
- Showing a frequent attitude of impatience, irritability, or tension, even in neutral situations.
Causes of workplace anxiety
Workplace anxiety, as when it appears outside of work, is a normal process that indicates that we are alive and trying to adapt, with our own particular style, to the demands of a given situation. However, it should be adequately managed so its intensity is not detrimental to health.
It is not always easy to trace the causes that lead a person to establish a pattern of anxiety at work, i.e., people who frequently experience this type of psychological discomfort when working. Some possible areas would have to do with the following:
1. Remote learning
From an early age, through our education, we learn to overinterpret certain stimuli, to attribute a threatening meaning to them, and to react at different levels -especially at a physical level- in the form of anxiety.
2. Past experiences of workplace anxiety
Sometimes our current job is a place with a good working environment and good conditions, but we are still dragging the sequels of previous experiences in which we developed anxiety at work that we have retained until the present moment.
3. Current job characteristics
Perhaps our coping style is rather calm, and our past experiences are positive, but it is the current job that, for different reasons, frequently awakens in us an anxious reaction that we have to deal with.
Risks of excessive workplace anxiety
We have just analyzed two basic patterns when responding to fear, the main emotion associated with anxiety, including workplace anxiety.
As we’ve just said, it is important to remember that a certain level of anxiety, physiological activation, cognitive and emotional, is essential so we can think, communicate and carry out tasks. If we are too relaxed, with no “tension” in our body and mind, we can’t resolve daily tasks, not even those at work.
At that optimum point of tension, we act best when we can think, analyze, and decide better. This makes it more likely that, when the action occurs, we act in the best possible way and the most coherent in the situation.
Therefore, although what we feel in the face of a threat – or source of imbalance – is unpleasant, it is vital that we become alert, concerned, and tense to cope with what we have in front of us.
Consequences of stress at work
Activation is key when adapting to life. However, that doesn’t justify the workplace being a jungle with a bad atmosphere when employees always have to be hypervigilant and with a sword above their heads to work well. You have to be careful with that because it is not healthy. It would help if you also were careful with the mentality of “I work better under pressure” because, in the long run, it is not efficient for an employee’s well-being and a company’s productivity.
In this sense, if employees’ physical activation increases too much, accompanied by significant emotional activation (restlessness, tension, concern, fear…), they then progressively lose clarity in the way they process information: they misinterpret stimuli, which causes them to give inadequate responses, make ill-considered decisions, they take longer to perform a single task because they start checking everything over and over again or redoing it, and their performance and productivity suffer.
In other words, if we perceive that, no matter what we do, we will receive negative feedback, it will put us in a state of nervousness that is not beneficial for the task. It demotivates us and prevents us from having a proper perspective on our steps.
Another aspect that can be affected due to an inadequate level of workplace anxiety is interpersonal relationships. People who experience high anxiety tend to convey an image of worry, that something is wrong with them or the environment, making them uncomfortable or unnecessarily transmitting that worry to others instead of contributing to a climate of calmness and well-being.
Moreover, these people react more: they snap because they are stressed, more susceptible, or sensitive. They need external validation more often because they do not feel confident enough in what they do, or they isolate themselves if they perceive that their colleagues may threaten them.
The interaction then comes in the shape of mistrust, susceptibility, and difficulties for optimum cooperation. Colleagues can sense a lack of solidity: they feel insecure and therefore have more difficulty when it comes to conveying security and trust to others.
This can lead to a decrease in the number of tasks they are given or the level of responsibility, which is neither good for the team nor the individual because it means that the person’s full potential is not being used.
A high level of workplace anxiety can be considered a mental health problem. It can also have consequences on physical health. Leaders and human resources managers can’t influence someone’s personality and how they face issues. However, they can control the workplace culture, the emotional atmosphere, and group cohesion by fostering trusting relationships, healthy coordination, and leadership styles that serve as role models for the whole team.
This is why it is so essential to becoming aware of unfair practices when it comes to the execution and function of tasks but also other psychosocial risk factors that can negatively influence on stress and anxiety levels of the employees: it is nearly impossible to get rid of workplace anxiety and stress, but it is vital to keep an eye on this, so they do not reach recurring levels that are detrimental to the health of workers and, therefore, to the company’s productivity.
Is workplace anxiety always detrimental?
Anxiety is a normal and adaptive response of our organism. It becomes detrimental when its frequency, duration, or intensity is too high and is experienced as significant psychological distress.
How can workplace anxiety disrupt the company?
When anxiety at work is too high, mood and the ability to process information worsen. Therefore, it also affects the results achieved and the work environment.
Is it possible to prevent a high degree of anxiety at work?
Of course, and it must be done. To achieve this, it is essential to have an efficient work organization, take care of the work environment, avoid stress, and have constructive internal communication and a good reward policy.
How do I know if I suffer from high anxiety?
Workplace anxiety can appear in many ways in each individual but is usually associated with a pattern of high physiological arousal, feelings of uneasiness, fear, and tension, with or without an identifiable trigger at the time.
Emotional well-being for companies
At ifeel, we want to help companies build a healthy corporate culture where all workforce members can develop professionally. To achieve this, our team of psychologists specializing in well-being at work has created an emotional well-being program for companies.
HR managers can receive personalized, data-driven advice on improving their team’s psychological well-being through this collaboration. In addition, this program offers employees a comprehensive mental health care service structured at different levels according to their needs. Try our program today to see all its benefits.
Be sure to visit our Resources section. We have a variety of content that could be of interest: podcasts, guides for Human Resources, or Interviews with important HR managers. In addition, we have a Psychosocial Risk Factors Template and use it to comply with the requirements of the Labor Inspection.
We hope this post about workplace anxiety has been interesting. If you want more information about our emotional well-being program for companies, request it, and we will contact your team as soon as possible.