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Arm Your Leaders with 3 Ways to Help Employees Manage Anxiety

by: | August 17, 2017

We all occasionally experience high-pressure moments at work. This could take the form of nerves before an important presentation or jitters going into a performance review.

But while some of us only deal with these feelings sporadically, chances are that almost 20 percent of your employees live with clinical anxiety, a persistent form of stress that impairs daily functioning. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in North America today, affecting over 40 million adults in the U.S. alone, so it’s important for employers to not only be aware, but also prepare ways to help employees manage anxiety. This often starts with ensuring that your managers understand anxiety and how to help others who may be dealing with it.

Let’s take a closer look at how you can help your leadership team understand anxiety and its potential impact in the office before discussing three ways to help employees manage their anxiety at work.

Help Your Managers Understand Their Employees

Train your managers to recognize the symptoms and be prepared with potential solutions, so they can approach their employees from a foundation of understanding and with a constructive mindset.

Employees who live with anxiety may feel like they have an internal alarm that goes off constantly and signals danger ahead. That’s because anxiety triggers the body’s fear reaction, known as the “fight or flight” response, which sends heart-rate and breathing rhythm into overdrive.

Your managers should realize that those with an anxiety disorder don’t simply feel overwhelmed from time-to-time, but suffer from a chronic illness with physical and emotional symptoms that can show up in the workplace as:

  • Panic attacks
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Missed deadlines
  • Conflicts with managers
  • Trouble socializing with coworkers
  • Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed
  • Apathy, fatigue and loss of interest in work
  • Difficulty participating in meetings or making presentations
  • Phobias such as fear of flying or riding elevators

Train Managers on the Impact of Workplace Anxiety

Anxiety can be debilitating and scary. More than half of working North Americans say anxiety interferes with their job performance, quality of work and relationships with co-workers. And the consequences follow many people out of the office. According to a survey by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, work-related anxiety carries over into 75 percent of respondents’ personal lives.

Anxiety, like many mental health conditions, may go untreated or undetected for too long, resulting in high medical costs. People with anxiety disorder visit the doctor three to five times more than the average person. They are also six times more likely to be hospitalized. It’s no wonder that anxiety disorders account for one-third of the U.S.’s $148 billion mental health costs.

Employee anxiety increases both absenteeism and presenteeism while also lowering productivity. Anxiety disorders influence:

  • A monthly average of 10.1 work days lost due to disability and reduced productivity
  • $247.11 per employee annual losses due to mental illness-related presenteeism
  • 12 billion working days lost by 2030 to untreated mood disorders like anxiety, costing businesses $925 billion (as estimated by the World Health Organization)

3 Tips to Help Employees Manage Anxiety at Work

Because a large part of your workforce may be dealing with anxiety, it’s important to help them thrive. As an HR leader, you can play a major role in helping teams avoid burn out and disengagement.

The good news is that anxiety disorders are treatable, especially in a workplace culture that prioritizes wellbeing and early intervention. Employees who receive compassionate support can learn not only to cope but to excel.

Follow these tips to take a proactive, preventative approach to addressing anxiety in your workplace:

  1. Greet accommodation requests with compassion and empathy

Laws in both Canada and U.S. exist to protect individuals with mental illness from bias treatment. The Canadian Human Rights Act and American with Disabilities Act stipulate that those with known physical or mental limitations have a right to reasonable accommodations under the law, such as job restructuring, re-assignment, part-time or modified schedules, and acquiring equipment.

Accommodations for anxiety disorders may specifically involve:

  • Reducing distractions by providing white noise machines, headphones or private offices
  • Having an extended leave policy
  • Encouraging involvement in coaching or counselling
  • Offering stress management education

Take a collaborative approach, partnering with managers and individuals to creatively brainstorm accommodation solutions. Many can be small, inexpensive tweaks. For example, providing a work space with plenty of natural lighting or quiet spaces to decompress can go a long way. Work-from-home or other flex options empower teams to create arrangements that work best for them.

Either way, encourage leaders throughout the organization to lean on you and other HR resources for support when managing a team member with an anxiety disorder.

  1. Promote a culture of health and wellbeing.

All employees should feel comfortable taking steps to be happy and healthy at work. That includes feeling safe to talk openly and honestly about mental health. When employees know it’s okay to ask for help and seek treatment for anxiety, this improves their trust and quality of life.

In fact, a focus on wellbeing can be contagious. When leaders model healthy behaviors, like taking time off, promoting work-life balance, exercising or eating better, it helps create a company-wide wellness culture. Nine out of ten workers feel more loyal, motivated and likelier to recommend their company as a good place to work when they feel their employer supports their own wellbeing.

  1. Know which treatments get results.

As an HR professional, it’s important to be aware of the most effective treatments available for anxiety disorders, so you can design wellness initiatives to meet your employees’ needs.

Each of the five major types of anxiety disorders has their own distinct profile and evidence-based care approaches. A health professional may recommend a combination of the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – This type of short-term therapy focuses on helping people with anxiety develop positive coping skills to deal with stress and negative thoughts.
  • Lifestyle changes – These can include working with a nutritionist to reduce caffeine intake, exercising more, getting regular health screenings and participating in a smoking cessation program.
  • Complementary and alternative treatments – Meditation, acupuncture and yoga are commonly used in conjunction with other methods to treat anxiety. Harvard Business Review suggests that resources like mindfulness and resilience training are key to boosting workplace well-being and reducing stress.
  • Medications – Only doctor’s can provide an accurate diagnosis. They can also advise on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication options.

Although anxiety disorders are common, they are also treatable — especially with early intervention.

This is good news for companies that embrace a culture of health and make wellbeing a priority. The returns will be clear: improved employee engagement, higher productivity and lower costs related to turnover and disability to name a few.

When you empower people with the tools they need to lead happier, healthier lives, everyone wins.

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