Wellness and Wellbeing at Work, Works

Organisations that prioritise staff wellbeing sends a clear message to employees that they matter. As October is Mental Health Month in Australia, we share some top tips for leaders to help colleagues reduce anxiety and improve productivity…

By Shuchita Dua Dullu

Anyone who has been under deadline on an important project has experienced anxiety. The modern workplace is rife with situations that trigger anxiety and most, if not all employees deal with varying levels of anxiety in their day-to-day experiences in the workplace.

While certain amounts of stress and anxiety is good for motivation and pushes employees to excel, sometimes, dealing with anxiety can become a challenge that is difficult to overcome. Persistent, excessive, and irrational anxiety that interferes with everyday functioning can be disabling and is often an indication that things aren’t right and require intervention.

Statistics from The Health & Social Care Information Centre, 2009, on adult psychiatric morbidity in England, suggests that anxiety is more common than depression, with 2.3 in 100 people experiencing depression, 4.4 in 100 experiencing anxiety, and 9 in 100 experiencing mixed anxiety and depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), nearly 40 million people over the age of 18 have an anxiety disorder, and those with anxiety are also more likely to be diagnosed with depression.

Even though companies may invest heavily in employees’ well-being there will always be stress in the workplace. Job stress has a tremendous impact on anxiety and feelings of well-being and productivity. A study from the Harvard Business School and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business linked workplace-related stressors to upwards of USD 180 billion in healthcare costs.

At the most basic level, experiencing persistent anxiety, may inhibit an employee from taking on additional tasks, accepting social invitations and attention from others. Sometimes, the employee may constantly engage in asking for feedback or reassurance from co-workers and managers. Often times employees with anxiety feel as though they are already at their limit in terms of ability to tolerate stress, and they have difficulty managing any additional changes or stressors that are bound to occur in the course of day-to-day life in the workplace.

Workplace-related anxiety is a significant problem, both for the bottom line and, more importantly, the health and well-being of employees and it can manifest as increased absenteeism, fatigue, poor relationships with co-workers, a low or nervous mood and reduced productivity or poor performance.

ADAA also reported that employees experiencing anxiety or depression are not likely to reach out to their employers due to the fear of being laughed at or not being taken seriously. Employees also feel it would affect their chances of promotion or feel stigmatised.

Given how many people experience anxiety and depression world over, these are issues that all HR departments need to consider and address, regardless of the organisation’s size. It’s vital that managers are equipped with the skills they need to support all staff, including those who are experiencing a mental health problem.

Managing an employee who is experiencing anxiety should be handled in the same way as managing any other member of staff, whether they have a mental health problem or not. By helping stressed, depressed and high-anxiety employees, employers can promote workplace health and improve the overall functioning of their organisation.

Like physical conditions, metal conditions too can be easily and cost effectively accommodated in a work setting. We share how small but effective changes can provide support:

Leaders can effectively reach out and accommodate employees with anxiety or other mental health related concerns by creating and fostering an organisational culture of psychological safety. Psychological safety means, creating and encouraging an organisational environment that fosters trust, where employee feel safe and are given opportunities to voice opinions in friendly and constructive ways.

As with many other workplace mental health issues, those with anxiety benefit from knowing that their employer is genuinely concerned with improving their health and wellness in the workplace, and from seeing that their employer does not discriminate against or marginalise those with mental health issues.

Experiencing anxiety can cause a lot of indecisiveness, therefore a system that encourages sharing of ideas and where employees do not feel judged while seeking advice, guidance and feedback, is beneficial.

A research commissioned by Mind in 2013, where over 2,000 adults aged 18 and above in England and Wales were interviewed, demonstrated that three in five people felt that if their employer took action to support the mental wellbeing of all staff, they would feel more loyal, motivated, committed and be likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work.

Another outcome reflected from this survey was that one in six employees experience depression, stress or anxiety and yet managers don’t feel they have had enough training or guidance to provide support (Mind Survey, 2013). Even when managers do feel confident and are willing to provide the support, it is important to note that the employee might feel more comfortable speaking to someone other than their line manager.

To counter this, having a qualified counsellor on board or an EAP system in place, goes a long way to provide confidential and specialised support to employees dealing with anxiety or other mental health related concerns. Providing employees opportunities for quiet and private time to deal with and talk about their emotional challenges ensures that those diagnosed with mental health related concerns reach out and seek the necessary support, that they would otherwise feel shy and inhibited to seek.

Essentially, effective reaching out to those with anxiety or any other mental health concerns can only happen if along with the structural accommodations, manager and leaders work towards adopting a positive attitudinal shift. It is important that managers approach discussions with empathy at all times and while addressing work-related problems or providing feedback to an employee high on anxiety, they keep their focus on the employee’s behaviours rather than labelling feelings or overreaching theories.

Furthermore, having responsibilities reduced or removed can exacerbate anxiety and self-esteem issues, and can leave employees feeling that their abilities are no longer trusted, thereby resulting in a loss of motivation; therefore, effectiveness of leadership is also in the ability to assign tasks by matching temperament to job responsibilities.

According to “Mental Health: A Workplace Guide,” a publication of Desjardins Life Insurance, some of the factors that cause work-place stress and anxiety include heavy workloads, overtime, unrealistic goals or responsibilities or managers that don’t match employee abilities with tasks.

If an employee has difficulty with social encounters, it would be prudent to check if they are comfortable facilitating a large meeting or entertaining clients. Instead, managers can help accommodate the employee by finding the right type of work for their comfort level.

It is also beneficial to know that routine helps. Managers can curb an employee dealing with anxiety by assigning predictable tasks. When the employee clear knows the parameters associated with a specific task and the associated steps to follow, anxiety levels are low and manageable.

Also, knowing that people experiencing anxiety may find it hard to make decisions and prioritise their workloads when under pressure and providing extra support with managing tasks and identifying which tasks are most urgent, is another sign of sensitive leadership.

A final key to helping people with anxiety is to provide tailored support. People experiencing anxiety benefit immensely from tailored support; what works for one may not work for another. An action plan to help those dealing with anxiety could be as simple as the manager acknowledging the employee’s work, greeting in the morning or providing short but regular breaks.

To provide such tailored support, managers and employers may jointly draw up a list of potential triggers, as well as the measures that can be put in place to manage the impact. Making small changes reap big rewards in terms of employee loyalty and productivity. Once measures or adjustments have been agreed, it is also useful to arrange a time to mutually review how they’re working and whether they need to be tweaked.

Other adjustments employers can consider providing include offering flexible hours, a change of workspace, the option of working from home sometimes, provision of quiet rooms and agreement to give a member of staff leave at short notice and time off for appointments such as counselling and therapy.

Remember that people with mental health problems can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace, so focusing on what employees can do, as well as helping them manage those things they struggle with, is a sign of agile leadership.

For more information visit Mental Health Month

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