If you’ve been in the business of managing people for some time, you’re likely to have had a brush with anxiety disorder at some stage.
Without realising it was present, you may have seen some of the signs. You might have noticed how it kept someone from being more assertive in meetings, how it changed a strong performer to someone struggling with their work, or how it led to a normally calm and composed person having a panic attack in the tea room.
How much do you really know about anxiety? While one in five of us will experience some form of common mental illness in any year, it’s a lesser known fact that anxiety disorder is the most common of these, impacting 14.4% of Australians.1 Sadly, anxiety disorders are some of the most regularly misunderstood, underrated illnesses, despite being the most prevalent.2
When we consider that only 27% seek professional help for an anxiety disorder,3 typically after dealing with the issue for at least 8 years,4 there is good reason to expect that work may be the first place where an episode will surface or where the issue will first be raised. So it’s important to be aware and to be prepared to give adequate support.
When it’s not just a feeling
We're all familiar with the feeling or temporary state of anxiety. This is a natural and usually short-lived reaction to a stressful situation.
It typically occurs in unfamiliar or challenging situations, where the person may feel uncertain about the outcome or their ability to cope. The first day of a new job, sitting an exam, waiting for health results are all examples in which most people feel some anxiety. Common signs of this temporary discomfort may include difficulty concentrating, restlessness, rapid heartbeat, trembling or shaking, feeling light-headed or faint, numbness or nausea, sweating and avoidance.5-7
An anxiety disorder however, interrupts a person’s daily life and includes anxious thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms which are severe, upsetting and frequent. Such disorders include generalised anxiety disorders, social phobias, specific phobias (for example, agoraphobia and claustrophobia), panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) among others.6
While Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has been found to be the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders, there are some simple things people can do to reduce the negative impact of anxiety:10-16
Check your self-talk
Unhelpful self-talk might include things like, “I’m hopeless”, “I’m going to be terrible at this” or “I have to make it work by doing it this way” and can increase anxiety and can get in the way of us achieving our goals. Work on more helpful, flexible and encouraging self-talk, such as, “I am coping well given what I have on my plate”, “I got through it last time” or “I can try a different approach and it will be just as good”.
Keep things in perspective
When we are worried and upset it is easy to catastrophise situations and to start anticipating all sorts of problems down the track. Take a step back and look at one of your worries in the bigger scheme of your life. Ask yourself:
“am I getting ahead of myself, assuming something bad will happen when I really don’t know the outcome?”
“is the outcome certain to happen, possible, or quite unlikely?”
“if the worst were to happen, what could I do about it?” (sometimes thinking about how you would cope, even if the worst were to happen, puts things into perspective).
Don’t let anxiety stop you from doing things
Try not to avoid situations which trigger your anxiety but work on facing these situations. If this seems too difficult, a psychologist or other mental health professional can work with you to create a plan for facing your fears and increasing your confidence, step-by-step.
Practise relaxation, meditation or mindfulness
Practising relaxation, meditation and mindfulness on a regular basis will allow your body and nervous system the opportunity to routinely settle and readjust to a calm state.
Look after your health
It is important to eat well, get regular exercise, and avoid using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs to cope when you are finding things difficult.
Seek support early
If you or anyone you know needs help, it’s important to talk to someone about your experience early. This can help put things in perspective and reduce the stress of dealing with the impacts on your own. If you wish to seek professional advice contact:
your Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Headspace on 1800 650 890.
Spotting the signs in your team
It can be helpful to understand the range of signs and symptoms that may present when someone is experiencing an anxiety disorder. If you’ve noticed any of these as part of a pattern that is uncharacteristic and/or having a negative team impact, it’s your cue to have a supportive conversation with the person about their wellbeing. Making a mental note of what you’ve observed gives you something to refer back to, if need be, in your conversation.
Signs and symptoms fall broadly into four categories that include:17
thinking – e.g. mind racing or going blank, decreased concentration
feeling – e.g. unrealistic or excessive fear and worry
behaviour – e.g. avoidance of situations, increased sick leave, obsessive or compulsive behaviour, distress in social situations
physical – e.g. pounding heart, chest pain, shortness of breath, dry mouth, dizziness.
Supporting a team member
Your support as a leader can have a positive impact on the person’s mental health.
schedule to have regular check-ins with your team members – do not wait for a crisis episode for this to occur
when raising your concerns, simply identify the work-related signs and behaviours you’ve noticed, express that you care about their wellbeing and performance, and invite them to talk about it for the purposes of you providing support, e.g. “Just wanted to know if you’re okay and if there is anything I can do to help?”
listen and communicate non-judgmentally
observe confidentiality but keep in mind the exceptional situations and explain these if applicable (if there is a threat to health and safety, if you are required by law, or when planning for workplace adjustments)
give practical support: encourage the person to get appropriate professional help, both within and outside the organisation, and remind them of any applicable leave entitlements or available workplace offerings or adjustments
establish some next steps (e.g. contacting the EAP) and follow up with the person on this.
En Masse offers a number of highly engaging evidence-based workshops targeted at both leaders and employees that cover psychological safety, anxiety in the workplace, having healthy conversations and developing a health-promoting leadership style and culture.
To learn more, call us on 03 9429 8441 or email email@example.com
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National survey of mental health and wellbeing: Summary of results, 2007. Retrieved 2 October, 2019, from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4326.02007?OpenDocument
Common Mental Health Issues: Available online (2016) http://www.safety.uwa.edu.au/health-wellbeing/health/psychological/common-mental-health-issues
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Beck JS. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
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Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. J Consult Clin Psychol, 78(2), 169-183.
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