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Work anxiety in the 'new normal' - signs, symptoms and how to manage it

Some statistics on work anxiety

  • 17.9 million: Just in the United Kingdom alone, 17.9 million work days were lost to workplace anxiety and stress in 2019-2020 [1]
  • 75%: More than 75% of employees who experience workplace anxiety and stress say it carries over to their personal life, and this is more true of men (83%) than women (72%) [2]
  • 34%: 34% of employees have not spoken to their supervisor about work anxiety or stress for fear of reprisal (or reduction in responsibilities) from the boss. [3]
  • $300 billion: That’s the loss to the U.S. economy from workplace anxiety and stress, annually. [4]
  • 55%: Of employees are stressed during the day [5]
  • $11.3 billion: That’s the value of the market for work anxiety reduction and stress reduction approaches, growing at about 8.5% per year. [6]
Table of contents

What is work anxiety?

At the most basic level, it’s stress, anxiety, and frustration emanating from your job. 

It is weird to think that we keep seeing an increase in work anxiety globally -- after all, we have an insanely-advanced tech stack nowadays, and part of the grand promise of technology was that repetitive, stress-inducing tasks would disappear. That’s happened somewhat, but in the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes had predicted we’d all be working 15 hours or less per week by now. That prediction was largely driven by technology. Instead, we’ve gone in the other direction. 

Why has that happened? Why does work give us anxiety?

Part of what happened was globalization; there are more clients and more work in more time zones. Part of what happened is that tech-enabled some easier aspects of work, so now we can take on some harder aspects of work -- which is more time-consuming and ultimately more anxiety-producing. The numbers back this all up.

A few years ago, Groupon (of all places!) commissioned a study about work stress. It found that 20% of respondents worked 10+ hours a day, 50% said workload was preventing them from work-life balance, and yet 53% said that, despite how much they were working, they still had significant financial concerns. When the amount of work is not in line with the rewards from the work, there’s usually misalignment resulting in workplace anxiety.

COVID introduced more causes for anxiety: there were concerns about how safe offices were, notably. There were concerns about childcare and eldercare. There were layoffs in many industries. No job = no work but also = work anxiety (or work-related, as in searching for work).

Then there are also issues around loneliness. We know that extended working from home is probably going to be good for the environment, but what of the human condition? Commuting from your kitchen sink to your couch is cool, and millions of people were doing it daily around the world before Covid-19, but if you’re not used to that model … how do you stay sane and connected? 

Offices have drawbacks, yes. But offices are also areas of random and beautiful energy, new ideas, different conversations, and personal and professional growth. 

In short: you’re definitely feeling work anxiety for any number of reasons.

What is the intersection point between work anxiety and increased remote work?

Three telling statistics were revealed in Perkbox’s 2020 UK workplace stress survey

"Work-related office politics’ (37%) are the most common cause of work-related stress, followed by ‘lack of interdepartmental communications’ (34%), and ‘the work performance of others’ (33%).”

Changing from office-based work to remote work will disrupt each of these:

  • Office politics will operate quite differently without watercooler conversations and canteen gossip. Conflicts, dramas and troublesome romances will have fewer opportunities to flourish.
  • Rethinking communication channels between departments will occur more frequently when teams are distributed, providing more opportunities to get things right.
  • With colleagues less visible when we’re not sat next to them all day, we’re less likely to feel envious of their performance.

Does this mean working from home will cause a reduction in work-related stress? Possibly, but it’s complicated. While these will contribute to a less stressful working life (along with the absence of unpleasant commutes), other factors will have the opposite effect: taking care of children at home, lack of work-life boundaries, precarious economic conditions, and increased loneliness. 

How can you reduce work anxiety at an individual level?

It’s not always easy, but there are some approaches you can take:

