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Strategies for Managing Workplace Anxiety

Workplace anxiety is a serious issue that impacts not only your mental and physical health but also your relationship with loved ones and co-workers. It can become a real blocker to your success and ability to continue working. While not new, workplace anxiety is a rising phenomenon. More and more people are feeling anxious and stressed out heading into their place of work. 

For employers, this doesn’t bode well. Workplace anxiety kills productivity. For the rest of us, it can be downright debilitating. Struggling with anxiety at work impacts our ability to focus, connect with others, and perform at consistent levels. If you’re wondering why you might be kicking butt one week and struggling to keep up the next, you could be suffering from workplace anxiety.

We may experience this anxiety at different levels and intervals. Getting clarity and finding strategies to help address your workplace anxiety is beneficial no matter where you fall on the spectrum. We’ll review how and why to identify the sources of your anxiety. Then we’ll discuss four practical strategies you can begin implementing immediately to start addressing it.

Identify the Source

Understanding the source of your anxiety will help empower you to manage your mind when symptoms appear. Educating yourself will also give you a starting place to begin finding resources and creating plans to address what fuels your anxiety. A recent study by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America looked at the primary culprits for workplace anxiety. Top two – deadlines and interpersonal relationships – likely resonate with many of us.

One of the main points of visibility for assistants is deadlines. It feels like we’re always on the hook anytime they slip. What can be particularly stressful is all the different and often competing deadlines we have to manage. Our roles require that we constantly be engaged in ruthless prioritization which usually results in someone feeling left out. We’re frequently asked to make important value judgments without the full picture, which can be particularly stressful. And while stress and anxiety aren’t the same thing, they are related.  

Realistic & Manageable Routines

Creating realistic frameworks for how you work best will go a long way towards addressing some of this. A framework for how you work is like an SOP, similar to a job description. You’ll lay out the scope of work you can manage from the logistical and the strategic side. You’ll likely add things like “calendar management” and “travel booking” to the logistical side (although frankly these usually require quite a bit of strategy). And on the strategic side will be things like “meeting management” and “workstream prioritization”. 

Under each of these areas, use bullet points to be specific about what constraints you do or do not have. For example, “there are 2 recurring meetings I can not move without explicit consent. I need you to commit to reviewing requests pertaining to this at the end of each day.” 

The way to implement these frameworks is to talk with your boss and get their buy-in on supporting sustainable boundaries.  The “Daily Recap” is something I used with previous executives that worked well. This was an email that summarized what was “DONE”, what was still “IN PROGRESS” and what was “BLOCKED”. Then, it listed any and all “QUESTIONS” that had come through during the day. This was a great strategy because it allowed my executive to digest the information at their own pace. We could work on next steps for tougher issues via email rather than in person. 

Ultimately dialogue is the first place to start managing routines and workload and it begins when aligning with your executive.

Toxic Co-Worker

I’ve read a lot on dealing with toxic co-workers and most of what I read advocates for simply “ignoring their negativity”. If it was that easy, do you think dealing with workplace anxiety from bullying would still be a thing?

I do not believe in ignoring toxic coworkers. I’ll repeat: I do not believe in ignoring toxic coworkers

I believe in documentation and the legal process. I believe that while people can change, toxic coworkers rarely do. They move from job to job infecting organizations like swine flu and leaving havoc in their wake. I believe that the most effective method for dealing with truly toxic co-workers (not just people you disagree with) is to document the behavior meticulously and go up, not out. By that I mean you need to go to the person above whoever is doing the harassing, bullying or crazy-making. I do not suggest going to anyone who is horizontal to that person. When you meet with whoever is the most appropriate party (and that’s not always HR, especially if it’s someone within HR), have your documentation prepared. It’s best to send a clear signal in this meeting that you came to correct the behavior, not complain about it. 

Be sure to schedule something on the calendar (documentation, remember?). Whomever you’re speaking with will take this meeting much more seriously than if you had just knocked on the door. Following your meeting, be sure to send an email recapping what was discussed, and review the next steps that were agreed upon. This followup email will light the appropriate fire to ensure that things begin moving the next day.

Dealing with toxic co-workers and the steps to ensure the behavior is corrected is no fun. In fact, it can be stressful all on its own. However, remaining silent will always cause greater stress leading to the kind of crippling anxiety you’re trying to avoid.

Move Your Body

Often the work environment itself can contribute to the creation of stress hormones. Artificial light, incorrect workstation set up, and lack of physical movement can trap energy in places it wasn’t meant to be held. There’s a reason companies focused on productivity have brought in yoga instructors, nap pods and ping pong tables. Activities force us to move our bodies in different ways and it helps refresh our perspective and enhance our problem-solving abilities. 

Over a decade ago psychology professor Alejandro Lleras from the University of Illinois revealed that “your body is a part of your mind in a powerful way”. When you find yourself stuck an anxiety-ridden thought-loop, your thinking becomes fuzzy and clouded. It’s difficult to see solutions in front of you. Leveraging movement awareness to redirect our attention can help us feel better and see things from a different perspective. 

What’s more, doing things like going for a walk improve blood flow and increase oxygenation of the body. All of these add up help the mind better manage anxiety. And frankly, it’s just great to get out of the office for some fresh air and a change of scenery.

Use Your Words Wisely

In their book, “Words Can Change Your Brain” Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman found that positive expressions such a “peace” and “love” can actually “alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning”. While their work centers on how best to communicate with others through compassion, I’m advocating that we focus the compassion for ourselves first.

For many of us, there is no harsher critic than ourselves. We often downplay our contributions, minimize our impact, and engage in demeaning self-talk. And then, when others notice our great work and ask us to step into more complex and visible workstreams, our anxiety flares up and we make excuses for why we’re not ready. We need to make some changes so we’re prepared to jump at the opportunity.

To get to a place where you’re ready, willing, and able to address toxic co-workers and align with your executive on managing workload, you first have to insist on kindness and grace for yourself. This will not happen through magic. You will need to watch your thoughts, and replace negative self-talk with affirming statements about your worth. Personally, I like to keep encouraging signs around me. They remind me to consider how my thoughts help to shape my reality. Give it a try!

Although workplace anxiety is on the rise, it doesn’t have to be for you. Choosing to investigate strategies to address it is only a first step. It’s up to you to work through these strategies and implement them in a way that works best for you. Whatever you do, don’t suffer in silence. There are resources and communities for those struggling to get a handle on this. Please visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America for more resources.

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