Do feelings of anxiety crop up when you're at work? Does the thought of work make you nervous? Does your mood change on Monday morning or Sunday night?
If your anxiety is work-related, you may be experiencing workplace anxiety, also known as workplace stress. And you're certainly not alone.
According to Mental Health America’s 2021 Focus on the Workplace Report, nearly 83% of respondents felt emotionally drained at work. 85% (or nearly 9 in 10 employees) report that workplace stress affects their mental health.
Of course, you don’t need to enter an office or workplace to experience workplace anxiety. You can experience these feelings too when working from home.
But the situation is far from hopeless. Here's everything you need to know about workplace anxiety, plus practical strategies for reducing and managing stress at work.
Workplace Anxiety vs. Work Anxiety
Some key signs of workplace anxiety:
- On your days off, you feel better and your anxiety is lowered.
- If you work Monday through Friday, feelings of anxiety and fear can cloud your weekends, especially when you think about work.
- It's hard to talk to your colleagues because of the competitive work culture, but you have no problem talking to people outside of work.
How do you know when your symptoms may be related to generalized anxiety disorder or another anxiety disorder?
Symptoms of anxiety disorders are persistent and negatively impact several areas of your life.
The main difference between the two is that workplace anxiety is often a response to stress at work. On the other hand, anxiety disorders tend to develop and persist regardless of your work environment.
What are the signs?
- Feeling better at night but worse in the morning
- Feeling physically ill while thinking about work or receiving work emails or phone calls
- Difficulty focusing on work-specific tasks
- Notice your motivation is waning
- Frequent procrastination on work-related tasks
- Avoid meetings, new projects, or work events
You may also feel intimidated when you think about going to work and feel overwhelmed once you get there.
Workplace anxiety may also involve physical symptoms. These may include:
- Head and neck pain
- body tension
- sweaty palms
- persistent stomach pain or nausea
What causes anxiety in the workplace?
For example, work stress may stem from:
- Need to complete an urgent project or attend a meeting
- Imposter syndrome, or the tendency to doubt oneself and feel deeply inadequate
- No close contact with colleagues
- Dealing with a Difficult Boss
- Lack of sense of purpose in work
- There is a toxic workplace culture
- with unrealistic expectations
- Not enough staff
- Competition is fierce
- Failure to provide appropriate training
- Not compensating you for overtime
- Not prioritizing your health, wellness or safety
In some cases, there may also be deeper, more subtle underlying causes or contributing factors to your work stress.
Maybe you've had negative experiences on the phone in the past, or your boss reminds you of your dad. Perhaps your college professor's harsh criticism heightened your sensitivity to feedback on any writing-related assignment.
Being an anxious person or having a pre-existing anxiety disorder makes us more likely to experience anxiety that is specific to the workplace.
For example, she points out that if you're already living with anxiety, you may jump right into worst-case scenarios. So if you (wrongly) assume: Your workplace can be a significant source of stress:
- You'll miss critical deadlines
- Your supervisor thinks you're doing a terrible job
- you always fall short of expectations
Anxiety in the workplace can make people feel overwhelmed and unsympathetic. But with a few small steps, you can successfully overcome or manage your work stress.
Find out your triggers
The triggers of workplace stress are not always obvious. "Writing down moments throughout the day when you feel nervous will help you find patterns or triggers," says Smith.
Maybe you often feel nervous and nauseous before weekly team meetings, or you have trouble focusing on anything after meeting a particular coworker.
Identifying specific situations that increase stress levels can help you figure out the best strategies for dealing with them.
Zero in on your core fears
"'What-if' form of worry is a common workplace anxiety
To better understand what's going on and explore possible solutions, you can try asking yourself questions about these "what ifs" until you uncover your core fears.
How do you know you've found your core fear?
Often, it's "when you can no longer ask 'Why is this a bad thing?' or you have a gut feeling that you've discovered something really important."
When you get to that place, acknowledge the story without assuming it's true, and then thank your brain for trying to protect you.
