Most of us will experience some level of anxiety in our day-to-day lives, often caused by financial worries, family issues, or problems at work. As 2022 comes to an end, the cost of living crisis is certainly adding fuel to the fire, along with the rising cost of working.
It's no secret that anxiety has a profound impact on our mental and physical health and, subsequently, on our performance.
As the pandemic saw levels of anxiety increase by up to 25%, now feels like the right time to explore why anxiety is so prevalent in the workplace and what we can do to reduce it.
So what’s really causing so much anxiety in the workplace?
Fundamentally, the way we work is contributing to these rising anxiety levels and has been for some time. Our most recent Digital Etiquette: Reinventing Work Report found that 37% of us experience anxiety about going into the office with micromanagement, office politics, and favouritism all highlighted as some of the main causes.
While some of us are fortunate to have strong support networks around us, others rely on their work environment as a place of support, comfort, and social interaction. When that is lost, our anxiety is compounded by feelings of isolation.
Social belonging is a basic human need, hardwired into our DNA. But we often don’t feel like we ‘belong’ at work. In fact, 30% of us feel lonely and isolated at work every single day. These feelings of isolation are triggered by unmanageable workloads, a lack of connection among remote workers, and feelings of simply 'not fitting in' with colleagues.
It’s no wonder levels of employee engagement are stubbornly low.
Some people are experiencing severe financial worries at home, and the workplace provides little escape as the cost of working also takes its toll on our wallets and our mental health. Whether working remotely or in the office, we have never felt so isolated. We’re struggling to connect with our colleagues on a social and emotional level, all while dealing with micromanagement, favouritism, and office politics. We feel undervalued, underpaid, and undersupported.
There’s no doubt about it: the way we work is causing anxiety, and exacerbating it by creating work structures that lead to loneliness, rather than social connection.
So what’s to blame? Us? Or our working environment?
The truth is, we are the product of our work environment, in the same way, that our working environment is the product of us. There’s no point in blaming one or the other.
So how can we start to tackle workplace anxiety?
It all sounds a bit bleak, doesn't it? But what if we told you there was something you can do about it?
The most powerful way to deal with workplace anxiety is to start with ourselves.
At its root, anxiety is caused by an absence of safety. When our bodies sense danger, we experience a physiological response that makes us feel anxious. In contrast, when our bodies sense safety, we don't tend to feel anxious.
So the big question is, how do we create the conditions that encourage the emergence of a sense of 'safety’ at work?
- We put ourselves in a position to engage socially.
- We try to remain truly 'present', focusing simply on what is happening in the moment.
- We suspend judgement and the urge to comment, correct, and explain. We simply 'be' with the other person and whatever they bring.
- When interacting with someone, we focus on them. Not on our emails, our mobile phone, or what we're going to say next. This helps the person we're with to feel safe, and through a process called "co-regulation", our own nervous system starts to feel safer too.
And yes, sometimes it's easier said than done.
That's why change won't happen overnight. To truly feel safe and comfortable at work, we first need to embrace discomfort with no judgement. We need to start by thinking differently, and being ready to say things we haven't said before. We also need to hear things we haven't heard before. This creates an opportunity for others to do the same so that, in time, we can work together in a way we've never worked before.
Why connection is the antidote to workplace anxiety
Without human-to-human connection, it's impossible to feel truly safe. But first, we need to address what connection is and what it isn't.
Genuine, deep connections between colleagues cannot be forced by workplace policies, wellness events, or employee assistance programmes. While these are all great things for organisations to offer, they're generally more reactive. Simply mandating a return to the office will never foster a sense of connection. Scheduling wellness events might help people momentarily, but it isn't a long-term solution. Employee assistance programmes can be incredibly valuable, but in most cases, employees only access them when they're already struggling.
"I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment, and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship."
We need to understand that the work we do day-to-day is our connection. Many of us are just doing it wrong at the moment. We're simply not 'present'. We're too busy thinking about our next meeting, checking our phones, or replying to Slack messages.
Presence is the key to connection. It's in the times when we choose to be present that we build the greatest connections. We feel safe. We feel less isolated. We commit to communicating with intention and honesty.
By making an effort to communicate with intention and honesty, we also help those around us to feel safer and more valued. We open the door to a more transparent workplace where authenticity is encouraged and celebrated.
So if connection is the antidote to workplace anxiety, how do we nurture it? We start with ourselves. The rest will follow.
John Turley & Petra Velzeboer discuss anxiety, loneliness, and wellbeing at work
In this conversation, John Turley and psychotherapist Petra Velzeboer discuss how to overcome anxiety and loneliness in the workplace, and how to foster a deeper sense of wellbeing.
Want to understand more about how to create a safe and open workplace in 2023 and beyond? Check out our Digital Etiquette: Reinventing Work Report for even more insights into anxiety, wellbeing, tooling, and the future of work.