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Anxiety in the Workplace

Anxiety in the Workplace
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Dr Fiona Pienaar discusses anxiety in the workplace and gives tips on how to manage it.

Dr Fiona Pienaar is Senior Clinical Advisor at Mental Health Innovations, the charity which runs the free, 24/7, confidential and anonymous Shout text support service. Her focus is on ensuring the organisation is keeping abreast of global and national mental health trends, research and developments.

Anxiety is a common experience in life, typically a ‘feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe’ (NHS Overview of anxiety ). Generally these feelings may arise when we are faced with, for example, new experiences, an unexpected turn of events, being overwhelmed by work and deadlines, and situations that can feel out of our control. Some situations can cause anxiety in one person and not in another. There are many factors that contribute to whether and how we experience anxiety, including our individual life experiences, our personality, the people we are connected to, and the support we have around us.

At Mental Health Innovations, anxiety is a topic we focus on a lot. Over the past five years, anxiety has consistently been one of the main issues people contacted our Shout mental health text support service about, making up 30% of the 1.9 million conversations we have taken. Amongst adults, our latest analyses found that anxiety is often related to work stress, finances, relationships, ill-health and trauma.

Experiencing anxiety at work can have additional challenges, including the concern that if a person is experiencing work-related anxiety, they may carry that with them into their personal lives, which can further exacerbate challenges to their mental health and wellbeing. There are many reasons that people experience anxiety in the workplace, including, job performance, worrying about how managers perceive their role, working too hard or constantly working overtime, management styles, deadlines, the demands of the role, imposter syndrome, the workplace culture, lack of awareness about mental health and wellbeing, lack of recognition of the neurodiversity of the employees, and toxic workplaces.

While most people can manage their anxiety, for some it can feel like they are struggling to control their thoughts, their breathing and their heart rate. Anxiety at work can lead to constant fatigue, lack of energy, irritability and feeling depressed. These factors, or a combination of them, can result in demotivation, lack of commitment, absenteeism, relationship challenges, and a deterioration in work output. It is in the best interests of every organisation, big or small, to ensure they have the structures in place to support the mental health and wellbeing of each individual and that everyone is aware of the avenues available to them should they need support.

There are also, of course, steps you can take yourself when you start to notice you are experiencing anxiety related to your work.

Managing work-related anxiety

One of the most important aspects of managing anxiety and your mental health in general is to ensure that you are connected to people (or even one person) that you can confide in, share your worries and your fears, and plan your next steps. Talking things through with someone you trust, respect, and who is a good listener, helps get ruminating thoughts out of your head so that your worries are not just constantly circulating around in isolation, but have been shared with someone, thereby enabling you to consider what help you might need and what steps you might need to take. Whether you choose to talk to a trusted colleague at work, someone from HR, your line manager, connect to your organisation’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or speak to a professional, friend of family member outside of work, starting a conversation about what you are feeling anxious about, as well as your wellbeing in general, can be a powerful first step towards feeling more calm and in greater control.

Here are some other steps you can take to help manage anxiety:

  • Consciously managing your breathing (you could try the 4-7-8 combination : breathe in through your nose to the count of four, hold the breath to the count of seven, exhale through your mouth to the count of eight - but not if you are feeling light-headed, out of breath, or uncomfortable)
  • Getting out to do some activity, even walking around the block (or combine two of our suggestions and take the person you can confide in out for a walking talk with you)
  • Ground yourself in the ‘here and now’ by doing the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Consciously focus on five things you can see (look around you); then focus on four things you can touch; three things you can hear (close your eyes; breath and listen); keep your eyes closed and focus on two things you can smell; then one thing you can taste. Stop, clear your head, and take a few deep breaths
  • Set boundaries for yourself in terms of time and work-life balance. If you’re leading a team or even managing just one person, establish work-life boundaries amongst your people, then lead by example

The Royal College of Psychiatrists provides some helpful information about Anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) .

Other Services

If you are struggling with anxiety, Shout is a free, 24/7 text support service with trained volunteers who are there to listen without judgement. It’s a process you can engage in at work silently and confidentially, by texting the word ‘SHOUT’ to 85258. The volunteers and experienced Clinical Supervisors can help you move from an anxious to a calmer state of mind and then help you think about your next steps.


While anxiety is something we all experience at some stage of our life, especially work-related, if your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, have been enduring for some time, and you are experiencing significant distress, you should consult with a doctor who will explore any potential physical causes and, where necessary, refer you on for further assessment and support from mental health professionals.

NHS information about further help: Anxiety and panic attacks - NHS