  • Develop a routine: A consistent routine (get up at x-time, go through certain activities, begin work with an email check, etc.) can help reduce work anxiety.
  • Ask for clarification from leadership: One of the biggest causes of work anxiety is poor communication and lack of clarity around different projects and priorities. Managers are busy people, but if you consistently ask for clarification on what’s a primary project and what can wait, you will see less competing urgent deadlines, and that can reduce anxiety.
  • Lean into colleagues: This is harder during COVID, but there’s a tremendous amount of power in friends and work colleagues -- one study has indicated that if you have a friend whom you see on most days, the increase to your happiness is like earning $100,000 more each year. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie, it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income. Design events with them, online at first, and then in-person when that feels safer or multiple people are vaccinated.
  • Take breaks: We are not meant to be on all the time. In fact, per science, 55 hours/week is our ceiling on productivity and most humans should work for 52 minutes, then take 17 minutes off. It’s OK to take breaks -- it will actually help you perform better and feel less work anxiety.
  • Consider the side hustle development: One of the less-discussed aspects of work anxiety is that companies are notoriously cost-averse, and people represent a cost, so in many industries, layoffs can be increasingly common. Anxiety crops up because you feel you need to behave a certain way to not be laid off, and that can feel stifling. If you’re primarily scared of being laid off because of income/money concerns, consider slowly developing a side hustle that could be a source of income if something bad happens around your main job. That can reduce fiscal stress and work anxiety.
  • Work out, move, meditate: Do something to get moving. Humans are meant to do that. Even if it’s just neighborhood walks after work, it will help take the edge off work anxiety.
  • Sleep: Eight hours+ of sleep per night will keep you start each new day with a renewed vigor and focus, which can help reduce work anxiety. 

What would be a good job for someone with anxiety?

None will be perfect, but some good job candidates for people with anxiety include:

  • Librarian
  • Graphic design
  • Pet care
  • Writing
  • Accountants
  • Computer Programmers
  • Plumber
  • Data Entry
  • Plant nursery specialist

All these jobs have a relatively high degree of independence, make generally good salaries, and while there will be anxiety-producing situations within them (as with all jobs), it can be managed effectively in many of these roles.

What should managers know about workplace anxiety and team motivation dynamics?

We’ve been studying these concepts for years at F4S. Here’s what we’ve broadly come to: there are employees who thrive in group environments, and those who thrive in solo environments. Sometimes, the same individual may thrive in both, in different contexts. 

Group Environment

Someone who thrives in a group environment needs to have people around them, and engaging with their work and ideas, in order to be productive. 

They love on-the-spot questions, and are not afraid to interrupt others (and usually don’t mind being interrupted). They are driven by the energy of the mix of personalities and approaches to problem-solving constituting an office.

Solo Environment

Someone who thrives in a solo environment needs space without auditory or visual distraction to get things done; this is partially why you saw the rise of “pod” spaces in Silicon Valley offices about 10 years ago, because many programmers fit this mold. 

Once the zone is breached, it can take a solo environment person a long time to get back into said zone. While they can appear reclusive or distant to some other employees, especially the group-focused ones, this is less an issue of introvert vs. extrovert and more an issue of preferred productivity style. 

Many solo environment employees would be super fun at happy hour -- but to maximize their workflow, they need that cone/pod context.

How can managers use those two dynamics to reduce workplace anxiety?

The first step is the same first step as any other managerial process: talk to your people. Understand them. Get to know what makes them tick, how they think about work, how they like to work, how they like to be productive, etc. 

You do not need to be best friends with your employees – it’s a common managerial fear – but you do need to understand their work styles, because without that knowledge, it’s hard to manage them.

In and around Covid-19, a solo environment employee probably has an inherent advantage in terms of productivity. 

With solo environment team members, you want to make sure:

  • Their workspace at home is set up in the best way for them.
  • You are not inundating their schedule with video calls. (Give them 3-4 hour blocks of time to work unless the calls are urgent.)
  • You are including them on Friday “happy hour” type calls, or more social initiatives, so they feel connected to the team at a high level. 

Now, the group environment crowd is going to struggle more with remote loneliness and workplace anxiety right now. 

With group environment team members, you want to:

  • Talk to them consistently about how they’re feeling.
  • Include them in more video calls and group calls, even if potential task productivity may decline a little bit in the short term. (I say short term because in the long term a group environment person’s productivity will drop if they don’t have these types of opportunities.)
  • Encourage them to do virtual meetups with fellow employees for a coffee, etc. 
  • Create a brainstorming channel or something similar on Slack, in G-Docs, or wherever so that people can pop in and chat on ideas, interesting articles, etc. It’s not the same as office bump-ins, but it can be a digital manifestation of that idea.

One of the hardest parts about work, and especially about organizations scaling up, is that a lot of advice about communications or management are a “one-to-many” approach, i.e. an Intranet board, an employee newsletter, or the like. 

But people are individuals, and every employee has a different connection to the work, to the purpose of the organization, to their own working style, and more. Management needs to be more one-to-one, especially in trying times.

What about dealing with workplace anxiety in “The New Normal?”

