Anxiety in the workplace: how to manage naturally and effectively

When we talk about ‘being healthy’ it conjures up images of a balanced diet, doing some exercise, reducing our alcohol or caffeine intake – looking after ourselves physically. But if we talk about ‘mental health’ it is often associated with problems – anxiety, depression, mood swings or worse.  Our definition of being healthy doesn’t include managing our thoughts and feelings to protect our mental and emotional wellbeing and yet this is an increasingly important part of staying robust enough to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday modern life.

Especially at work. The current figures suggest that for every nine employees at your company, one of them will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. Anxiety is the prime culprit for causing difficulties at work and yet two-thirds of people who experience it won’t acknowledge what is happening or seek help.

Stress vs Anxiety

Stress is the phase before anxiety. It can actually be quite good for us to be under a bit of pressure as it increases our concentration and performance levels. If we are engaged and stimulated by what we are doing, it helps maintain our interest and encourages creativity so problems are easier to overcome and solutions come more easily.


But anxiety is very different. It sends us into ‘freeze, fight or flight’ mode as our instinct to survive and protect ourselves kicks in, even if we are not actually in physical danger. If our brain thinks there is a threat (from the thought of doing a presentation, or going into an appraisal), our whole system responds. Instead of aiding our performance, the effect of anxiety can be crippling.

What causes anxiety in the workplace?

We can experience anxiety in our lives for a whole range of reasons but there are particular triggers at work that are known to make things more difficult.

One of the key factors is that we are not in control of our environment. We don’t get to choose our office space, or working hours, or to make decisions about what conditions we would like to work in.  Ever increasing workloads, unapproachable managers and not having a clear direction for our job role can create a feeling of being trapped in a situation we don’t want to be in. And if we think we are not being treated fairly – by getting poor rewards in terms of money, praise, self-esteem or career development – then frustration and disappointment start to set in.

Often people who experience anxiety may tend towards perfectionism which makes managing multiple demands more challenging, or they have ‘impostor syndrome’ thinking they aren’t good enough and are going to get ‘found out’. In our modern times with uncertainty about cutbacks and redundancies this creates a level of fear which creeps into the need to perform.

Add to this the fact that an organization works as a system, so if certain departments or key people are showing signs of stress or burn out, then it will spread and heighten the feeling of insecurity in the workplace. It is hard to stay immune to low team morale, or the effect of facing significant re-structuring or job losses.

How to reduce anxiety at work

The good news is that whatever situation we are in, however restricted we may feel, we still have choices and control over how we look after ourselves. Making small changes to your routine can make a big difference and keep you healthy and happy.

  1. Make good use of your free time. Start a morning routine that includes something just for you – a bit of stretching, a mini-meditation, a walk, or just listening to the radio or reading something you enjoy. This is your time so use it to remind yourself that work is just part of your day. Then try to include a similar leisure activity in the evening – having a nice bath, or cooking a delicious meal, or phoning a friend. Make the time before and after work like a mini weekend every day.
  2. Keep moving. We are designed to be active – to stand up, to walk – and it keeps our bodies moving well and our brains full of happy chemicals. You can easily build in more daily activity without much effort. Get a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day – walk around the office more, go and find people rather than emailing them, go outside at lunchtime, take the stairs. You can even do exercises at your desk. Anything that keeps you connected to your body and keeps it moving.
  3. Manage your workload. Start and end your day with a to-do list. Keep track of what needs doing as much as you can, and then break it down into ‘today, this week, this month’ etc. Spending time prioritizing what needs to be done is as valuable as just doing the tasks because it creates a sense of order and purpose. It also shows you are managing your tasks and can see what you are achieving as you go along.
  4. Avoid toxic gossiping. Choose your company wisely at work. We all know people who like to moan about their job, or their boss, or other colleagues. It may help them but it won’t help you to get caught up in negative gossip so distance yourself gently. Pick people who are calm, confident and positive and seek out their conversation instead. They will also be the best people to talk to if you find you are struggling, as they are more likely to create solutions then stay stuck in problems.
  5. Watch your intake. We get bored doing the same thing hour after hour and eating or making a hot drink become a distraction. But too much caffeine and sugar pump up feelings of restlessness and empty energy and then cause a slump when they wear off so be aware of what you are eating and drinking. Try to drink water (not fizzy drinks) in between to keep your body and brain well oiled.
  6. Work is a choice. Work is good for us – it gives us a chance to be productive, feel challenged, be social, be engaged. You may think it is all about paying the bills but the evidence suggests that not working can create more problems than having a steady job. So make a list of why work is important to you, and what you enjoy about it. Focus on the positive aspects and try to find one thing every day that makes you feel good at work.

This article by Alex Pledger was originally published in the June July 2016 edition of BVSC’s Update Magazine.

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