Anxiety is common, affecting more people globally than any other mental health disorder. There are a range of anxiety-related disorders, but all involve nagging worries about things that could go wrong in the future, an exaggerated belief that these things will actually happen and pronounced physical symptoms of stress. Rates of anxiety have increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. Before March 2020, 7% of people were affected by anxiety, but after the first wave of Covid-19, as many as 1 in 4 people met criteria for an anxiety disorder. This is a costly problem – not just to the individuals affected, but for societies more generally. When both the direct costs are factored in, such as medication and hospital treatment, alongside indirect costs such as people taking sick days, anxiety tallies up the equivalent of 0.5% of countries’ GDP. For the UK, this equates to a bill of around £13.5 billion each year.
Workplace anxiety refers to the experience that many people with anxiety have in their jobs. Sometimes this can be caused by changes in our work; a new line manager, a different set of responsibilities or conflict with a colleague can all serve to increase our levels of workplace anxiety. It can also be caused by ‘overspill’, when stresses in our personal lives make it harder for us to do our jobs. Here, I offer four evidence-based tips to help manage workplace anxiety. I’ve developed these in connection with Gallantium, who create beautiful, engaging videos to help organisations support their staff. These tips are drawn from Cognitive-behaviour Therapy, the most-evidence based psychological intervention internationally and one of the most effective methods for treating anxiety.
Counting our breaths is one of the simplest but most effective ways to calm the physical symptoms of anxiety, and it’s perfect for workplace anxiety because no one needs to know you’re doing it. Anxiety is linked with an imbalance in CO2 levels. When in stressful situations, people breathe out more C02 than they produce, which leads to a drop in baseline levels of C02 in the blood. This can lead to a short-of-breath feeling which gives us the urge to drag more breath in, which has the paradoxical effect of making us feel even shorter of breath. This can happen in a very pronounced way, as is seen in panic disorder. It can also happen in a muted way, causing us to feel tense and on-edge. The solution is to breathe out slightly more than you breathe in. This restores the C02 balance, re-setting the body and restoring calm. To do this, you breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, and then out through your mouth for a count of 5. If you’re a singer or an athlete, a count in of 5 and a count out of 6 might work better, but the key thing is to breathe out for one count longer. You can do this anywhere, at any time, without anyone else being aware. Remember – the breath is an anchor you carry everywhere with you.
2. Follow the worry tree
Once we’ve calmed the physical symptoms of anxiety and can focus our minds better, it can be really useful to use the worry tree to help address the problems that are concerning us. The worry tree is a frequently used tool in CBT and can be completed within minutes, making it perfect for managing workplace anxiety during a short coffee break. First, we identify the worry – name and define what is bothering us. Even this first step can help pin down the cause of our stress. Next, we follow each of the questions, working through whether the worry is hypothetical or current, and whether we can deal with it now or in the future. It encourages us to take action if we can, but to distract ourselves if we can’t. The worry tree gets positive feedback from CBT clients, many of whom carry on using it to manage anxiety even after their CBT therapy has finished. For a copy of the worry tree, see here.
The end point of every pathway on the worry tree is ‘change focus of attention’. Another word for this is ‘distraction’, which is a key tool in CBT to help manage anxiety. When we’re feeling worried, we can become wrapped up in the problems which are on our mind. By holding on to them mentally, we can come to believe that we are prepared for the future and protecting ourselves. The reality is that we end up wearing ourselves down, exhausting ourselves mentally. A great way to manage this is distraction. When we choose to distract ourselves, we give ourselves permission for a mental break. To practise distraction, we need to choose an activity we find absorbing – something which focuses our attention away from our worries. Depending on what we enjoy, this might involve cooking, baking, reading, going to a museum or meeting up with friends. We might take up a hobby or develop an interest in a new sport. The activity itself doesn’t actually matter, the key is to find something that takes our mind off our worries. When we have finished with distraction and come back to our problem, we might find that it has shrunk in size or that we can see a new solution which wasn’t available to us before. At work, we can use distraction in our lunch and coffee breaks. However, using distraction in our personal time can give us a general mood-boost, and also help us to address workplace anxiety.
4. Create a worry period
The nature of anxiety lies in its persistence – it likes to bother us throughout the day! If we are suffering from workplace anxiety and find that worrying thoughts are nagging us during the day, one solution could be to create a worry period. To do this, we first need to set our worry period. This should be around 10 minutes long and fixed at a time which works for us, ideally towards the end of the day. We also need to keep a note pad with us at work, and jot down any worries that come to mind. Once jotted down, we move our mind on, knowing we will come to them later during our worry period. Using this technique trains our mind away from constant worrying; over time we learn to move on from worried thoughts and to address them at a time which works better for us. Worry periods are a tool frequently used in CBT and found to be effective.
Gallantium addresses workplace anxiety in their February video, which covers three case studies of individuals suffering from workplace anxiety, alongside useful information and tips. These videos are a great tool for organisations keen to support their staff with common workplace mental health problems. For more information on my work with Gallantium, see my blog post on this here.