We don’t know exactly what “The New Normal” might look like, and it will vary by industry and organization. But there are some general rules we can follow in terms of stress and anxiety:

Health: 

  • Consider doing a split schedule (“A Team” and “B Team”) to limit the amount of people in an office at a given time. 
  • Have wipes and soap and other sanitary products readily available.
  • If people would like to WFH more, allow for it. (The tech is there, and we’ve only underscored that recently.) 
  • Create physical distance in-office in terms of cubicles, tables, spacing in conference rooms, and the like. 
  • Create an internal website or Slack channel regarding local health data, phone numbers to call, what the company’s insurance has posted or said about testing, and more. 

Workload:

This is a weird time business-wise in part because some industries are collapsing and contracting, and some (think user-generated content brands) are exploding. 

If you have increasing or decreasing workload, that can be a source of anxiety and stress — those with decreasing workload will begin to assume they’re on the layoff list. When someone has decreasing task work, give them longer-term, strategic projects to work on. Prepare for a wave in demand that way. 

Layoffs:

If you are doing layoffs, do them in a humane way. Have the manager do the layoff, with HR on the flank. When people’s friends and co-workers get laid off in a third-party, questionable way, those remaining begin to feel anxiety (and resentment). 

Growth:

If you are growing, consistently communicate about the new workload, explain what types of new hires you are working for, and provide either increased compensation or an incentive/bonus structure for current employees. No one wants to take on lots more work without some type of monetary adjustment. 

Social events: 

The conventional model of workplace social events, i.e. happy hours or bowling or concert attendance or a baseball game, might be shifted for the next six months or more. 

If you’ve been having success with virtual happy hours, keep it going. If there’s a way to do bake-offs or potlucks in a central office location where the food and the food line can be spaced out, also go for that. 

At all-hands meetings, virtual or IRL, have a lengthy kudos and acknowledgements section. People are feeling stressed, anxious, and a tad lonely (they are not seeing their friends as much!) in this time. Getting a work kudos could be a huge aspect of their day. 

Buddy system: 

Some feel this concept is cheesy, but it works in numerous organizations. Especially if you’re growing and bringing people onboard during a very different time for your business, assign buddies. 

These aren’t necessarily mentors, as peer relationships can work fine, but they are employees who check in on other employees to chat about things like:

  • How are things going?
  • How’s the workload? 
  • What issues are there? 
  • What could be addressed more? 

It’s almost a de facto managerial role, and might be good for those who want a management track in their future. It allows managers to focus on their deliverables (while also checking in with their people, of course) and have some help on the anxiety temperature-taking, which is just as important as the fever temperature-taking right now.

Leadership style:

Previous F4S success on leadership styles has shown that roughly 4 in 5 employees are motivated by goals, whereas the other 20% is motivated “away from problems,” i.e. by challenges. This applies to leaders too, and when people become leaders, their motivation methodology carries through -- so if they were motivated by goals, that’s how they drive others. 

The “away from problems” (challenges) model can work, but in a high-stress period of time like a pandemic and concerns about returning to work, the “goals” model of leadership is likely to be more effective.

If you are a leader who drives others around challenges and problems – we see this in tech often, as the underlying goal of tech is commonly to fix some inefficiency – it might be better to take a softer, step-by-step, goal-rooted (“let’s accomplish this for this week”) approach for the near-term.

The bottom line

Even before Covid-19, mental health and stress and anxiety were coming to the forefront as organizational issues. In late 2016, Wharton was writing articles titled “The Pursuit of Happiness is Making Us All Nervous Wrecks.” The former Surgeon General of the U.S. had been saying that 2 in 5 American adults felt “chronically lonely,” even though we live in the most-connected era in human history. And the “biggest threat” facing middle-aged men, who tend to hold lots of decision-making authority in companies? It’s not smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.

HBR did an entire 2017 cover story package on “Work And The Loneliness Epidemic.”

These concepts were out there. Discussions were already being had. People were reconsidering their connections to work, to how they want to be managed, to where they want to work from, to how they want to interact with co-workers, to acceptable workloads, to what they want from their careers.

As we’ve heard on a few fronts, Covid-19 is an accelerator. Brick-and-mortar retail and higher education were models that needed a shift; Covid-19 will likely accelerate that shift. Workplace anxiety, loneliness concerns, and stress are another area where Covid-19 will accelerate our approaches to dealing with mental health and the emotional well-being of our employees.

The above is the beginning of a guide, but it all comes back to checking in and making people feel heard and appreciated, and allowing them to work in the way they want to work to be successful. Isn’t that what you want from work too?



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