Workplace Anxiety, and What You Can Do About It.

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Context

Presumably, if you are reading this, then either you are struggling with this issue currently, have done in the past, know or help someone who is affected, or are interested in broadening your knowledge.
To provide some context, and as workplace stress and anxiety can be complex issues stemming from numerous factors including bullying, team dynamics, line management, industrial disputes, and so on, I am limiting this to addressing anxiety in the workplace as a result of an existing anxiety disorder such as GAD – generalised anxiety disorder – (or other related conditions), anxiety caused by environmental factors, or a combination of these. The topic is so wide ranging that we need to hone our focus in order to find some benefit. That being said, I’ll focus on the office environment and what you can do to cope better.

  1. Investigate A good starting point if you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed or anxious in your work environment is to make a list of what you are finding difficult. Breaking it down like this helps to avoid breaking down yourself! Considering our stressors in small, more ‘manageable chunks’ can help us develop a clearer course of action, and take things forward step by step.

    For example, things that can be making you anxious could include, but are not limited to:

    – Struggling with your work tasks, or needing training.
    – Overhead lighting causing headaches.
    – Noise from colleagues.
    – A variety of sensory inputs such as movement, especially if you are in an open plan environment with a number of colleagues.
    – Interruptions: colleagues turning up at your desk, unannounced, to discuss a piece of work, or to have a chat, can be quite unsettling if you are of an anxious and sensitive disposition.
    – Team dynamics.
    – Difficulty concentrating on your work tasks because of the environment, and too much going on, resulting in anxiety about getting your work tasks done well and on time.
    -Feeling overwhelmed or overpowered by the environment and by more talkative, loud, assertive or aggressive people around you.
    – The journey / travel to and from work.
    – Other: you fill in the blanks……..

    Perhaps you could set yourself this task right now, as we go through this together, to write down a list of what is ‘stressing you out’ in the workplace context, with the above as a guide or starting point. Hopefully, making a list of key issues will be helpful in moving in the direction of finding solutions, or ways at least to alleviate the severity of the anxiety and distress you may be experiencing.

    2. Know your Rights

    Arming yourself with knowledge about workplace policies, and appropriate legislation, can provide you with the confidence to feel you know where you technically stand as an employee in relation to your company / employer, even if you don’t actually plan on acting upon this knowledge or raising your issues formally. Just having a better idea of workplace rights and responsibilities should boost your confidence a bit to be able to negotiate the situations you are in while knowing that you yourself are conducting yourself appropriately.

    Within the UK, The Equality Act 2010 is an important piece of legislation that highlights the legal responsibility that employers have towards people from ‘protected characteristics’. This covers disability, which includes mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. You may have to have a clinical diagnosis by a health professional, but it certainly helps to know that your employer has a duty of care towards you to provide what are called ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace so that you are not disadvantaged due to your condition. This is likely to be easier, although not necessarily without issue, to raise within the public, third and voluntary sectors. Having only worked for these, I can’t really speak about the private sector, but my guess is that there may be more or different challenges in this respect within private companies. I have had challenges myself, but this has been more to do with individuals and their lack of understanding or will to help rather than the organisation’s stance. Overall, despite a few initial hurdles, I have been treated very well once being able to present evidence of my diagnosis, in relation to being able to have open dialogue about reasonable adjustments. Having very helpful Union Reps has also been beneficial in having people to advocate for me, especially as formal meetings and such like, as I am sure you are well aware from your own experience, can be particularly difficult if you suffer from anxiety and related conditions.

    If you live outside of the UK, different legislation may apply, so do a bit of research and get to know where you stand. Like I said, you may not end up taking things forward formally, but it will help you to have more confidence when you know what your rights and responsibilities within the work place are, and are not.

    3. Find an ‘Ally’

    Problems are generally less daunting when you are not facing them alone. There may be various sources of support available to you within the workplace such as a trusted colleague and friend, a union representative, HR support, or if you are very fortunate, a good line manager. Even if you can’t identify any of these as being available to you right now, chances are you will have a friend or family member who knows of your challenges with anxiety, whom you could phone for a chat during your lunch break. Keep things in balance though, as sometimes during our more difficult times we can find it hard to cope, lack belief in our own abilities to manage and this can lead to being overly dependent on other people for reassurance, and therefore putting a stress on our relationships. Don’t be afraid to share with your trusted friends and family members, but make sure you establish mutually healthy boundaries, and recognise that they may not be able to be there for you all the time, or may also have challenges of their own to deal with, and try to maintain a healthy balance, working towards getting stronger and more resilient yourself.

    If you have the opportunity, you may find it beneficial to participate in a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to address your anxiety issues, some form of psychological support or talk therapy, and / or on the advice of medical professionals, consider the option of taking medication to alleviate the harsher symptoms of anxiety. Don’t feel pressured to make a decision or do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. Ask questions, talk things through with your doctor, do your research and come to your own conclusions, but know that there are a variety of supports and helps out there for you, and that in the UK we are especially fortunate to have a free health care system in the NHS. The good thing about professional support with anxiety is that you will be speaking to someone who is knowledgeable, trained and can provide you with a context and explain that what is happening to you during an anxiety or panic attack is perfectly normal, and has biological as well as psychological ‘explanations’ and causes. You also know that your ‘relationship’ with your health professional is for your support, therefore you should have no personal burden to manage boundaries within this context as you will be guided and supported in this, you don’t have to worry about being ‘needy’, or reciprocating as the interaction will be purposeful and focused on helping you overcome your symptoms and understand your condition better. If you feel uncomfortable with the professional you are working with, you are entitled to ask for a change. Part of the difficulty with anxiety is that you might find yourself, as I did, experiencing a lot of things that don’t make sense to you, and not understanding fuels your fears and further heightens your anxiety and distressing thoughts such as wondering whether something is wrong with you, are you going mad, are you having a heart attack, going to die, what on earth is happening? The step by step approach that medical professionals can offer you can be the first step to overcoming your anxiety and taking control rather than allowing your symptoms to control you. This has helped me greatly, to realise and have someone explain that what I experienced was ‘normal’ and that there were biological and medical / scientific reasons for this. Then step by step, with help I was encouraged to work on my breathing to challenge the fight / flight response my body went into which made the anxiety worse, to work on breaking the unhealthy cycle of negative thinking as this directly impacts my body, and to realise that I actually could get control. Understanding is key to this process, so see it as a strength rather than a weakness to ask for help – because who knows, your knowledge may one day help someone else, and maybe even change their life for the better, and surely that is an act of courage and not an act of weakness!

    4. Figure out what is within your power to change

If you want to ask your employer for reasonable adjustments then it is very helpful to have an idea yourself what you would like these reasonable adjustments to be, and why they will help. The exercise under point 1 leads nicely into being able to find potential solutions to your workplace stressors. It may be helpful to talk things through with someone before formally making a request from your employer, so that you can put forward a stronger case, and feel less anxious if you have already ‘done your homework’. If you have a supportive boss, union rep or colleague this may be a good place to start to explore your options. Similarly if you are finding that your anxiety is triggered by the behaviour of your colleagues, such as if someone unexpectedly turns up at your desk and starts talking about work and this triggers in you feelings of surprise or alarm, of feeling unprepared or caught off guard, then if you think they are approachable and sympathetic then you could suggest that they give you some advance notice by email, so you can prepare and know what to expect and when, at a time and place that is convenient to you both.
However, we don’t live in an ideal world and having such discussions with managers or peers at work can be challenging at times if not downright problematic.
So taking that as our imaginary ‘worst case scenario’ to be our starting point, let’s imagine that all of our requests for help and reasonable adjustments have fallen on deaf ears, our managers are totally unsympathetic and our colleagues are forgetful and don’t really understand or care what anxiety is anyway, so don’t make much of an effort to help, and in the end there’s nothing we can do to make other people change or be understanding or supportive, other than raising the issue formally, which as a person with anxiety, I’m guessing you are hesitant – even in this imaginary situation – to do.
So, what can you practically do to find relief from workplace anxiety, and have a better time at work?
1. Be a solution seeker (here I will suggest what you can do on your own, as well as provide ideas for reasonable adjustments that you can ask for).

Noise: Let’s say for example, it is far too noisy for you to work comfortably.
One thing I do, and which is acceptable in my workplace (but probably wouldn’t be if you worked on Reception / the front desk, so consider your situation appropriately and professionally) is to listen to my MP3 player, using earphones, and having a playlist that includes calming nature sounds such as ocean waves, birdsong and tropical rainforest sounds, as well as classical or instrumental music, worship music, and other encouraging things that help me ‘get through the day’ when it is noisy or chaotic around me.

You can take a break from your desk or office space, and walk around, or if you have quieter ‘breakout’ spaces, take some time out there, or sit by yourself for 5 or 10 minutes in a meeting room until you feel more able to handle the external stressors. Depending on your workplace ‘culture’ things may be more relaxed as to how often, when and where you take breaks, so you may even have the chance to go outside and get some fresh air. Conversely, you may be in a more difficult situation where you are ‘micro managed’ and feel more stressed if you were to take a break, so you will know best how to adapt to your particular situation, context and workplace culture.

Reasonable adjustments  that you could suggest to your employer might include being placed in a smaller, quieter office space (although this can be a tough one if there is a shortage of space, and / or unfortunately if egos are at risk if this were to mean that someone higher up the hierarchy might have to make changes themselves or adapt in some way).

You could ask for access to a laptop, and to take time away from your desk to work in a quieter part of the building or in an available meeting room.

This one unfortunately is a ‘no go’ with my employer for me, but you might find that your employer is open to you having certain work from home days if the office environment is difficult for you.

Team Dynamics: Let’s try another one that is potentially less straight forward than the noise situation.

This time, our imaginary situation is one in which you feel anxious within your work team. There are conflicting personalities, workplace politics, gossip, an unequal distribution of work, and you find it difficult to contribute effectively in team meetings because you are often overpowered and struggle to get your voice heard or to find a way in when people talk over you.

Let’s break this down again, so that we can view the situation in more manageable parts to be addressed one at a time.  I’ll address a few of the issues, and you can try to tackle the rest so that you have a chance to build up on your already existing problem solving skills.

Conflicting personalities:

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about changing other people, other than to lead by example, and I believe to pray for them, for God Is the One Who Is able to bring forth deep and lasting transformation, not us.

What you can do is to take a step back to examine the situation and dynamics, so that you can gain an understanding of what is happening and how it affects you.

Say for example, there is a power struggle between two of your colleagues, that only gets worse over time. You don’t contribute or have a part in this, but it does affect you. At times you find yourself feeling like a pawn in their game as each one tries to ‘score points’, with you being caught in the middle. What can you do?
In a situation like this it may be very difficult to speak to either one or both parties about the effect it is having on you. But you might find that one colleague is sympathetic and willing to reflect upon how their behaviour is having a detrimental effect upon other members of the team, and make appropriate changes. However, tensions may be so high between the two of them, that they are unable or unwilling to address your needs.

Therefore, you will need to take control of your own situation. Are there any ‘red flags’ you’ve noticed that signal things are about to escalate? If you can spot these before things worsen between your colleagues, and if the situation isn’t a meeting, then there may be an opportunity for you to ‘slip away’ before things get heated. There are two things I feel I need to address. The first is that you are not responsible to be the ‘fixer’, mediator or the diplomat. The reason I say this is because it is a role I have felt I needed to take upon myself since childhood, perhaps partly because of my caring nature and being distressed by conflict. However, I need to remind myself and perhaps you need to be reminded too, that you have a duty of care towards yourself, to get, be and stay well, and if situations such as this put you at risk then you need to look after yourself. This also applies in terms of your feeling the need to protect and comfort other colleagues within the team who are similarly affected. Make sure you are strong first or you might find that you all bring each other down rather than helping others up. It’s easier said than done, and I definitely speak from experience. Now the second point, is that I am someone who is on an ongoing journey and my anxiety challenges have not gone away or been ‘fixed’ yet, and although I do manage my symptoms much better than before, it continues to be a learning curve for me. So my suggestion to extract yourself before the situation escalates is based on what I would do myself with my current coping mechanisms, but I am also aware that professionals advise that ‘avoidance techniques’ can keep people stuck within the cycle of anxiety and unhelpful thought processes and reactions. You’ll need to find a balance that works for you as there is no ‘one size fits all answer’, and we are all continuing to adapt and learn as we go through life…so please note that I am simply making, hopefully helpful, suggestions to benefit us both as we walk through this together. 🙂

– Taking yourself away from this conflict situation if you find there is nothing you can do (and I am assuming that you are not actually the manager of the team, which if you were, your roles and responsibilities would be different and you might have to ‘stick around’) could potentially stop your symptoms before they start. You could go to the bathroom, go to another part of the office, discuss work with a colleague from a different team if appropriate, step outside for some fresh air for a few minutes, make a cup of tea, and do some deep breathing exercises. All of these are reasonable behaviours if you don’t take too much time. Perhaps when you return the situation will be ongoing, but hopefully you would have used your time away to prepare yourself internally to be able to handle it without allowing your anxiety to escalate. Small steps…it is a process.

