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Anxiety at work is on the rise. Over 8 million people in the UK experience an anxiety disorder, and burnout and stress are costing industries over 70 million sick days per year. What exactly is making employees in workplaces so anxious, and what are the truths about just how many of us are anxious at work?

Work can benefit our mental health in many ways, as it provides us a source of income, independence, a sense of identity and connects us with other people.

In fact studies have also suggested that anxiety is not always detrimental to work, and can offer a boost

“To reconcile these seemingly contradictory findings and gain a more accurate perspective on the effects of workplace anxiety, researchers have developed a new model that sets out the triggers for workplace anxiety, and how and when this can have both negative and positive effects on job performance. The Theory of Workplace Anxiety (TWA), as they call the model, draws on and advances existing research and theories on anxiety and stress.

The model makes a distinction between two types of workplace anxiety: dispositional and situational. The first relates to individual differences in feelings of nervousness or unease about job performance. The second concerns a transient emotional state reflecting nervousness or unease about specific tasks or ‘episodes’ in an employees’ daily work life, such as meeting a deadline.

The model outlines how both types of workplace anxiety can, in certain situations, produce beneficial effects. A moderate level of anxiety can lead employees to engage in ‘self-regulatory processing’ – monitoring their own progress on a task and focusing their efforts towards performing that task, ultimately boosting performance. Conditions that can help prompt this response include motivation, emotional intelligence and ability.

The author of the paper, explains that work-anxious employees who are motivated are likely to harness anxiety to help them focus on tasks. Those who are emotionally intelligent are adept at recognising their anxiety and so use this to regulate their performance. Those who are experienced and skilled at their job are also less likely to let anxiety affect their performance. “Clearly, anxiety is more complex than how it has been modelled in the past,” the research paper says”.

The Dark Side of Anxiety

But for some of us, work can be a large source of anxiety, and it’s vital that organisations fully understand how they can best support the mental health of their employees to ensure they are happy and healthy at work or whilst experiencing specific mental health problems, such as anxiety.

There’s many areas of work that can induce feelings of anxiety, and any responsible organisation should be striving to be equipped to best support employees through their challenges and to form a culture at work that enables people to feel psychologically secure and less anxious.

Research from 2020 to 2023, suggests that experiencing anxiety and poor mental health at work isn’t as unusual as we might think.

1 in 6 workers are dealing with mental health problems such as anxiety at any point in time

 1 in 5 UK workers (18%) report experiencing anxiety at work

828,000 workers were estimated to be affected by work-related anxiety or stress

12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK are attributed to mental health conditions including anxiety

Reducing anxiety at work is crucial to also avoid burnout, which was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion and it’s more likely to occur when you experience long-term stress or anxiety at work. Similar to anxiety, experiencing excess stress at work can also cause a wide range of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and physical changes and symptoms, which can negatively affect our day-to-day lives.

Prevention is the key and early interventions that can support colleagues’ mental health and reduce their need to take time off work, are estimated to save businesses up to £8 billion annually. Managers play a key role in creating mentally healthy cultures where those struggling with their mental health feel supported. A good manager will regularly check in with their team; will spot changes in behaviour that suggest someone is struggling and will have the confidence and time to have supportive conversations and the knowledge to signpost appropriately.

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