By Becky Westwood, Director of Programmes and Coaching at Monkey Puzzle Training and Consulting
The past year has certainly confirmed the importance of workplace wellbeing, with unprecedented levels of anxiety being felt by business owners, leaders and employees alike. However, workplace anxiety is far from a new issue and organisations have been trying to manage this significant challenge.
Mind estimates that one in six workers experiences common mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. This is likely to have risen in the face of the pandemic, with threats of redundancy and personal and economic uncertainty.
Enforced working from home is set to continue for a while and it is likely to be a more permanent feature of the future workplace. This can make it more difficult to spot signs of anxiety in individuals and the team, but there are ways to reduce anxiety levels and create a culture that promotes openness and support.
How does anxiety spread?
Workplace anxiety can spread very quickly if left unchecked. If an announcement isn’t clear or managers neglect to address a certain issue, the uncertainty can spread like wildfire through myths, rumours and messages. This can cause the problem to become much bigger than perhaps one individual’s original concern, which probably could have been answered quite quickly.
Communication is critical as absence breeds insecurity. Employers may trigger the anxiety of others without even realising it, particularly as this reaction can manifest unconsciously. When it does, the blame game can follow which is detrimental to productivity, wellbeing and morale. However, there are ways of preventing workplace anxiety from taking place in times of uncertainty.
Address concerns of safety
One of the major causes of anxiety is threats to safety. Unsurprisingly, 2020 placed many people on high alert for very prolonged periods, which takes its toll on both wellbeing and productivity. It is essential that leaders and managers make it very clear how they are protecting the safety of staff. This could be through home working, but also PPE, social distancing, sanitizer and additional mental health provisions required when able to return to the workplace.
Some of these concerns may not be over physical safety. Some people are anxious about what may be going on in their organisations during lockdown, particularly regarding job security. As a result, many work even longer hours in an attempt to be even more productive which can lead to burnout – itself one of the most damaging long-term mental health issues. Clarity is key, along with repeated reminders through a variety of communication channels, as when people are mentally tired, they are likely to miss any subtle cues.
Be vigilant on the signs of anxiety
The signs can be harder to spot remotely, but they are very often there if people know what to watch out for. This could be dips in productivity, changes in mood or lacking motivation. Changes in behaviour towards others is an important sign, so make everyone aware of this as well as reminding them that it’s ok not to feel ok. This means sole responsibility for the wellbeing of others does not rest with a single individual.
If someone is a concern, engage with them using open questions that allow them to talk about how they are feeling, such as “How have you been doing recently?” Laughter is also good medicine, so any form of team interaction that raises a smile brings benefits such as greater understanding and reduced stress.
Open questions go a long way to creating a culture of empathy and openness. It is likely many people are feeling exactly the same anxiety, so opening these conversations will contribute to normalising these feelings. Consider also HR data, such as increasing absence or decreasing workflow.
Consider how you frame change
2020 was certainly a year full of change, with many people moving from office working to home working multiple times in the face of changing circumstances. Change itself can cause anxiety, even without the circumstances of the past year. Sometimes leaders and managers may be excited about the change that they are about to bring to the organisation, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be on-board straight away.
When many things are changing at once, make sure to also discuss exactly what will be staying the same to keep people grounded and the change less daunting. For example, if communicating a change towards permanent home working, remind everyone that the same support network will still be there and many of their tasks will not have changed.
Workplace anxiety can spread like wildfire if left unchecked. The organisations that are most aware of how it can spread and the signs to watch out for, and which deliver considered communications through a variety of means and address concerns over safety, will go a long way to minimising the impact and helping their employees cope.