– Another thing you can do is to be aware of how your colleagues might affect you especially if you can’t get away from the situation. They might have predictable patterns of behaviour such as drawing you into their conversation / conflict, asking you to take sides or to back them up, or to confirm a statement they are making. This can be very distressing if you are caught off guard, have no idea what you should or shouldn’t say, or how to remain calm in the midst of this. If you can do some thinking when you are not in the situation, then as with forearming yourself with knowledge, you can also forearm yourself with preparing yourself for how you want to react or what you can say. Just as ahead of a job interview you would take time to prepare and practice your reactions and responses, this can be a helpful technique to use in workplace situations. If one of your colleagues has a pattern of drawing you into their conflicts, then you can prepare in advance a way to express that you feel it is not your place to contribute to the discussion, or you’d feel more comfortable if this was discussed in a team meeting with the rest of your colleagues, or whatever the most appropriate answer might be. Knowing ahead of time what you want to say will also mean that you will have more energy to put into saying it confidently and assertively, setting boundaries with your colleagues, and following through. If you are anxiously thinking of what to say or do, this will deplete your energy and inner resources to make a stand and assert yourself.

Also note that when a quieter, more anxious person is assertive – even if quietly so, this can take people aback who had previously thought you would simply acquiesce and allow them to sway or manipulate you. This in itself can help people realise, actually, they can’t take advantage of you, and is another way of setting healthy boundaries.
Reasonable adjustments This can be a tricky one, but perhaps a potential reasonable adjustment in this situation could be to discuss your anxiety / panic disorder with your boss. You don’t need to mention the issues of conflict between them and their team, or between other colleagues, but you can express that you have panic attacks, explain what happens and how it makes you feel and request reasonable adjustments such as being able to excuse yourself if you feel an attack coming on when you are in a team meeting for example, or in discussions. Knowing you have the backing of your boss can be a reassurance in itself that alleviates your anxiety and makes you feel less trapped, and you don’t have to mention any other team dynamics at all if you don’t feel comfortable doing so at that stage.

Unkind colleagues: You may work with people who are unknowingly rude or overly frank in their conversations, who may have narcissistic tendencies or full blown narcissistic personality disorder, and / or who feel they gain power by putting other people down – this is usually because of their own insecurities. Such personalities are not uncommon in the workplace, and this can be particularly painful if the person treating you in this way is your boss, for there is an added power dimension that they feel gives them permission to unfairly pick away at your work, your personality, even your anxiety, or other issues. Bosses may often cross boundaries because of this unequal power dynamic, but that doesn’t make it right, fair or acceptable. Colleagues and peers can try to ‘get at us’ in similar ways too. They might be passive-aggressive, they may withhold information that is required for you to do your job, they may try to accuse or embarrass you in front of others, or they may not invite you to things that the rest of your team or group are part of and make no real attempt to hide the fact from you that you are being excluded. They may gossip about you or others, or they may offer the classic ‘complisult’ – a term I coined to describe someone who appears to be sweet as honey by giving you a compliment, but it actually giving you a backhanded insult. What do I mean? If you haven’t experienced it already then it comes in the form of something like, ‘Oh, you look really nice in that outfit…’ and rather than just leaving it there, continue to add ‘today. You must have lost a ton of weight, it fits you so much better now’. Em….’thanks’…. I think. People who do this often purposefully play on what they know to be your insecurities so because the insult is disguised as a compliment, you find yourself doubting yourself, focusing on the negative, asking ‘was I really fat before? What do they mean I’ve lost a ton of weight?’ and yet you defend them because actually they were being nice….weren’t they? Don’t be fooled. The complisult has injured many a precious, tender soul. If you can recognise it for what it is, you can choose to give it and the person no power over you to harm you or cause you emotional distress. Another one might be ‘well done, you finally got that right’. Is that actually a ‘well done’ for your good work, or a subtle yet sarcastic dig at you for being slow or ‘stupid’? Or, another ‘good’ one I’ve heard is ‘Ohhhh, you look so lovely today……not that I’m saying you usually look ugly of course’. Ouch. Often ‘complisults’ are given in public, to make you feel worse, and accompanied by a joke or a laugh so that if you see or take any offence it will be perceived as you being humourless, ‘overly sensitive’ (why is that even seen as a bad thing in this world?) or not being able to have fun with your colleagues or otherwise ‘deficient’ in some other way. Unkindness is unkindness no matter how well it is disguised. A sincere and kind person will say something nice, encourage and build you up, and leave it at that. There will be no doubting their motives because their character and actions follow through with their kind words, and they won’t intentionally do anything to hurt you or make you feel bad, nor will they be kind to you in order to gain something from you in return. These are the kinds of trusted people you want to have in your life, and the kind of person you’d want to be.

