A big presentation, an important meeting, an accreditation exam, a difficult conversation with a colleague or manager – we’ve all experienced the prickle of anxiety in our working lives. Here’s what workplaces and individuals can do about it.
By Linda Moon
There is a lot at stake in our professional lives – from financial survival to social prestige. Within this competitive environment, we are also often thrust into new situations that test us.
Work anxiety is normal, says Christina Canters, director of communications skills training company The C Method and host of business communications podcast Stand Out Get Noticed.
Underlying our worries are inherent fears of being rejected from the tribe, harking back to our cave days.
“It would mean we'd be thrown out with no food, shelter, and likely be eaten by a bear,” Canters says.
An ego-bruising on the job isn’t deadly, but our “primitive” brain generates the same fear, she explains.
Some stress is a good thing. “It means you're challenging yourself,” Canters says.
However, if anxious thoughts are negatively affecting your work or are prolonged, you need to address this.
Common physical signs of excessive anxiety, according to mental health site Beyond Blue, include panic attacks, heart palpitations, tightening of the chest, rapid breathing, restlessness, excessive worry and fear, obsessive thinking and avoiding anxiety-inducing situations.
Sonakshi Babbar, co-founder of Anxyz, an AI-powered tech platform designed to help manage anxiety in the workplace, says employers can play a significant role in reducing employee anxiety.
Her research reveals that three-quarters of Australian employees believe workplaces should provide support to those experiencing anxiety or depression. With studies showing those who feel heard at work are 4.6 times more likely to perform better, it is a win for all, she says.
Babbar, an ambassador for The Big Anxiety festival, says creating a culture of wellbeing and belonging, as well as investing in employees, are key to reducing work-related anxiety.
Secondly, mental wellbeing support needs to be as accessible as our workplace chat channel. Here, tech-based wellness and support tools – confidential and easy to access – have an advantage, Babbar says.
As to what the individuals themselves can do to overcome anxiety, Babbar and Canters suggest the following strategies.
1. Practice ‘constructive worrying’
When we are worried about something, it tends to play like a song in the back of our head on a loop, Babbar says.
She recommends setting aside a dedicated block of time to think about your concerns productively and purposefully, to identify the issues and possible solutions.
Having a regular session at the same time each day or each week can help train your brain – you know that an opportunity to think through your worries exists, which leaves you to be more present and calmer for the rest of the day.
Writing out your concerns can also help you identify patterns and process your feelings.
2. Give your mind a workout
Just as your body benefits from working out, your brain also needs regular exercise, Babbar says.
“Cognitive fitness” optimises our memory, focus, ability to reason, how to respond empathically to people and feel calm, she says.
Cognitive exercises include mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises. Such practices are “backed by a wealth of clinical evidence” and “can be done in three minutes at your desk,” Babbar says.
3. Visualise the best outcome
Experiencing a few “butterflies” before an exam, presentation, job interview or important meeting is normal. However, if you are worrying obsessively, try visualising the best possible outcome, Babbar suggests.
“Imagine yourself being able to deliver a fantastic presentation, answering every question and coming out of it with a smile on your face,” she says.
“Then, it is more likely that your brain is going to accept that outcome.”
4. Shift your focus to your audience
Canters says a lot of fear around public speaking results from our tendency to focus on our performance. Our typical self-talk is that we need to be perfect, interesting, funny, liked by our audience – which puts pressure on us.
Whether you are speaking to one person or 300 people, shift the focus to your audience and the importance of what you want to share with them, she suggests.
5. Seek positive feedback
Low self-worth often feeds work-related anxiety. “It's important to understand your unique value,” Canters says.
To boost your sense of self-worth, Canters recommends asking three trusted colleagues to name one thing you do well and why that is important to them.
6. Get comfortable with anxiety
Given anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations, it is more important to learn how to manage it, rather than trying to eliminate it completely, which is impossible.
Rather than viewing anxiety as a monster that overwhelms you, imagine it as an annoying but cute little bird on your shoulder, trying – ineffectively – to help you, Canters suggests.
As we progress in our careers and gain more responsibility in the workplace, skills such as communication, leadership and public speaking become increasingly more important, Canters says. “Yet, no one has ever taught us how to do this well.”
Shed the unhelpful belief that brilliant communicators are born, not made.
“It’s a skill, just like any other skill that you can learn with the right knowledge and practice,” she says.