As the UK prepares to mark Mental Health Awareness Week (May 10th-16th), and employers all over the world seek to help employees deal with the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s never been a more appropriate time to focus on the issue of mental health in the workplace.
This is a broad and often challenging subject for businesses to tackle. With so many issues and considerations falling under the banner of mental health, it can be hard to know where to begin.
Given the various stressors people commonly face in their jobs, a good starting point for your HR team can be to focus on anxiety, which affects one in 13 people across the globe, according to the World Health Organization.
What is anxiety?
To do the best possible job of supporting your employees' mental health and helping them manage anxiety, you need to start from a position of understanding. That means having a clear idea of what anxiety is, common causes of anxiety (work-related or otherwise) and symptoms of recognized anxiety disorders.
It's perfectly normal for workers to feel anxious at certain times - on the eve of a big client meeting or a presentation in front of a large audience, for example. But when anxiety becomes persistent and starts to affect people's ability to go about their work and daily lives, it could be a symptom of a diagnosable condition such as:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
The difference between anxiety and stress
Anxiety and stress share some common symptoms that can be particularly problematic with regards to work. These include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
However, there are distinctions between anxiety and stress. The most significant difference is that stress is typically the result of a trigger, such as a looming work deadline, friction with a co-worker or fears over job security.
Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are generally defined by worries that are persistent and excessive, even in the absence of clear stressors.
Causes of anxiety in the workplace
Work, and related issues like worrying about money, are among the most common causes of anxiety.
While the exact triggers will depend on the nature of your business and the work your employees do, there are many general causes of anxiety that should be on the radar of every employer and HR manager.
Unfortunately, bad management is a fairly common problem in the business world, and it can often lead to feelings of anxiety in the workforce. If a manager fails to communicate properly with their team, for example, employees might find themselves rushing to meet a sudden deadline or going into a client meeting without all the information they need.
At worst, incompetent bosses can create toxic or discriminatory environments that make people feel anxious about coming into work every day.
Employees are likely to experience anxiety if they have an unmanageable amount of work to do and not enough time to do it. This can lead to excessive working hours and ultimately diminished productivity and performance, which increases the risk of further anxiety for individuals and teams in the future.
Lack of job security
Challenges such as a period of uncertainty for the business - or for the economy as a whole, as many countries are experiencing as a result of COVID-19 - can lead to people worrying about the security of their jobs and their income.
These dual concerns of job and money worries can be particularly damaging for employees' mental health.
The impact of workplace anxiety
Being aware of the causes of anxiety can improve your overall understanding of this issue and your ability to manage it, helping you to mitigate its impact on individuals, the wider workforce and your business as a whole.
The consequences of workplace anxiety can manifest themselves in various ways. One of the most immediate repercussions is that the person struggling with anxiety is unable to do their job properly, possibly because their sleep is being disrupted or they're finding it difficult to concentrate.
This can trigger a vicious cycle as the employee starts to fall behind with their work, which leads to further anxiety.
Wider teams and the entire workforce can also be affected by anxiety if it starts to create problems such as:
- Missed deadlines
- Unhappy clients
- Low morale in the workplace
From a commercial perspective, high levels of workplace anxiety could lead to the business facing the financial implications and general disruption of high staff turnover, since unhappy, stressed employees could be more likely to look for opportunities elsewhere.
What can HR do to help?
Considering the impact workplace anxiety can have on your employees and the business as a whole, the HR department should always be looking for ways to raise awareness of this issue and support people in their efforts to manage it.
Look for signs of anxiety
Rather than waiting for people to speak up about their struggles with anxiety, you should take a proactive approach and look out for signs that it's becoming a problem for some employees. These might include:
- Increased absence
- Missed deadlines
- Lapses in concentration
- Physical signs of tiredness and fatigue
- Overreactions to workplace situations and challenges
- Preoccupation with the negative aspects of the job
If you start noticing these signs more frequently, it could be time to come up with a dedicated strategy to manage anxiety in your workplace.
Encourage conversations to tackle stigma
It's important to be frank and open about mental health, and to encourage people at all levels of the business - from senior executives to junior staff - to talk about it. As well as tackling the stigma that still surrounds this subject, having honest conversations will help employees manage their anxiety by sharing their worries and concerns with co-workers who can empathize.
Allowing a degree of flexibility in how your employees work - with adjustable hours or the option to work from home on certain days, for example - can help to mitigate anxiety by freeing up people's time, removing the stress of commuting and enabling a better work/life balance. Flexible working arrangements will be more familiar and acceptable to many companies as a result of COVID-19, which forced countless employers around the world to find ways to operate with a remote workforce.
Provide management training
It goes without saying that managers have a critical role to play in your efforts to address workplace anxiety. As noted earlier, bad bosses can make the problem worse, but a good manager can provide essential help and support to anxious employees when they need it most. Investing in bespoke training for managers will contribute to better understanding of this issue and put the company in a stronger position to combat anxiety now and in the future.