In our modern world, with the Covid pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, and the high demands placed on us, it’s probably no surprise to hear that workplace anxiety is a common issue that impacts many employees.
Yet it is perhaps a more critical issue than some of us realise. According to the 2023 Workplace Health Report by Champion Health, 60% of employees are currently experiencing anxiety at work, and 76% are experiencing moderate to high levels of stress.
Meanwhile, the 2022 UK Workforce Mental Health report by Wysa found that one in three employees are experiencing clinically significant symptoms of anxiety, yet over half had never spoken to a professional and are reluctant to tell their employers.
Anxiety can have a negative impact on organisations too, often leading to a loss in productivity, increased turnover, talent drain and a rise in costs. According to the Health and Safety Executive, an estimated 17 million working days were lost in 2021/2022 due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety; while data from AXA UK and the Centre for Business and Economic Research revealed that the cost of poor mental health at work was approximately £28bn in 2022.
“Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in the world today,” remarks Bertrand Stern-Gillet, CEO of Health Assured. “Out of one in six workers who struggle with their mental health, any one of these people could be dealing with anxiety—as it often comes hand in hand with other conditions. It is also one of the most common reasons people call the Health Assured Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) helpline. Over the past three years, we've seen anxiety-related calls rise by 116%.”
What are the causes of workplace anxiety?
There are many causes of workplace anxiety, and these will be unique to everyone, yet all of them could impact a person’s wellbeing and mental health in general. Some common causes include bullying or harassment, unrealistic demands, job insecurity, a poor work-life balance, or a negative company culture.
“We know that an always-on culture of excessive workloads, high expectations, and strict deadlines can create a high-pressure environment, causing employees to feel overwhelmed and anxious, leading to burnout,” comments Smriti Joshi, Lead Psychologist at Wysa. “Constantly feeling the need to meet or exceed expectations can lead to performance anxiety and self-doubt. Unclear job roles, expectations, or responsibilities can create feelings of uncertainty and anxiety among employees, which can make maintaining relationships hard, coupled with a fear of making mistakes, failing to meet expectations, or letting others down. Rapid changes in job responsibilities, promotions, or demotions can cause stress and anxiety, as employees need to adapt to new expectations and challenges.”
It's also crucial that HR is vigilant in spotting the signs of workplace anxiety. Employers have a duty of care to each employee, and being able to recognise the specific signs early on will help HR to identify those who need support.
“Some signs of workplace anxiety to look out for include decline in productivity, frequent absenteeism, irritability, withdrawal from others, avoidance of tasks, and exhaustion,” says Smriti Joshi. “Anxiety can also manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, stomach issues, or fatigue. If an employee frequently complains of these symptoms, it could be an indicator of anxiety.”
Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, adds that developing positive employee relations is crucial in identifying the signs and providing support: “When the HR department and line managers take time to get to know their teams, they’ll be able to tell when an employee is ‘off’ or not behaving as they normally would. For this reason, building professional relationships is important to be able to identify and offer effective support to individuals when they are struggling.”
What can HR teams do to address these issues and offer support?
“The best thing HR can do is to train line managers to understand their duty of care to others,” says Lisa Seagroatt, author and managing director of HR Fit For Purpose. “We have a terrible habit of promoting people without giving them any training in managing others, and this often causes problems in the workplace that lead to anxiety. Think about a stress policy for the workplace and make sure people are trained in how to understand and use it.”
Introducing mental health first aiders, and providing empathy and emotional intelligence training to managers, is a positive step in breaking the stigma associated with mental health, adds Kate Palmer. “Doing so will also support managers to deal with issues confidently and effectively, which in turn will benefit the employees under their care, as well as minimise their own stress and anxiety about not knowing how to manage concerns. Similarly, employers should proactively develop initiatives to encourage open communication and non-judgemental discussion platforms. This includes the provision of robust policies and procedures and a zero-tolerance stance against any bullying, discrimination, or harassment.”
HR teams can also strive to create a supportive work environment, that provides resources and coping strategies to help employees manage stress and anxiety, says Smriti Joshi. “This may include offering workshops, training, counselling services, or flexible work arrangements to accommodate the needs of employees experiencing anxiety. In addition, HR can work with management to address underlying factors that may be contributing to workplace anxiety, such as workload, role clarity, or organisational culture. Undertaking periodic snapshots of the company’s mental health through anonymised surveys and barometers will help HR teams and offer tailored assistance programs that are measured regularly for efficacy.”
If anxiety is negatively impacting an employee’s work, in terms of increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, or lack of concentration, HR should not only encourage open communication, where people feel confident in talking about their mental health, but they must ensure they take the time to listen too.
“It’s important to be sympathetic and understanding, as it goes a long way in helping employees to feel heard,” comments Bertrand Stern-Gillet. “Encourage them to speak about how their anxiety is preventing work and, together with them, come up with reasonable adjustments that will help to resolve this.”
How can HR software help to manage workplace anxiety?
HR software is key to managing and supporting workplace anxiety. Solutions such as employee relationship management play a huge role in wellbeing, by enabling HR teams to link employee data to wellbeing initiatives and HR strategy, for instance by using custom reports to examine the relationship between absence and wellbeing.
Another effective way of managing workplace anxiety is by cutting it out or minimsing it before it even begins. Through the use of an efficient recruitment and onboarding solution, HR can manage the many anxieties that your new employees may be facing or even quelled before they've set foot through the door.
“Absence management software can help track the number and duration of absences, as well as their cause,” adds Kate Palmer. “Being able to easily identify the reason for an employee’s absence as well as, where necessary, pull up fit notes and associated medical information quickly, can help with the management of it.
“Many EAPs also provide mobile apps and online programmes to support employee’s mental health, such as through guided wellbeing and meditation sessions,” she continues. “HR teams should encourage their workforce to make use of such services and signpost them to any other relevant professionals where appropriate.”