According to the mental health charity MIND, mental health problems like anxiety, depression and unmanageable stress affect one in six British workers each year. In 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK, and this number is increasing – in part due to our busier, longer working lives.
The likelihood is that a workplace will never be completely free of anxiety (defined as a mild or severe feeling of unease, worry or fear). Situations like completing an important project, managing a team or meeting deadlines are all common work situations which, though for some offer challenge and interest, can also make some people feel under pressure. And for some people, these feelings of anxiety can become more constant and can negatively affect their daily lives (e.g. generalised anxiety disorder).
The key is to ensure that any anxiety-inducing situations are well-managed and employees feel supported. As a manager, if you are aware that somebody is struggling with issues or difficulties outside of work, this might impact on their ability to deal with stressful situations in work. Open and sensitive discussions can be enormously helpful for employees who are beginning to struggle.
Employees can often find it difficult to speak up about work-related anxiety; mental health can still feel like a taboo subject to discuss in a work setting. This means that in many cases managers may have to take the lead in identifying anxiety in their workplace.
The following exercises can help you to recognise whether there may be higher levels of anxiety in your organisation:
- Have a look around the workplace at lunch time today. How many employees are eating lunch at their workstations? Not being able to take a proper break for lunch can increase anxiety levels, as a lunch break gives employees the chance to reboot and prepare for the afternoon’s work. Employers should actively encourage a break away from the workplace.
- When you leave the workplace at night, make a note of how many staff members are still working. Employees having to frequently work late because their workload is too high means they may feel overloaded and will not have a sufficient chance to unwind in the evenings.
- Have a think – how often have you and your staff socialised together in the last three months? Being able to go out together as a group, whether that’s for lunch, a drink after work or exercising, can make sure that staff members feel part of a strong support system and valued for their contribution.
If you think your workplace may have a problem with anxiety, there are many resources out there to help. The mental health charity Mind have a useful guide to mentally well workplaces, and the Health and Safety Initiative also have a guide for employers on tackling work-related stress.
Employers and employees can also phone the free Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 to speak to a dedicated advisor about anxiety in the workplace. If an employee has been off work for four weeks or more due to anxiety or stress, employers can refer them to Fit for Work by visiting the Fit for Work website and clicking on ‘refer an employee’.