Understanding Anxiety: How to Create a Healthier Work Environment

We are constantly learning more and more about mental illness but there is still so much we don’t know. Mental illness can be incredibly hard to diagnose, especially because the same psychiatric condition can manifest itself in completely different ways in different people. One of the most common psychiatric conditions is anxiety and, whether you are aware of it or not, it’s highly probable that anxiety is impacting your workforce.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America,

  • “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.
  • Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
  • People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.
  • Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.”

The Impact of The Pandemic On Mental Health

Studies have shown that state-wide lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic positively correlates with an increase in reported mental illnesses, especially anxiety and depression.

Even as things return to “normal” many will continue to experience increased symptoms of anxiety, especially social anxiety. Being isolated and cut off from normal social activities such as attending networking events, day-to-day contact with workers, family or friends, and the pandemic shift to a virtual environment has had a profound effect. Many employees are experiencing increased stress and new, or worsening, depression, anxiety disorders, and a notable increase in social anxiety. Young professionals, specifically those just entering the workforce, are being impacted the most by COVID-related lockdowns, job shortages, anxieties, and depression.

A survey conducted by the CDC in 2020 indicated that people between the ages of 18 and 24 are more likely to suffer from, or develop, mental health problems during the pandemic than other age groups.

William Haseltine writes in an article for Forbes, “According to this survey, 63% of young people are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression. Nearly a quarter of respondents reported that they had started or increased their abuse of substances, including alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs, to cope with their emotions. Their experiences during the pandemic put them at risk of developing Covid-19 related PTSD. This is a general problem developing throughout society but felt acutely by young adults. This data quantifies an alarming trend that we have seen emerge anecdotally, that the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the mental health of young people.”

How to Support Your Employees in a Positive Way

As a CEO or business owner your best asset is your team. Companies who have taken steps to relieve stress and support their employees’ mental health have seen increased productivity in their employees and even increased profits. Even without the isolation brought about by the pandemic, workplace anxiety is still a very real issue and is often unnoticed and unreported.

Lyra Health’s study The 2022 State of Workforce Mental Health reports “Employees’ mental health is at an all-time low, the survey data suggest. Nearly a third (31 percent) of workers surveyed said their mental health has declined over the past year—up from 24 percent at the end of 2020….

While the majority of respondents (56 percent) said their mental health remained the same over the past year, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in good mental health. In fact, 84 percent of workers surveyed experienced at least one mental health challenge over the past year, from issues such as stress and burnout to diagnosable conditions including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.

In addition to more employees reporting declining mental health, workers were also more likely to say they’d faced stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression over the past year. The biggest jump was among employees with anxiety, which affected 14 percent more employees than in 2020.”

Image Source: Lyra Health

Understanding How Anxiety Effects the Overall Health of Your Employees

In addition to evaluating your company’s mental health benefits, another way to support your employees’ mental health is to understand the symptoms and warning signs. Training your leadership and management teams to be more aware and accepting of the impact anxiety and other disorders have on employees is a start.

By noticing signs of anxiety, and when they are triggered, you can help relieve the stress and play to that person’s strengths while still challenging them and helping them grow. For example, a particular employee may experience heightened anxiety when they must present to a group of people or lead a big meeting. Others may experience increased anxiety with a return to the office. Noticing signs of anxiety that may include rapid breathing, sweating, decreased ability to focus, or an appearance of being over-exhausted as if they haven’t been sleeping enough can help you as the CEO and leader relieve the anxiety-inducing situation while setting your employee up for success.

Unrealistic expectations or the expectation of overachievement in a workplace environment can be extremely detrimental to someone with an anxiety disorder. Without proper support and space for what they need to do for self-care, those with anxiety disorders can develop longer-term issues such as:

  • Loss of sleep
  • Poor eating habits
  • Missed deadlines
  • Decreased capacity to focus
  • More errors than normal
  • Difficulty managing teammates
  • A general decline in health
  • The development of long-term health issues
  • Decrease in quality of workplace culture
  • Decrease in job satisfaction for the person experiencing anxiety and those around them
  • Inability to form or maintain working relationships
  • Physical danger if any heavy machinery is involved (including driving a car for their commute)
  • Emotional outbursts and general irritability

Normalizing Mental Health Conversations in the Workplace

Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around mental illness in the workplace. It is often treated as an “all in your head” issue and even medically is not treated with the same urgency and importance as physical illnesses. Because of this, employees usually won’t come forward and admit they have an anxiety disorder or any other mental illness because they feel like they will be laughed at or treated as fragile by fellow employees and management.

Author, speaker and Wharton instructor Deborah Grayson Riegel states, “Every day we’re chipping away at the stigma of discussing mental health and wellness at work. You can be challenged by anxiety and depression and still be able to do a good job.”

The best thing you can do is provide a safe environment and allow space for employees to come forward and talk to you or other leaders within the company when they feel overwhelmed or are having work-related anxiety issues. Riegel provides insights for leadership and training managers to better support employees in this article.

Whether you are a C-Suite leader, manager, or employee, don’t underestimate the realities of anxiety and other mental health challenges and their impact on you as well as your colleagues, staff, family, and friends. Take action, get support, and together let’s normalize the conversation around mental health and create safer workplaces and better companies.

Resources for Mental Health and Anxiety Disorders

If you or your employees are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health-related issues, here are some resources you can go to for more information and help.