A small bit of anxiety leading up to a big presentation, a fast-approaching deadline, or an impromptu chat with your boss is common, but when those events pass, usually the relief sets in and the anxiety settles. However, if you find those anxious feelings bubbling to the surface when you just think about your job, or find yourself dreading heading into work (Sunday Scaries anyone?) then you may be experiencing more than just the occasional bout of anxiety related to your job; you might be experiencing workplace anxiety, also known as work stress.
According to Mental Health America’s 2021 Mind the Workplace report, almost 83 percent of respondents felt emotionally drained from their work. And 85 percent — or nearly 9 in 10 workers — reported that job stress affected their mental health.
But how can you know if what you’re experiencing is directly related to your job or more generalized anxiety? The tell-tale sign is anxiety that is limited to work, says Ashley Gilmore, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health clinical services at Texas Health Dallas.
“Generalized anxiety will show up in multiple areas of your life because it is your body and brain’s response to stress. It’s persistent, consistent, and negatively affects several aspects of your life both at work and beyond,” she explains. “However, with workplace anxiety, your anxiety develops in response to stress at work. You dread going in, you feel uncomfortable and worried there, and you ruminate about it after you leave.”
Gilmore adds that you do not have to physically be at work to be anxious about work. It can greatly affect your personal relationships and functioning even when you’re away from your job, which can make it difficult to identify it as workplace anxiety over generalized anxiety.
“Many of us will take that chronic stress home at the end of the day and will feel less engaged with our loved ones because we simply do not have the emotional or physical energy,” she explains.
A few signs of workplace anxiety can include:
- On your days off or when you’re not at work, you feel pretty good and your anxiety is low to non-existent.
- Feelings of anxiety and dread may overshadow your weekend or your days off, especially if it’s the day before you head back in.
- You may notice you have a tough time getting things done at work, but similar tasks are easily accomplished outside of work.
Workplace anxiety can involve a wide range of symptoms. According to Gilmore, you might:
- Feel better at night when you’re home but worse in the morning as you get ready for work
- Experience excessive worry and an inability to disconnect from work and colleagues
- Feel physically ill or increasingly agitated when thinking about work or receiving work emails or calls
- Have a hard time focusing on work-specific tasks
- Notice your motivation diminishing
- Find yourself often procrastinating on work-related tasks
- Avoid meetings, new projects, or work events
“You can even have a stress response to the sound your phone, email or messenger makes when there’s a notification regarding work,” Gilmore says.
The Causes of Workplace Anxiety
You may be asking yourself, “If stress is the cause of workplace anxiety, how can I avoid stress at work?” The truth of the matter is, there are times when you cannot avoid stress, especially in a work environment. As we mentioned earlier, there are times when stress is going to pop up at work, and that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, our body’s response to stress has played a vital role in our development as human beings and society.
Stress is our body’s natural and healthy response to a challenge. It gives us a short burst of energy, focus, and ability to meet the challenge in front of us, then subsides to give us recovery and rest.
But it’s when that stress doesn’t subside that can cause issues, and because workplaces can be perfect environments for chronic stress to flourish and become constant, your body never has enough time to recover.
“Anxiety develops when our brains and bodies live in anticipation of stress events, which depletes our energy and recovery,” Gilmore explains.
While the cause of workplace anxiety will differ from person to person, it does have some common features that will chip away at mental wellbeing, such as:
- An unrealistic workload and pace
- Lack of rest and adequate breaks
- A competitive, demanding, and high-stress culture
- Constantly changing deadlines, timelines, deliverables and workloads that make it difficult to predict outcomes
- Lack of enough staff or proper training
- Lack of compensation for overtime
- Unsafe work environment or tasks
- Constant “on fire” or urgent requests
- Dealing with a difficult boss or manager
- Not having a strong connection with your coworkers or team
- Lacking a sense of purpose around your work
Before we discuss managing symptoms, Gilmore notes it’s important to check in with yourself and take a good hard look at your workplace’s culture and environment. Is it a healthy environment that occasionally has bouts of stress, or is there a constant stream of stress, competition, turnover and burnout?
“A negative or toxic work environment will ultimately cause us to become disengaged and drained, even if it is work that we once loved to do,” Gilmore says. “Let me be clear: there is no amount of medication, therapy, or self-care that will turn a bad job or work environment into a good one. Take a good look at your job and see if there are areas that can be improved upon, but if you try and don’t succeed, leave with a clear conscience, and look for something that will be a better fit. No job is worth the disintegration of your wellbeing.”
How to Manage Symptoms
Trying to avoid stress is an impossible task, and the pursuit of avoiding stress can itself become a major cause of stress. Gilmore says managing workplace anxiety isn’t found by trying to avoid stress, but more in the way you react to stress. That comes with pinpointing what main things tend to trigger your stress.
For starters, when you find yourself feeling anxious and uneasy, pause and write down what is going on in that moment that might be causing you to feel that way. You may start to notice patterns or specific situations that increase your stress level. For instance, you may notice your stress increases right before heading into a weekly briefing with your team or boss, or after interacting with a certain coworker or manager. Writing these moments down and then finding patterns can help you make a plan to handle them going forward.
“If you have already identified that your job environment is not toxic, then you really want to focus on your reactions to stress,” Gilmore says. “Make sure you’re taking breaks, especially when you feel your stress levels rising. Take a quick walk away from your desk or task to recenter yourself and focus on deep, controlled breaths.”
If you find your mind racing and you’re having a hard time recentering, you can also try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to ground yourself:
- Name 5 things you can see, such as a poster on the wall, the tree outside your window, or the pattern on the carpet.
- Name 4 things you can hear, such as the birds chirping outside, the music playing in your office, or the clacking of a keyboard.
- Name 3 things you can feel, such as the coolness of the air conditioner, the softness of your sweater, or the smoothness of your desk.
- Name 2 things you can smell, such as the small candle at your desk, the coffee in the break room, or the clean scent of the soap in the bathroom.
- Name 1 thing you can taste, such as the gum you’re chewing, your tea in your mug, or the water in your cup.
Taking the time to identify these things can help calm your mind and center yourself in the present. It may even be helpful to take your shoes off and feel the ground beneath you.
Gilmore also suggests adamantly taking your PTO, whether your colleagues do or not, and even if you have no plans of doing anything on your days off. During your downtimes, set a boundary with your colleagues and clients by letting them know you will not be reachable by phone or email outside of working hours and reclaim your personal time. Lastly, give yourself manageable and attainable workplace goals.
“If you get pushback from any of these things, then maybe it is time to cut your losses and start looking elsewhere,” Gilmore adds.
Workplace anxiety is more common than you may think, but it doesn’t have to come with the territory. Small steps, like understanding your triggers, setting boundaries, and taking breaks, can go a long way in helping to manage your stress levels and anxiety.
However, if your work anxiety becomes difficult to cope with alone, don’t hesitate to seek professional support.
“If you’re miserable, it’s time to seek help. If you can’t disconnect from work and it’s affecting your relationships, it’s time to seek help. If you are fatigued because you’re tossing and turning worrying about work, then it’s time to seek help,” Gilmore says. “When anxiety has changed from some worried thoughts into something that impacts your functioning, it’s a red flag that the body has started to live in anticipation of the worst. Getting your body and mind back into a state that can rest and recover will help provide enough perspective to sort out if your job and workplace can support a healthier you.”
If you are starting to feel burnout, high levels of stress or see dysfunction in your day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Health Resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.