Managing anxiety in the workplace


For some people the workplace can be a minefield of anxiety and stress. A task or situation that’s a ‘sinch’ for you may be spine-chilling for someone else.

Think of a presentation to your CEO. It might make you feel uncomfortable. It might be scary. But for one of your colleagues this situation could trigger their anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety include panic attacks, persistent worry, a pounding heart, or feeling faint. These symptoms can make completing a task – even the idea of going to work – a horrifying experience.

It’s important to remember that feeling anxious or stressed at work happens to everyone. It’s normal and some anxiety can even be helpful. It can improve our attention and concentration, boost our motivation, and ensure we’re prepared to face difficult challenges.

Yet this mechanism can malfunction. Anxiety is designed to protect us from danger, but we can end up viewing situations as potentially threatening when they’re not.

If your anxiety is becoming a hindrance at work – or becomes persistent, overwhelming or irrational – consider this a signal. Remember there are lots of strategies that can help you regain control. Here are five tips to get you started:

1. Practice self-care

Self-care, both at work and at home, is important to our mental health. These actions are quite simple and need not take up a lot of time, or cost a lot of money. For example,

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet and eat at regular times each day. Take your allocated lunch break and get out of the office for some fresh air.
  • Remain physically active. Get up from your desk regularly, take the stairs not the lift, or go the long way to a location.
  • Get an adequate and consistent sleep each night.
  • Stay in touch with friends and family.
  • Take time to get to know and chat with your colleagues. This will help you feel connected and supported by your team.

2. Know your boundaries and stick to them

As an employee, consider where your limit is when taking on extra work, and let your manager know if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It is okay to ask for help, delegate or ‘push-back’ when you need to. Aim to start and finish work on time, try not to work back late unless you really have to.

When you arrive home symbolically switch out of ‘work-mode’. This includes changing out of your uniform, taking a shower, or going to the gym. Put away work-related electronic devices so you’re not tempted to make work calls or check your emails. And try evening activities that nourish and strengthen you (playing with the kids or reading a book).

3. Learn anxiety management strategies

Recognise and make a list of situations that trigger your anxiety (deadlines, answering the phone, or interacting with your superiors). Knowing your triggers will help you stay in control when they arise.

Replace anxious thoughts with more constructive ones. Write a list of helpful statements and keep them somewhere accessible (in your desk drawer).

Reduce anxiety and tension in your body through mindfulness and relaxation techniques such as grounding, long and deep breathing, body scans or progressive muscle relaxation. You can learn more about these techniques from self-help books, apps or online resources.

4. Consider telling your employer

There is no legal obligation to disclose information about your anxiety if you do not wish to. This is your own decision. However, some people may choose to disclose because they require certain accommodations or adjustments be made to their work schedule or environment. Letting your employer or a trusted colleague know about your anxiety can be a huge relief, it can help to educate others and make it easier to access the support you need.

5. Seek professional help

Check whether your workplace offers an Employee Assistance Program – a free and confidential counselling service offered to employees. Alternatively, ask your GP for a referral to see a psychologist. Working with a psychologist can help you understand your anxiety, identify potential triggers and develop new techniques to manage them.

For more information about workplace anxiety, contact the SANE Help Centre on 1800 18 7263 (Monday – Friday between 9am and 5pm EST).

Gina is a SANE Help Centre Advisor.

Sarah Earnshaw