As to reasonable adjustments, I don’t see what you could do here, but if you can see something please let me know. Please note that I use the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ very loosely here because it is not necessarily a factor affecting your condition, but simply inappropriate and rude behaviour from a colleague that should not be accommodated for or accepted. However, unless a person’s behaviour is overtly unacceptable and also witnessed by others, then it can be difficult to address something that could be interpreted as a subjective opinion rather than a blatant code of conduct issue. If it is presented as ‘harmless office banter’ then it might be even more difficult to address. However, don’t let that discourage you.

You may have to do a lot of deep work personally to really get strong. People who pinpoint your weaknesses know that there is a wound or issue they can ‘get at’. Rather than seeing this as something that is defeating you, rise up, have faith and hope, and use it as an opportunity to address the lies you have been believing. You are precious, special, unique, intelligent, beautiful, fearfully and wonderfully made and worthy, no matter what people say. Work hard at replacing the lifelong lies with Truth. Believe me, I know how tough a battle this is, but if you start believing in your own worth, the arrows will eventually be unable to pierce you at all. Let’s believe we can conquer that mountain! And you may even get to the gracious place of forgiveness and strength in being able to see the other person with compassion, and as doing these things because of their own feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem.

If you are being bullied, harassed, unfairly treated or victimised in some way, I encourage you to keep a private log of what is happening. Make a note of dates, times, context, what was said or done, the effect it had, and were there witnesses present. Was information withheld, were you intentionally excluded, has this been a pattern of behaviour rather than a one off incident? If you can build up a picture, and evidence then you are in a better position to be believed. Make sure you have an email trail, or written evidence of unacceptable communication from your colleague.

Additionally, don’t suffer in silence. If you can’t raise an issue with the person in the first instance, seek out the help of a sensible, wise and appropriate mediator, such as someone with that role in the organisation, a union representative or maybe an HR person. Once again, arm yourself with knowledge of your company or organisations and policies in relation to bullying and harassment.

Can you think of any solutions you can seek in relation to some of the more ‘straightforward’ items listed under point 1?

What about lighting issues, or the journey too and from work? What about people interrupting you during your lunch break if you eat at your desk? Can you make any more positive changes? Remember you don’t need to stay at your desk all day, indeed it is encouraged that you don’t.

I encourage you to try this exercise with a situation that applies to you, or has done in the past, and one which is purely hypothetical. This will help you to exercise and train your ‘mind muscles’ and mental agility to seeking solutions to problems, and knowing that anxiety can be put in its place when we take the time to do so.

I think that’s probably quite a lot to think over for now, but depending on the response, I may return with a ‘Part 2’ to this topic. Are there any particular workplace stressors in relation to what I’ve written above that you would like me to try to address?….I’ll do my best, even if that means starting afresh and seeking out solutions together if our shared staring point is initially not knowing the ‘answer’. It is another step to getting stronger together and living out the hope that we are stronger than our symptoms of anxiety. 🙂 Believing is the first step to achieving. Xx

Also, just to let you know, working in an office isn’t all bleak, there are a lot of great things about it, and maybe that will also be a future blog post to encourage you with. 🙂 x

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