Anxiety in the workplace is a common struggle, and when unaddressed, can lead to burnout. Burnout occurs when workplace stress has become chronic and begins to negatively impact a person’s performance as well as their physical and mental health. Anxiety at work can often be prevented with active problem solving and healthy work-life boundaries.
What Is Work Anxiety?
Work anxiety is the term used to describe anxiety that comes from one specific source: work. With work anxiety, the thought of work or actually being at work will act as a considerable trigger that sparks symptoms of anxiety. Work anxiety could be mild or lead to intense symptoms that hinder a person’s performance and well-being.
Anxiety Before Work
One type of work anxiety occurs before the workday. The anticipation of going to work can lead to:
- Feelings of dread
- Physical discomfort
- Stress and worry
- Poor sleep from thinking about work the night before
Anxiety before work can result in missed days and poor attendance. Ultimately, these could end with being fired.
Performance Anxiety at Work
For some, the work stress stems from performance anxiety. This anxiety refers to the worry and physical tension linked to performing well at a certain task. Anyone from a high school chemistry teacher to a professional football player could feel high anxiety levels due to their work performance. They could assume that low performance means their job could be threatened.
Social Anxiety at Work
Other people are less worried about the work and more about what accompanies the workplace, like socialization. With social anxiety at work, the person notes anxiety from interactions with the boss, coworkers, or other patrons in the workplace. They could fear saying something unfortunate or being stuck in an awkward situation.
Signs of Work Anxiety
Whether you’re in a new job or you’ve had your position for awhile, work anxiety can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health, especially when it becomes chronic. Chronic stress and anxiety can escalate to work burnout, which impairs a person’s performance and also makes them more vulnerable to a variety of physical and mental health issues.4
While people can experience work anxiety differently, but common symptoms include:4,5
- Feelings of dread or negative anticipation when thinking about or getting ready for work (not to be confused with ergophobia, or fear of work)
- Panic or anxiety attacks that occur at work, or when going to or thinking about work
- Feeling nervous, jittery or on-edge while working
- Having trouble sitting still, restlessness, nervous tics or fidgeting
- Trouble focusing and concentrating, “zoning out,” or making careless mistakes
- Performance anxiety, freezing up or mind going blank when presenting
- Fast heart rate, breathlessness, high blood pressure, or feeling dizzy or disoriented
- Physical manifestations of stress and anxiety including migraines, GI upset, or tenseness
- Feeling completely depleted and exhausted after work
- Constantly thinking, ruminating or worrying about work even during off hours
- Trouble sleeping or enjoying activities during off-hours because of work stress
- Feeling more irritable, snapping at others, or having mood swings
When work anxiety is chronic and continues over a prolonged period of time, the risk for burnout increases. Burnout is a word used to describe the long-term effects of chronic workplace stress, and in some countries is even listed as a diagnosable condition.
Causes of Anxiety at Work
Work anxiety is usually caused by uncertain or undesirable factors that a person feels unable to understand, address or fix. The lack of perceived control over these factors seems to be the primary factor for work stress and anxiety.3
Also, those who perceive stressors at work to be beyond their control are more likely to become overwhelmed by them, making them more vulnerable to anxiety.3,4
This does not mean that all work stress and anxiety are internally generated. In fact, extensive research has helped to identify specific workplace stressors that are more likely to negatively impact employees.
Causes of workplace anxiety might include:5
- Interpersonal issues or conflicts with colleagues or supervisors
- Demands, workload, and deadlines for projects and assignments
- Unclear, ambiguous, or inconsistent expectations and duties
- Feeling ineffective or unsure of how to complete work duties and tasks
- Excessive, unreasonable or unrealistic expectations placed on workers
- Having to participate, present or speak in meetings
- Lack of supervisory support or guidance from supervisors
- Lack of collaboration among colleagues or a competitive culture
- Hostility among colleagues, harassment, retaliation or unfair treatment
- Some aspect of the work or workplace conflicting with personal beliefs and values
- Inability to make decisions or have autonomy or control in one’s job
- Inflexibility, being micromanaged or a lack of work/life balance
Effects of Anxiety in the Workplace
The effects of work anxiety are well documented, and include a range of acute and chronic physical and psychological issues. Chronic stress is known to cause imbalances in hormones and chemicals related to mood and energy and over time, these can become toxic to the body and brain. The effects of chronic stress is cumulative, with more serious and chronic issues developing over time.
Some of the known physical and mental effects associated with work stress and anxiety include:5,6
- Chronic feelings of fatigue and exhaustion
- Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep or feeling unrested after sleep
- Irritability, moodiness and being more emotionally reactive
- Increased symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Difficulty focusing, concentrating and thinking clearly
- Impaired decision making, planning and problem solving
- Increased risk for coronary, respiratory, and musculoskeletal problems
- Headaches and gastrointestinal problems
- Obesity and type 2 diabetes
- Chronic pain
- Severe injuries and early mortality (before age 45)
According to a 2006 survey done by the ADAA, people who reported stress and anxiety in the workplace describe that the negative effects show up most in their relationships with coworkers and supervisors, their performance and the quality of their work. Unfortunately, the negative effects of occupational stress and anxiety extend beyond the workplace, with roughly 75% of respondents admitting to negative impacts to their personal lives as well.1
Talking to Your Employer About Workplace Anxiety
Survey data indicates that only a small percentage of people who are struggling with occupational stress and anxiety bring these concerns to their employer.1 Many fear personal and professional consequences as a result of doing so and in some workplaces, these fears are realistic. Still, in many cases it is worth making an effort to bring at least some of the concerns adding to stress and anxiety to the attention of a supervisor because when left unaddressed, these issues usually get worse instead of better. Addressing issues and concerns early on is often better than waiting it out, especially if the factors causing stress and anxiety aren’t likely to resolve on their own.
It is best to approach the conversation with your boss having already prepared your talking points. This helps to ensure you communicate the important points you have without getting sidetracked by nerves or other distractions.
Some of the things to think about and prepare ahead of time include:
- The main issues or problems that are contributing to your anxiety
- The way these issues are impacting your ability to do your job well
- Ideas and solutions about what is needed to address these issues
- Specific ways your supervisor can help and support you in addressing the issues
- What actions you’ll take if you do not get the response you want
In an ideal workplace, these kinds of conversations would have a high success rate, but this might not be the case for you. If you do not get the response or support you need from your supervisor, it will require you to think about different ways you can manage your stress or anxiety.
If you’re dealing with a toxic work environment, the most appropriate solution is to work on finding a new job. Avoid letting this be an emotion-driven decision made when your stress and anxiety are at their peak. This will help you ensure that you do not make an irresponsible or impulsive decision, and also that you don’t burn bridges at your current job that you may need in the future. While challenging, these experiences also probably can help you pinpoint the things you need from your next job, informing your job search and selection process.
How to Deal With Work Anxiety: 13 Tips
There are certain coping skills and activities that can decrease anxiety and help you establish more work-life balance. Some of these are skills you can use during high stress moments at work, and others are activities that you can do in your free time to relax and recharge.
Here are 13 coping skills that can help you manage work anxiety:
1. Understand Your Triggers
Not all work anxiety is the same, so knowing your anxiety triggers is key. Take some time to reflect on your anxiety, when it started, and what seems to make it worse. Once you truly understand your situation, you can begin working towards solutions.
2. Tell a Coworker That You Trust
Talking about work anxiety with others will be an important part of the recovery process, and speaking with a coworker offers a unique perspective. They could let you know that you’re not alone in your stress, or they could offer a new point of view that decreases your anxiety. Either way, sharing your concerns will ultimately help.
3. Maintain Positive Work Relationships
Interpersonal conflicts are consistently cited as a top source of workplace anxiety.5
Working on developing and maintaining positive relationships with coworkers and supervisors will make you feel less anxiety about going to work everyday. Relationships are also a form of social capital that could be helpful to you in the future.
4. Find Opportunities to Effect Positive Change in the Workplace
Anxiety tends to exaggerate the problems and barriers at work, so it takes effort to look for opportunities for positive change. Joining committees, filling out feedback forms, and participating in problem solving meetings might give you more of a voice or possibly help you effect positive changes in the workplace.
5. Alternate Difficult & Enjoyable Tasks
When people are feeling anxious, they tend to procrastinate the difficult, tedious, or time consuming tasks on their to-do list, which only adds stress and anxiety. Staggering these tasks with other tasks that are easier and more enjoyable will reduce feelings of dread and can make the tasks feel more manageable.
6. Create Your Own Mission Statement
Guard against burnout by developing your own reasons for continuing to work where you do, instead of just being assigned your company’s mission statement. Determine how you can use this job as a platform to reach specific goals, develop mastery in a certain area, or to contribute to a cause you care about.
7. Take Micro-Breaks to Implement Healthy Coping Strategies
Breaks from work don’t need to be 15-minute scheduled breaks or sneaking out to smoke a cigarette. Micro-breaks are a better option because they are healthier coping options that you can control. The best part is that micro-breaks can usually be done anywhere discreetly. You can engage in deep breathing, explore grounding techniques, and other relaxation strategies that reduce anxiety throughout the workday.
8. Look for Silver Linings
Anxiety can taint the way you think about every aspect of your company and your job, but there are probably some perks to your job, too. These might include things like your benefit package, liking certain coworkers, or having the opportunity to travel. Periodically make note of these silver linings to help balance out the negative aspects of your job.
9. Establish a Meditation or Mindfulness Practice
Meditation and mindfulness are practices that teach you how to be present and get out of your own head. Even 10-15 minutes each day can benefit your physical and mental health. These practices are proven to reduce stress and anxiety and also help train your mind to participate less in unhelpful thoughts that feed anxiety and stress.2
10. Maintain an Active Lifestyle
Exercise is incredibly effective at improving mood and energy levels, and also has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety. Make an effort to have an exercise routine that gets you up and active most days of the week. If you can exercise outside, the mental health benefits increase even more.2
11. Enrich Your Nights & Weekends
Work-life balance isn’t possible if you don’t have a life outside of work. Making time each week to spend with people you care about and to do things you enjoy will help you feel like you actually had time off. While you might not feel like you have the energy to do these things, you may find that doing them anyways provides a “return” in the form of a boost in mood and energy.
12. Develop a Five Year Plan
Your personal and professional goals should extend beyond next week or next month. Having a five year plan keeps you focused on actions that move you closer to making these a reality. These goals can also help you stay positive, motivated, and in touch with a positive vision for your future.
13. Explore New Job Opportunities
Unless you are in a job you plan to stay in for life, you should periodically explore the market for new job opportunities. Don’t be afraid to submit your resume to openings that spark your interest. Applying or even interviewing for a new job doesn’t commit you to taking it, but it can be good just to be reminded that you have options. Eventually, one might come along that feels like the right next step.
How to Get Time Off Work for Stress and Anxiety
To get time off work for stress and anxiety, you’ll need to have a series of conversations, usually with your mental health provider and your employer. Check with both to see if you meet the criteria for a mental health leave from work, and make sure you understand the steps, the duration, and the impact on your pay. At some workplaces, the qualifications for leave could be limiting and rigorous. Other job sites could require only written notice.
Remember, though, although time off of work may sound like a great opportunity to get away from your stress, it may not be best for your treatment and recovery.
When to Get More Support for Work Anxiety
It’s time to get more support for work anxiety anytime the stress, tension, and worry distracts you from your work and negatively impacts your life. If focusing on your job and enjoying your life is becoming too challenging, seek more support.
To find a therapist to help you address work anxiety and stress, you could explore options from an online directory, ask someone you know and trust if they have any recommendations, or seek a referral from your doctor. The cost of therapy will vary, with session rates often between $50 and $150 without insurance. Most online therapy companies have subscriptions that start at around $70 per week. And, with health insurance coverage, the out-of-pocket costs per session could be as low as $0.00.
Preventing Workplace Burnout
Most people will experience work stress and anxiety at least occasionally, so learning effective methods of coping can be helpful for everyone. Unfortunately, the default responses many people have to stress and anxiety are often unhelpful, and can even make things worse. This makes it much more likely that stress and anxiety will escalate into burnout, which is much more difficult to resolve.
Some of the ways to prevent work stress & anxiety from turning into burnout include:
- Don’t try to fix stress and anxiety by working more: When people first get stressed and anxious at work, their first reaction might be to work harder and longer, but this can actually make things worse. While occasional late nights and overtime may be a part of the job, becoming a workaholic only adds to your stress and anxiety levels. Because stress and anxiety impact performance and lower the quality of a person’s work, any benefits of overtime are quickly canceled out.
- Don’t think about work when you aren’t there: Even when people are not physically at the office or working, their mind can still be stuck at work. When you notice that you are spending your time off worrying or thinking about work, you are essentially still working overtime, at least mentally. As much as you can, try to leave work at work and spend your time off focusing on other parts of your life.
- Don’t turn to negative coping methods: People struggling with high stress and anxiety may be tempted to turn to drugs or alcohol to help them relax, unwind, and not think about work. While drugs and alcohol can provide short term relief, using a substance to cope is much more likely to lead to addiction than using for social or enjoyment purposes, and you don’t want to add addiction to your list of problems.
When to Quit Your Job
Quitting your job is never something to take lightly. With work anxiety, the decision to quit should be a rational decision made with feedback from your support and mental health treatment team.
It may be time to quit if:
- You see no hope of the situation improving
- Your workplace is dysfunctional or toxic
- Your requests for support and modifications are denied
- Your therapist supports your decision
- You have opportunities for other work
Having work anxiety and quitting your job is a huge life decision. Some people may need to take significant time between jobs to recover, which could have significant financial consequences. Make sure you’re prepared for this change before you make a rash decision.
For Further Reading
- Harvard Business Review (HBR): HBR is a nationally recognized non-profit affiliated with the Harvard School of Business. They publish articles and resources for employers and employees on topics related to work-life balance, creating optimal work environments and addressing problems in the workplace.
- The American Institute of Stress (AIS): AIS is a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness and offering resources on chronic stress, its effects, and prevention strategies.
- Some employers have benefit packages for employees with services like free counseling services through an Employee Assistance Program, sessions with physical trainers and nutrition counselors, and dedicated funds for personal and professional development. Talk to an HR representative at your company to find out about what benefits may be available to you for free or at a reduced cost.