Anxiety Q&A 3: Working with anxiety

Gabrielle Lis

This final instalment provides tips for helping anxious employees maintain their cool and remain at work.
How can I tell if someone is suffering from anxiety at work?

Quite possibly you won’t be able to, unless they say something to you.

“Most disorders have signs as well as symptoms. Anxiety is different. The experience of being chronically anxious is a private one and there is little to observe, except perhaps some tremor and an occasional burst of unexpected panicky behaviour,” said Gavin Andrews and Caroline Hunt, researchers at the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety Disorders at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney.

Due to the desire for privacy and the stigma associated with mental illnesses of all kinds, a person who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder may be unwilling to disclose it to their employer or co-workers. It is also likely that many people who suffer from anxiety do so without ever seeking medical assistance, or receiving treatment. These people may think of themselves as “chronic worriers” or may be outwardly stoical in their approach to difficulties.

Performance issues, a drop in productivity, a large number of sick days, or substance abuse may be caused by anxiety, although there are many possible causes for such things.

As always, the best approach is to ask open-ended questions rather than second-guess the person: “How are you feeling?” and “What are your concerns about work / your injury / coming back to the workplace?” are much more likely to yield useful information than “Are you feeling anxious?”

What can be done to support people with anxiety in the workplace?

Be flexible and accommodating:

  • Like any health problem, anxiety  may require ongoing treatment. If a worker needs time away from the workplace to attend an appointment with a psychologist, counsellor or other mental health  professional, be as accommodating and supportive as possible.
  • In some cases, reducing the number of hours or days worked per week may be appropriate.

Think about adjusting the work environment:

  • Ensuring that an anxious employee is not seated in a noisy part of the office, or near a high-traffic location can be helpful.
  • A quiet room at work where the worker can have “time out” might also assist someone to cope with anxiety at work, particularly if the person suffers from panic attacks. Shared spaces such as the lunch room are not appropriate for this purpose. 
  • Seating an anxious employee near an exit during meetings allows them to leave quickly and unobtrusively if necessary, without undue embarrassment.

Seek their input:

  • Involving the worker in discussions about assignments and expectations enables them to regain a sense of control, which may diminish anxiety. 
  • Allow them to say "No". Saying “No” can be a powerful antidote to anxiety – no to additional responsibilities, too-tight timeframes, even to a promotion that involves taking on extra stress.

Help them to clearly structure their existing duties:

  • Make it as easy as possible for employees to keep track of what they’ve done, what they’re doing and what they should do next. Prioritised to-do lists are a good tool for maintaining focus and reducing work anxiety.

Deal with workplace conflict:

  • Tense interpersonal relationships can be a source of anxiety. Conflict should not be left to fester in the workplace. Instead, mediation or other conflict resolution processes should be followed.

Provide support:

  • The experience of anxiety - especially a panic attack - can be scary. If the person feels it is appropriate, allow them to enlist one or two support people in the workplace, who know about their anxiety, and can assist them when they need it.