Almost everyone gets stressed out at work occasionally, whether it is over a change in position, a looming deadline or some other stressor. However, when that stress seems overwhelming, excessive or irrational, or when it causes an employee to avoid taking on additional duties or interacting with others, it may actually be anxiety.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders are the most common forms of mental illness. Almost 20% of American adults suffer from anxiety disorders. Many of these individuals also suffer from depression, another debilitating mental illness. In the workplace, anxiety can affect your workers’ ability to concentrate, focus, and make decisions, which in turn can negatively impact productivity and absenteeism.

Here are a few tips to help your employees who may be struggling with anxiety.

Normalize Mental Health Issues

Although we have made considerable strides in recognizing that mental illnesses should receive the same attention as physical illnesses, stigma is still a problem. This is especially true in many workplaces.

Establish a Zero-Tolerance Policy For Harassment

To help reduce the stigma and normalize anxiety and other mental health issues in your workplace, start by respecting the dignity, and of course, the privacy, of each employee. Establish and publicize a zero-tolerance policy for harassment for both employees and supervisors.

Maintain an open-door policy

Your employees should feel that they can come to you to discuss issues or concerns they have. This helps your employee, but it also helps you. You will be better positioned to deal with any potential problems, and you’ll foster a workplace that is perceived as driven by community and caring.

Identify The Signs That An Employee Needs Help

Be aware of the signs and symptoms of anxiety. Train workers, supervisors and managers on what they should be watching for. Some of the early signs and symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed
  • Loss of productivity
  • General nervousness
  • Apathy or a loss of interest in work
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Exaggerated startle reflex
  • General jitteriness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Stomach problems
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope

In the workplace, anxiety also manifests through:

  • Increased and unusual absenteeism
  • Overreaction to job situations
  • Excessive focus on negative aspects of the job
  • Inability to focus or meet deadlines

Not all of these signs and symptoms can be identified through observation. Still, a caring, open work environment will encourage workers to reveal issues they may otherwise try to hide, invariably worsening the problem. It will also make it acceptable for people to raise concerns about co-workers.

Educate Your Team

An open, caring environment starts with education. Employers who know the signs can take action before the situation worsens. However, educating your staff to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety is just the first step. Bring in mental health workers to discuss anxiety (and other mental health disorders). You must also ensure that your workers are fully aware of any Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) available at your workplace.

Beef up your Employee Assistance Plan and advertise it widely to your staff. Ensure it includes adequate mental health education, support and treatment options. Offer healthy living options as part of your ongoing education efforts. Encourage physical activity through employer-paid gym memberships and other perks.

Encourage an environment that emphasizes work-life balance. Many employers are no longer allowing staff to bank all of their holidays over multiple years or offering payment in lieu of a vacation. Instead, they are encouraging their workers to take time off and recharge. This can go a long way to alleviating worker stress.

Education is key to creating an environment where it is ok to talk about mental health issues, including anxiety. It reduces stigma and helps ensure that those who need treatment get it.

Establish Open Communication

How you respond to employees who tell you about their anxiety can affect both their ability to function at work and their long-term mental health. This is also true of the response that you and your supervisors take when you notice behaviors that may indicate that an employee is suffering from anxiety. Take it seriously, initiate conversations and offer accommodations as necessary.

How you communicate one-on-one with your employees is just as important as how you communicate across the organization. Listening attentively in a one-on-one situation with an employee will make them feel that they have been heard and understood. It’s an immediate stress reliever whether or not you can help or make changes.

Fear of the unknown and constantly changing or unclear expectations create undue stress on all employees and are especially difficult for people already suffering from anxiety. Clearly define your expectations and your employee’s roles and responsibilities. Clarify goals and ensure your supervisors act consistently and fairly.

Broadcast good news and praise accomplishments whenever possible. Offer rewards and incentives. Provide opportunities for your workers to interact with one another through a pub night or some other team-building, stress-relieving activity.

Adapt to the Situation

While it’s important to maintain consistency, it is equally important for employers to be flexible whenever possible. For a worker suffering from anxiety, just as with any other illness, some days symptoms will be worse. There are several things employers can do to help.

Offer modifications

This can include additional time for assignments or adjustments to an employee's workload. These can be offered on a limited basis with the expectation that the employee go back to normal duties as soon as they are able to. Consider transfers if your workplace is large enough to accommodate this request. If vacations are not an option, you may also want to be open to discussing the use of sick days or a temporary leave of absence for workers with debilitating anxiety. Time off can be critical to avoiding burnout.

Include your workers in decision making

This is especially true of decisions involving workplace rules or even major projects that will directly impact their jobs. This can really help people with anxiety, but it will also serve to engage your entire workforce more fully in your workplace.

Avoid unrealistic deadlines

We are all under pressure to meet expectations, but it is critical for the mental health of all employees to avoid unrealistic deadlines. Ensure your employee’s workloads reflect the resources they have available and their ability to deliver.

Reduce the stigma

Although society is becoming generally more educated about the causes and effects of mental illness, most still carry a stigma, which can make it difficult for affected individuals to seek help. Demonstrating that you genuinely support and care for your workforce, will enable your employees to better handle their anxiety and ultimately their work performance.