Workplace anxiety | The signs, symptoms and coping strategies

The relationship between work and anxiety is an intricate and significant one. The demands of modern workplace, including tight deadlines, high performance expectations and interpersonal relationships can all lead to heightened anxiety levels among employees.

This anxiety not only compromises individual wellbeing but also overall productivity and job satisfaction. Prolonged anxiety in the workplace can even result in decreased motivation outside of work, burnout, the onset of depression, and even physical health issues.

How workplace anxiety can affect your life

If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety at work, it’s likely these same symptoms are present in other areas of your life. Trying to manage symptoms of anxiety on a day-to-day basis can be difficult, so it’s important to make sure you are utilising healthy coping mechanisms.

Anxiety can cause you to avoid certain social situations that you used to enjoy. You may withdraw from friends and family because you no longer feel comfortable socialising, or because a situation at work has caused you to overthink.

These coping mechanisms may give you short term relief, but in the long run they can result in increased anxiety and the onset of further mental health problems.

Identifying the problem

Anxiety manifests itself in a variety of different ways, both physically and mentally. If you suffer with anxiety, you’ll likely recognise it quickly because of your response to stimuli and triggers.

If you’re starting a new job, moving into a new team, or making major adjustments to how you work, you may experience some anxiety or stress when you start. This is normal whenever change occurs and is often short term.

If you notice that your symptoms are persisting or getting worse, you may need some additional support.

Common signs and symptoms

Symptoms of anxiety include feeling worried, fearful, or panicked. This might manifest via an irregular or fast heartbeat, feeling sweaty or shaking and changes to our breathing.

Physical symptoms are caused by an increased heartbeat which can trigger the fight or flight stress response.

In the workplace, anxiety may manifest in a fear of colleagues, an inability to speak up about issues or problems, nervousness, an inability to convey ideas, brain fog, or physical symptoms like stuttering or sweating more than usual.

Coping strategies for workplace anxiety

There are a variety of things that we can do to help workplace anxiety. These include using professional treatment to help manage the symptoms where applicable.

The following are some ideas that may help with anxiety in the workplace.

Foster an inclusive workplace environment

The more mental health is talked about in the workplace the less of a taboo it becomes.

Employers can help by starting conversations around Mental Health in the workplace so that barriers such as stigma can be broken down enabling people to access support when needed.

Talk to your colleagues

If you have a close relationship with a colleague, talking with them can help really help.

Talking to someone can help you see another perspective. It can also help you access the right support you need to treat your anxiety.

Schedule regular chats with your manager

Regular one to ones are a great way to share how you’re feeling. They give employees the chance to talk off the record, and they give managers a chance to see if there’s anything they can do to help improve the situation

Seeking professional help

If your anxiety is impacting your ability to work, talking to a professional can help

Try to develop relationships as best you can

If you’re starting a new workplace or joining a new team, getting to know your colleagues on a personal level can really help lower anxiety and 

Understanding your role

Routinely clarifying what’s expected of you and managing your workflow routine in line with this are great for people with anxiety. Try to work to a routine and create lists that you can check off as you complete tasks.

Stress or anxiety?

Stress and anxiety are both feelings that come from our autonomous nervous system.

Anxiety is typically a rapid onset feeling. It comes about when we are put in a situation we’re fearful of, worried about or feel we cannot control.

Stress however, can exist for weeks, months or years. It’s our body’s response to pressure and is often triggered by a slow accumulation of responsibilities we feel we can handle until we cannot. This is often referred to as our “breaking point”.

Understanding triggers

Everybody is different. The impact of stressors on our mental health will vary from person to person.

Someone may find meetings and public speaking anxiety provoking, whereas someone else may be fine standing and sharing in front of the entire department. There are many different triggers for anxiety, including social situations, our appearance, sensory stimuli, expectations, exhaustion, fatigue, and problems at home.

Making a list of your triggers can be helpful. This helps us understand our problems better and can help us manage situations that may be anxiety inducing. You can start to structure this by listing all the people, places, things and situations you find difficult to deal with.

Information for employers

For a company or organisation, it’s important to consider if any workplace adjustments can be made to help ease someone’s symptoms.

Anxiety related to the workplace can have an impact on performance, so it’s important employees know where they can access support.

It is important to have an open conversation about your employee’s mental health. This is best done with compassion and understanding, and without judgement. It’s beneficial to explore what workplace adjustments can be made and review how these are going.

These strategies should always focus on compassion and understanding.

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Mindfulness is a technique you can practice anywhere. For some experienced individuals, mindfulness has become a way of life.

Mindful thinking is all about being present and noticing our thoughts without judgement. Try to stop and think about what’s around you and just notice your thoughts rather than paying attention to what it is you are thinking about.

When we’re being mindful, we are aware of what is real and what is happening in the here and now, not what anxiety is trying to tell us. Mindfulness instructs us to observe our thoughts as they come and go without latching on or attaching to them.

Managing your time and workload

If you suffer with anxiety, an effective coping mechanism is to work to structure and frame your workload. This may involve allocating a specific amount of time to each task or creating a checklist for the following day before you leave in the evening.

Structure and organisation are important for people with anxiety. Communicate with your stakeholders to make them aware of when they can expect a task to be completed. Another way to manage your workload is to create a priority hierarchy where you tackle tasks in order of importance.

Setting boundaries and why it’s so important

Boundaries are the bedrock of good workplace mental health. If you allow work to seep into your home life, you aren’t going to recharge and reboot when you leave the office. If you work from home, this is even more important, as the physical lines between the workplace and your home are blurred.

Healthy boundaries are how we decide where our professional responsibilities end and our personal life begins. Here are some healthy ways you can set boundaries at work to minimise the gravity of workplace anxiety:

  • Define regular work hours: if you work from home and can work flexibly, make sure this works for you and doesn’t result in late evenings at your desk. Whilst this might be necessary on occasion, regularly adjusting your schedule can cause further anxiety
  • Don’t take too much on: if you’re anxious at work, you may take on too much in an attempt to please everyone. Doing this can result in burnout. Instead, work within your remit and aim to get core tasks done before agreeing to take on more work
  • Socialise when it’s right for you: don’t feel the need to attend that work social if you aren’t comfortable
  • Take your break: you’re entitled to the breaks as agreed in your work contract. They are there to give you the opportunity to recharge so you can work effectively afterwards. If you don’t take breaks, you will feel sluggish and burned out, which doesn’t benefit you or your employer
  • Speak up if you’re unhappy: if there’s something you’re not happy with, raise it with your line manager or superior. Having an honest discussion about how you are feeling may lead to positive workplace adjustments that will enhance your present and future wellbeing.

The relationship between anxiety and exercise

Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins which are the body's natural mood elevators. This can create a sense of well-being and reduce feelings of anxiety. Exercise also helps regulate stress hormones like cortisol, leading to a more balanced stress response when we feel anxious.

Participating in physical activities offers a distraction from anxious thoughts and provides an opportunity for social interaction, both of which contribute to improved mental well-being. Furthermore, exercise promotes better sleep, which is crucial for managing anxiety.

Taking short active breaks

Taking breaks away from our work area is vital. It allows us to mentally check out of work for a moment and think about something else. For even better results, remove yourself from your desk or workspace so you can see, smell, and hear something different.

If you sit down for work, it’s recommended that you take a five-minute break for every half an hour you spend sat down. This helps negate the negative effect of sitting down by improving circulation, aiding concentration, and giving your back a break.

When to seek help

Anxiety can make you feel alone and isolated. A great first step for moving forward is to talk to someone who understands.

Seeking professional help with Nuffield Health means a compassionate specialist listening to what you’re going through. We offer several therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)guided online therapy, and counselling.

Last updated Tuesday 23 January 2024

First published on Thursday 28 September 2023