From there, you can gently challenge your fear by asking yourself:
- What evidence is there for and against this?
- What would I say to a loved one who told me something similar?
- How would I respond if the worst happened?
- What is actually most likely to happen?
Be gentle with yourself
When you feel your anxiety and stress levels spike, your natural tendency may be to respond with self-criticism.
Instead, try to be patient and understanding about your reactions.
how? You can start by labeling your feelings. You can simply say, "I'm feeling tired right now, and that's OK."
Likewise, you might also consider treating yourself as you would a close friend or family member.
You might say, "It's okay to feel overwhelmed. You're doing a lot. But you're doing your best."
Take micro breaks
You can reset your mood by taking short breaks throughout the day. For example, she suggests:
- Get away from your desk or task to reorient yourself
- Practice box breathing, inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four
You can also try technique 54321 to ground yourself in the present moment when anxiety pulls your mind elsewhere.
To practice, she says, simply name:
- 5 things you see
- 4 things you hear
- 3 things you feel
- 2 things you smell
- 1 things you taste
During and after exercise, the body releases calming neurotransmitters, creating an overall sense of well-being. Exercising before work can help your body cope with work situations that may cause anxiety, while exercising after get off work can help you get into a different frame of mind to better cope with the feeling.
When large projects and presentations create anxiety, getting organized can help reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.
- Break down large tasks into smaller steps
- Assign completion date and time to each step
In other words, try to use your anxiety to push you toward completing tasks rather than delaying them.
Could some boundaries help you manage work-related stressors?
If your stress is related to work-life balance or work relationships:
- Set specific times for the start and end of the workday
- Honor your physical, emotional and mental health by engaging in one to two activities per week
- Identify specific behaviors and tasks that you will or will not accept and communicate these boundaries to colleagues and clients
laugh it out
Finding something funny can release tension, change your perspective, and stimulate positive neurotransmitters. Humor can even help you take yourself, let alone your workplace, less seriously.
Give yourself a good laugh:
- Talk or text with your funniest friends
- Watch a comedy special or funny movie
- Take yourself to a live comedy show
- recalling silly memories
Create a safe, soothing space
If you have a workspace, you can create a mini sanctuary or retreat to provide solace during stressful or anxiety-provoking situations, Smith says.
For example you can:
- Hang family photos
- Keep some fidget toys
- Add a diffuser with essential oils, such as calming lavender
Bring comfort kit
If you don’t have a designated workspace, you can put together a tool kit for quick stress relief on those stressful days at work.
Your kit can include items that soothe your senses and help you move.
A few examples:
- A Ziploc bag filled with cotton balls soaked in your favorite essential oil or perfume to smell during times of stress
- A smooth stone with an inspirational word on it that you can feel and read when you are upset
- Playlist to listen to on your lunchtime walk
- Slowly savor hard candy, chewing gum or dark chocolate
Increase your time off work
Strive to create a life filled with relationships, events, and activities outside of work that bring you joy, peace, and happiness. A fulfilling life outside of work can:
- Minimize the effects of work-related stress
- Build your resilience during stressful times
- Crowding out work-related thoughts
To start, think about the people, places, and pastimes that bring you joy and peace. How can you add them to your days?
If you are dealing with anxiety in the workplace, professional support can be very helpful.
How do you know when you'd benefit from a therapist's help?
There is no right or wrong time to connect with a therapist, so the decision is unique to each person.
However, in general, it is recommended that you seek professional help when you want your life to be different but are unable to make the changes yourself.
Specifically, this may mean you:
- Very worried that you won't be able to work properly, meet deadlines, or complete tasks
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Feeling nervous, irritable, and not like yourself
- Find that your usual coping strategies no longer help
- Need more rest time than usual and start planning your upcoming rest days as soon as you return to work
Therapists can provide support with:
- pinpoint triggers
- Make value-based decisions
- Explore and practice helpful coping skills
- Determine when a new job might be a good option