How To Help an Employee with Anxiety
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Last Updated - 06/01/21View our editorial policy
It is important to know how to address anxiety in the workplace and comply with legal mandates, especially in the face of an anxiety-provoking pandemic.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19.1% of American adults experience an anxiety disorder during a given year, meaning employers are likely to encounter anxiety in the workplace. Having anxiety can make it harder for a person to manage daily activities, such as work and relationships.
Employees in the Miami area may be especially susceptible to anxiety. According to a recent study, Miami is one of the worst places for sleep among all Floridian cities. Research shows sleep deprivation is linked to increased anxiety levels.
If you notice anxiety at work, you can take steps to support employees with anxiety and ensure that you comply with applicable laws.
What Is Anxiety?
Everyone experiences situational anxiety from time to time, such as about a presentation at work or a difficult discussion with a loved one. This anxiety passes after the stressful event occurs.
When describing anxiety in the workplace, employers are typically referring to anxiety as a mental health disorder. Anxiety involves fear or worry that is persistent. It is not a momentary worry over a situation at work or home. Instead, it is lasting and interferes with daily life.
There are several types of anxiety disorders, but often, when people talk about anxiety, they refer to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD involves excessive anxiety or worrying on most days, accompanied by symptoms like:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Sleep problems
- Feelings of restlessness
A person who has generalized anxiety disorder worries about a number of things, from work to health to everyday situations. They find that this worry is difficult to control and gets in the way of life activities.
There are other types of anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, which involves unexpected panic attacks, and specific phobias, which involve fear and anxiety surrounding specific objects or situations. What anxiety disorders have in common is that they are all legitimate health conditions that involve a level of fear and worry that can make it difficult to fulfill duties at work.
If you notice an employee’s job performance is suffering because of anxiety, you have reason to be concerned. An employee who fails to fulfill their responsibilities or who misses significant amounts of work because of anxiety could understandably hurt the company’s performance and their own well-being.
That said, you should not jump to the conclusion that an employee who is struggling has anxiety. Avoid outright telling them that the issue is anxiety: only a qualified medical or mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder. You might also offend the employee if you label them with a particular condition.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits harassment in the workplace because of a mental health condition like anxiety. If you make statements about an employee having anxiety, this could contribute to workplace gossip and ultimately be viewed as harassment.
Addressing Anxiety with an Employee
When you notice that an employee’s work performance has declined and suspect anxiety, consider sitting down for a conversation. Be sure to approach the topic with empathy and concern. You may say, “You have always been on top of your workload, but lately, your attendance and productivity have declined. I am concerned for you. Is there something going on that is preventing you from performing like you normally do at work?”
By law, an employee may choose to remain private about having anxiety, but if you have proof that they cannot perform their job or pose a threat to the workplace, you may ask questions about mental health. Understand, though, that if an employee discloses anxiety, you cannot discriminate against them or fire them simply because of the diagnosis. You must also offer them reasonable accommodations that would allow them to perform their job. This could include an altered work schedule to attend counseling or a private workspace that allows them to concentrate.
Helping Remote Workers with Anxiety
During a pandemic, employees working from home may be particularly susceptible to anxiety. The stress of living through a pandemic and coping with worries about finances, health and loved ones can contribute to anxiety in and of itself, but being isolated due to remote work can heighten anxiety even more.
People who had anxiety before social distancing orders may have a particularly difficult time coping with remote work and the stressors of the pandemic. In fact, a recent study found that people with anxiety disorders demonstrate more fear regarding the dangers and financial consequences of the pandemic, and they have more distress about isolation.
What all of this means is that remote workers may need an additional layer of support. You may consider:
- Setting up a direct line of communication for employees. Instead of expecting them to talk with you during a scheduled Zoom meeting or via email, you might offer a personal phone line to contact human resources where remote workers can reach out for support.
- Relaxing rules for remote workers. You may allow them to dress more comfortably while working from home or offer a flexible work schedule. These measures can ease some of the stress for employees who are having a hard time coping with anxiety while working remotely.
How To Help Employees in the Office
While remote workers may be especially prone to anxiety, this does not mean that those in the office won’t need support. If you are looking for ways to deal with anxiety in the workplace, consider the following challenges and how to address them:
- Restlessness: help employees manage restlessness by offering non-caffeinated beverages in the breakroom. Research shows that caffeine is associated with anxiety, restlessness and sleep problems, so having caffeinated beverages available at work can make symptoms worse for employees with anxiety.
- Sense of panic: consider using natural light and soft colors in the workplace. Avoid decorations that have dark or aggressive imagery. Studies show that green colors tend to make people feel calm, whereas red can lead to irritability and white may lead to fatigue.
- Fatigue: employees with anxiety may benefit from longer lunch breaks to allow them time to rejuvenate. You may consider offering rest spaces in the office with couches.
- Workplace noise: Loud noises in an office environment, or sometimes dead silence, can be anxiety-provoking for some. Have a policy of allowing employees to listen to headphones to access relaxing music during their workday.
- When employees struggle with emotions: anxiety in the workplace may become a problem when employees bottle their emotions instead of coping with them in a healthy way. If you notice this behavior from employees, offer to talk with them. Come from a place of concern, like talking to a friend, instead of as a boss who is upset at an employee.
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Companies can offer resources to raise mental health awareness and address anxiety at work through an employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP can provide education, assessments, short-term counseling and referrals to other services they might need.
You may develop an EAP in-house or contract with an outside provider that offers EAP services to workplaces. Employers generally pay for EAP services, but many experience a positive return on their investment. These services reduce the impact of anxiety, substance abuse, and other personal problems on employee well-being and productivity.
The Recovery Village at Baptist Health offers guidance and support for businesses developing an EAP program, workplace policies or other resources for your employees. Employees working remotely can also access teletherapy options from the comfort and safety of home.
If you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety and a co-occurring addiction, The Recovery Village at Baptist Health can help. Contact us today to discuss treatment options.
- Amani, Hamed, et al. “Color and its impact on people in the workplace: A systematic review article.” Iranian Journal of Ergonomics, 2020. