There’s no denying that anxiety is a growing problem. In fact, it’s become such a common problem that the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently finalized their recommendation that all adults under 65 should be screened for anxiety.
Anxiety – especially for those with chronic mental health issues – can show up anywhere, but can be more likely to appear during times of stress. And the workplace can be a prime example of a stressful environment.
But anxiety at work can keep workers from being their most productive, successful selves. Although HR can’t fix it, there are some ways HR can help – and it starts with recognizing the signs.
First things first: What exactly is anxiety? And how does it show up at work?
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
At work, this anxiety can impact an employee’s performance, morale and satisfaction. Anxiety at work could look like:
- Excessive worry about work performance, projects or other duties
- Chronic lateness or absenteeism due to sleeping difficulties
- Health problems such as headaches and gastrointestinal issues, which can cause employees to underperform or take more sick days
- Missed deadlines or slower project completion times due to difficulty concentrating, or
- Conflicts with colleagues due to irritability or other intense emotions.
It’s important to note that everyone feels stressed or worried sometimes, especially when it comes to work. But chronic feelings of anxiety that interfere with daily life could indicate Generalized Anxiety Disorder or another type of mental health issue that needs to be addressed.
“While both stress and anxiety involve challenging emotional and physical reactions, stress is caused by an external trigger and typically resolves once the stressor is no longer present,” says Kendall Browne, senior manager, workforce mental health at Lyra Health. “Anxiety, on the other hand, involves excessive and enduring worry that can occur even in the absence of an external stressor.”
It’s no secret that anxiety has become more common in recent years, in part due to the rise of social media, and then exacerbated by COVID-19. In fact, nearly 30% of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Plus, recent data has shown that younger generations are more likely to have anxiety than their older counterparts. It’s clear that, as younger generations begin to make up a larger part of the workforce, this problem won’t go away. In fact, anxiety at work may become even more prominent.
But that doesn’t mean that many workforces don’t currently have anxiety at work or overall mental health problems. In fact, Lyra’s 2023 State of the Workforce Mental Health report found that not only did 86% of employees report struggling with at least one type of mental health issue in the past year, but almost half (40%) of workers with chronic anxiety or depression didn’t receive care, even though they’re eligible to receive employer-sponsored healthcare benefits.
Poor workforce mental health can cost an employer big time: Workers with poor mental health report about four times more unplanned absences than those with good mental health, and work missed due to poor mental health is estimated to cost $47.6 billion annually in lost productivity, per Gallup.
It’s essential for HR to help support employees with anxiety at work before it starts impacting the business.
How HR can move the needle
For a workforce that has a hush-hush culture around mental health, anxiety at work can be especially difficult due to a lack of resources and support from the employer. However, a workforce that prioritizes mental health and embeds it into the culture can help workers find the help they need.
Here are three ways HR can help make mental health a priority and support workers with mental health issues such as anxiety at work.
Start from the top: “Actions from leadership can make a big difference and send a message to employees that they’re supported, whether it’s through mental health awareness campaigns, company leaders talking openly about their mental health, or managers regularly including well-being check-ins during 1:1s or team meetings,” says Browne.
Plus, leaders who get comfortable talking about mental health can feel more comfortable bringing it up with their team and create a trickle-down effect for employees to feel open about their own struggles.
Offer mental health training: “Offering evidence-based training and education designed to reduce stigma and promote mental health literacy can also further help employers champion mental health across their organization,” says Browne.
“Since managers interact daily with their team, they are well positioned to recognize when an employee behaves differently and may be struggling with a mental health concern, including anxiety. Training managers to notice and respond appropriately to signs of psychological distress in the workplace can help to foster a mentally healthy work culture, destigmatize mental health challenges, and increase the likelihood that employees get access to the care when they need it.”
Align policies and procedures: Fostering a positive culture is great, but if policies and procedures don’t reflect a company’s values, it can leave employees feeling confused, unsupported and disenchanted. “The good news is employers can tackle this issue by taking steps to design workplace policies and procedures in a way that addresses workplace challenges like burnout and other risk factors that impact employee well-being,” says Browne.