Anxiety in the Workplace
- November 20th, 2019 09:30 am
Occasional butterflies, shaky hands, and sweaty palms – at some point, everyone has experienced symptoms of anxiety. But when the occasional nervousness turns into sudden and frequent lightheadedness, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and an overwhelming sense of fear or panic, you might be dealing with more than general restlessness. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., and the number of people affected continues to increase.
While anxiety clearly impacts a significant portion of the population, tracing the cause is a bit trickier. All anxiety disorders have unique risk factors – whether genetic or environmental – yet the majority of people point to health, safety, and finances as the main causes. But people seem to be missing one critical factor: the workplace. Workplace stress is on the rise, which could be contributing to even greater anxiety.
However, the relationship between work and anxiety is a two-way street. While work stressors like deadlines, work-life balance, office conflicts, and high expectations can increase anxiety, symptoms can also make it feel impossible to perform adequately while on the job. So to better understand the relationship between anxiety and work, we surveyed over 1,000 employees about their experiences. Does anxiety make employees less productive? Are people comfortable talking about their struggles with their boss? Read on to find out.
Workplace Risk Factors
While some people get anxious in social situations or around a large group of people, others may feel intense fear over performance-related tasks. Employees might even be at an increased risk for anxiety depending on their job situation, company size, and job tenure.
Remote work may be on the rise, but according to clinical psychologists and our study, working from home is not always as luxurious as it may seem. In fact, employees who worked remotely 100% of the time had the highest average workplace anxiety (scoring 54 out of 100). This doesn’t necessarily mean working from home causes anxiety, though. People who already grapple with anxiety may seek remote jobs as a way of coping with their struggles, but isolation can exacerbate symptoms.
Company size also seemed to impact workplace anxiety. While employees who worked for companies with just one to 19 employees had the lowest average workplace anxiety, those working for companies with 20 to 100 employees had the most. However, more employees doesn’t necessarily mean more anxiety. Employees working for businesses with at least 500 workers had the second-lowest average workplace anxiety.
Job tenure followed a similar pattern, with less being more. Employees who were with their company for four years or less had the highest average workplace anxiety, while those with more than 10 years under their belt reported the least.
Anxiety is known to interfere with daily activities, and the workplace is no exception. According to recent studies, anxiety disorders led to an average of 4.6 workdays lost to disability and an average of 5.5 days of decreased productivity every month. However, employees with both low and high anxiety viewed themselves as pretty productive. Compared to 97% of employees with low anxiety, 86% of those with high anxiety said they were productive at work. On the flip side, only 1.9% of those with low anxiety and 7.8% of those with high anxiety said they were unproductive. Nevertheless, the lower that employees scored on the anxiety scale, the more likely they were to say they were productive.
Anxiety is not only associated with low productivity, but it’s also heavily tied to negative thinking patterns. Despite the majority of employees with both high and low anxiety describing themselves as top performers, employees with high levels of anxiety were less likely to do so. Compared to just 75.1% of low-anxiety employees, just 63.6% of those with high anxiety said they would describe themselves as top work performers.
There may be a difference between the productivity of those with and without anxiety, but for our study, these measures were all self-reported. There’s no denying that anxiety can make it challenging to produce the same amount of work as someone without any worries, but anxiety also has a way of morphing people’s thoughts and beliefs. The tendency for people with higher levels of anxiety to think more negatively about their productivity and performance is likely due to the self-defeating beliefs and negative thought patterns that anxiety causes – rather than an accurate representation of their work ethic or abilities.
Performing Under Pressure
Around half of employees said their anxiety negatively impacted their work performance. And while some studies argue that anxiety can make you a good employee – acting as a motivator rather than an inhibitor – nearly 70% of employees voiced otherwise.
Employees not only denied that anxiety made them better employees, but they also said it made them less successful. Across job tenure, fewer than 12% of employees said they would be less successful at work if they didn’t have anxiety. Instead, the majority of employees with four years or less of tenure said they would be more successful if they didn’t have workplace anxiety.
As tenure increased, though, employees were more likely to believe they would be equally successful with or without anxiety. Seeing as these employees have more experience on the job and dealing with workplace anxiety, they may have found ways to manage their anxiety and use it to their advantage. For 39.2% of people, at least some workplace anxiety helped them work faster.
Confiding in Co-Workers
While workplace relationships often differ from those outside the office, anxiety can have a significant impact on how people interact. A good, friendly relationship with your boss not only increases job satisfaction, but it also seems to lower anxiety. Compared to employees who didn’t feel close to their boss, those who did have a close relationship with their manager had lower average levels of workplace anxiety.
Regardless of the relationship, however, the majority of people still didn’t feel comfortable confiding in their boss about their struggles. Less than 10% of employees said they were extremely comfortable telling their boss about their workplace anxiety, while around a third said they were not at all comfortable. Considering employees may find confiding in their boss difficult due to hierarchy and fear of discrimination, it makes sense that people were significantly more comfortable confiding in their co-workers. Compared to 21.7% of people saying they were not at all comfortable telling their co-workers about workplace anxiety, nearly 62% were at least somewhat comfortable.
Although confiding in co-workers is better than not confiding in anyone at all, the relationship between employee and boss might be the most important to maintain. Opening up to your boss may be daunting, but when bosses know how to handle the situation, steps can be taken to make the workplace less anxiety-provoking.
If going into work makes your heart race, palms sweat, and body shake, you’re not alone. Anxiety affects over 40 million Americans, and the workplace can be a major catalyst. Whether it’s looming deadlines, the need to impress, or fear of being fired, workplace anxiety can wreak havoc on productivity and job performance and make employees feel like they’re just not good enough. And while confiding in co-workers or your boss may be uncomfortable, talking about it can open doors to solutions.
Struggling with anxiety alone can make the symptoms worse and the workday harder to get through. That’s why, at ZenBusiness, we know how important support is – especially when it comes to starting a business. Our expert business specialists are here to ease your anxiety and ensure you have everything you need to form, run, and grow a successful business. To learn more, visit us online today.
- McCarthy, J. M., Trougakos, J. P., & Cheng, B. H. (2016). Are anxious workers less productive workers? It depends on the quality of social exchange. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(2), 279-291. Doi: 10.1037/apl0000044
We surveyed 1,004 current employees about their experiences with workplace anxiety. Respondents were 53.1% women and 46.9% men. Two respondents identified as nonbinary, and one respondent chose not to disclose their gender. The average age of respondents was 36.9 with a standard deviation of 11.1.
All respondents completed the McCarthy et al. validated workplace anxiety scale, from which each respondent got a “workplace anxiety score.” The scores were then scaled using a normal cumulative distribution function. The burnout scores presented throughout the project are percentiles of the average scores of respondents giving each response. For example, a score of 56 out of 100 indicates an average burnout score in the 56th percentile.
Respondents were asked to report how productive they were at work on a typical day. They were given the following scale of options:
- Extremely unproductive
- Somewhat unproductive
- Neither unproductive nor productive
- Somewhat productive
- Extremely productive
In our final visualization of the data, these were consolidated into three groups: productive, neither productive nor unproductive, and unproductive.
While the validated scale was used to get an unbiased measure of respondents’ workplace anxiety, respondents were also asked to identify how frequently they felt anxious at work. They were given the following options:
Respondents who answered at least rarely feeling anxious at work were asked more specific questions about their anxiety in the workplace. This included asking how anxiety impacted their performance. They were given the following scale:
- Extremely positively
- Somewhat positively
- Neither positively nor negatively
- Somewhat negatively
- Extremely negatively
In our final visualization of the data, those options were consolidated into the following groups: positively, neither positively nor negatively, and negatively.
The data presented here rely on self-reporting. Common issues with self-reported data include exaggeration, telescoping, and selective memory. For example, respondents could have exaggerated the degree to which they experienced anxiety at work. They also could have based their answers on a select few experiences they remembered particularly well, rather than the entire breadth of their experiences.
Fair Use Statement
Working with anxiety can make life a lot more difficult. If someone you know is struggling and could benefit from reading this study, you’re free to share it for any noncommercial reuse. Please link back here so that people can read the study in its entirety and review the methodology. This also gives our contributors credit for their work.