From knowing what triggers it, to understanding how to deal when it hits, these handy tips may just help you deal with workplace anxiety.
It’s 8am. In exactly 30 minutes, you will be leading an important project meeting in your department. Your company’s VIP client will be there, and your boss will be front and center, critically judging your pitch. You’ve prepared for this day, but you can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread.
Whether it’s nerves regarding public speaking, worrying about meeting a tough deadline, or feeling apprehensive making the right impression with new colleagues, most of us are all too familiar with the experience of anxiety at work. As Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management at the Faculty of Business, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and leading authority on workplace anxiety, I’d like to share some tips on what to look for when it comes to feeling anxious at work, and how to handle it.
Anxiety: What Triggers It?
What are some common symptoms that you’re feeling overloaded by anxiety at work? Well, there are three categories of factors that influence your experience of anxiety at work. First, personal characteristics such as gender (yes, women are more susceptible), age, your physical health, and how long you’ve worked at your job will affect how much anxiety you experience at work. Your personality also matters – having more confidence means you can soldier through various pressures at work. Second, certain factors associated with your job are likely to promote feelings of dread at work. Aside from stressors such as workload, deadlines, dealing with unexpected changes, and office politics, the nature of the very job you do has an impact on workplace anxiety. Working at a company that requires you to fake being happy all day to customers (think: being pleasant to rude customers), or, conversely, having to constantly display stern facial cues at work, even if you’re in a good mood (think: judges, security, or customs officers), will naturally wear you down.
How to Manage Anxiety at Work
So you’re feeling anxious – your hands are sweaty, your stomach is churning, your knees feel weak. What are you supposed to do?
The key to making your anxiety work for you is to regulate your emotions and actions. When you’re anxious at work, you are more easily disposed to distraction and negative rumination (”why can’t I do this?”; “why didn’t I pay attention at the meeting?”). Self-regulation means catching yourself before you tailspin into this negative spiral. So, muster up all the self-control you can (Grit! Resilience!), prevent these negative chains of thought from even entering your stream of consciousness, and re-direct your focus and attention to the task at hand. Don’t forget to set close targets and meticulously monitor your progress to completion.
One thing that can help you with this, is emotional intelligence. Akin to social intelligence, emotional intelligence is about perceiving your emotions (“Aha! I’m starting to feel the all-too-familiar sense of dread”), understanding and using these feelings of anxiety to work for you through the effective self-regulation of these emotions, for example reappraising anxiety into positive energy.
Believe it or not, what we do when we’re off work has an impact on the anxiety we feel during work. Research on recovering from work stress points to four specific recovery strategies that we can pursue to help us replenish our resources:
Regardless of what activities we pursue after work to help us recover from work stress, the underlying assumption is that we are not thinking about work. This allows us to recover mentally from work stress. Similar to being on bedrest when you’re suffering from a flu to recover physically, psychological detachment follows the same logic from the perspective of mental health.
Pursue relaxing activities
It’s no wonder that when your body is go go go during the work week, pursuing relaxing activities that are below the baseline of your natural work speed will help you recover all the resources you have drained during the work week. Naturally, this will be different for different people. Some find yoga relaxing, while others would much rather be out enjoying one of the many hiking trails in Hong Kong. Whatever it is that relaxes you, pursue it! Your body and soul will thank you.
In contrast to relaxing activities, pursuing what research calls mastery activities can be quite taxing. So, why would you want to challenge yourself after an already long work day/week? Well, research shows that pursuing challenging activities that you enjoy, such as volunteering or learning a new language, stimulate you intellectually while satisfying your need to feel challenged. It builds your self-esteem, confidence, and develops new skills that you can apply back at your job. So, it might be time to pick up that dusty guitar after all.
It is crucial that whatever activity you engage in to recover from anxiety at work, is an activity that you want to pursue. My research shows that having autonomy and flexibility over choice of recovery activity carries important effects on your fatigue levels at the end of the work day. Meaning, to the extent to which you choose what you want to do, you are less likely to be exhausted at the end of the day. This may sound like common sense, but those who are always scheduling lunches with superiors or colleagues, end up spending their personal time impression managing or regulating their emotions during these network sessions, which is heavily draining on your resources.
What’s the Final Word?
It’s important to recognise a few things here. First, everyone, and I mean everyone, experiences anxiety at work. Workplace anxiety affects all employees, regardless of industry and status. Even if you’re someone who is constantly zen, there will be times when you will be anxious, perhaps at a job interview, or when you’re trying to convince your boss you deserve that raise. So, don’t be ashamed if you’re feeling apprehensive at work. It is completely normal to feel anxious from time to time. It’s about time we as a society change the conversation, from one where anxiety is something that we are afraid to admit, for fear of social repercussions of not being able to handle your tasks, to one where we embrace our feelings of anxiety at work and leverage it to work to our benefit. Hey, even superstars like NBA players have recently been speaking out about their experiences with anxiety. If they can channel their anxiety on the court to win championships, you can manage yours too.
Featured image via Unsplash.
References: Cheng, B. H., & McCarthy, J. M. (2018). Understanding the dark and bright sides of anxiety: A theory of workplace anxiety. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(5), 537-560.
Sonnentag, S., & Fritz, C. (2007). The recovery experience questionnaire: Development and validation of a measure for assessing recuperation and unwinding from work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12(3), 204-221.