How (and How Not) to Manage Employees with Anxiety


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Anxiety is a common mental health challenge that can have a serious impact on people's ability to do their jobs. Make sure you're prepared with a plan to address this issue and support your workforce.

Article 4 Minutes
How (and How Not) to Manage Employees with Anxiety

Every employer has a responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of its workforce. This extends beyond simply ensuring people can do their jobs without putting themselves at risk.

To be a truly responsible and ethical employer, you should have measures in place to help your staff achieve high levels of both physical and mental wellbeing.

This means building an awareness of common health challenges such as anxiety disorders, which affect nearly a fifth of the population - more than 40 million people - in the United States alone.

Dealing with the everyday pressures and responsibilities of work can be particularly difficult for people with severe anxiety, so it's important to have an understanding of this issue and what the company can do to support those affected by it.

Common causes of anxiety and signs to look out for

There are several potential causes and risk factors for anxiety disorders, including:

  • Past trauma or abuse
  • Financial troubles
  • Physical health problems such as heart conditions, respiratory disorders or chronic pain
  • Existing mental health issues such as depression

As far as anxiety specifically related to work is concerned, possible causes could include:

  • Heavy workloads
  • Long hours
  • Difficult and demanding clients
  • Workplace violence, bullying or harassment
  • Strained relationships with colleagues
  • Fears around job security and finances

Managers should have access to training and educational resources that help them improve their understanding of anxiety and some of the common signs that it's affecting members of the workforce.

Noticeable changes in an employee's behavior - becoming more irritable, tense or visibly nervous about regular events such as meetings, for example - could be signs that they're experiencing anxiety.

Team leaders should also be on the lookout for indicators such as people having trouble concentrating or remembering basic information, losing motivation or interest in their work and avoiding contact with their colleagues.

If behaviors like these are becoming more common in your workplace, you should be ready with a plan to support individuals who are struggling with anxiety. Make sure you're aware of common 'dos and don'ts' that will help you foster positive communication with employees and enable people to improve their mental wellbeing. 

Do: adopt an open-door policy

Many companies say they have an open-door policy, but it's important to make sure this is more than an empty promise. Follow up on your pledges to your workforce by ensuring that employees can come to their manager to talk about issues or concerns that are worrying them.

Think carefully about the details of your open-door policy and how you can make it practical, sustainable and beneficial.

Important steps could include:

  • Defining the details and parameters of the policy in your employee handbook
  • Training managers on techniques such as active listening
  • Having back-up processes in place when people want to discuss particularly sensitive or private matters

Many companies have achieved success with open-door policies, including IBM and HP.

Don't: tell people to change their behavior

No-one chooses to experience anxiety, so telling individuals to 'calm down' or 'stop overthinking things' is pointless and counterproductive. Statements such as these can exacerbate the situation by making people feel like their inability to control their anxiety is a failure on their part.

Instead, state clearly to employees that their feelings are valid and you're ready to offer support by listening to what they have to say, as long as they feel comfortable to talk.

Do: be flexible

Remote, flexible and hybrid working have grown in importance in the post-COVID world of work, and could be key elements in your efforts to support people struggling with anxiety.

For employees whose mental health is suffering because of the amount of time they have to spend away from home and their families, for example, the option to work from home once or twice a week could make a big difference.

Allowing a level of flexibility in working times and locations will also make it easier for people to attend therapy or counseling sessions.

Don't: undermine how people are feeling

Something that seems inconsequential or easily manageable to one person could be a source of enormous stress and concern to someone with an anxiety disorder.

When talking to people who are struggling with this issue, managers should be careful to avoid dismissing or questioning how they're feeling, even if their thought processes and emotional reactions seem irrational.

Saying things like 'you're overreacting', or 'you don't need to get so worked up' will achieve little other than making people feel undermined and belittled.

Do: incorporate mental health into your company culture

Mental health is a huge issue that demands a holistic, coherent approach from employers, which is why it should be placed right at the heart of your company culture and values.

If workforce wellbeing is a top priority for your organization as a whole, the HR department will be better equipped to help anyone experiencing anxiety, regardless of the severity of the problem or the underlying causes.

Furthermore, a cultural commitment to mental health could reduce the risk of workplace anxiety occurring in the first place, by proactively identifying and tackling issues such as overworking, presenteeism, bullying and harassment.

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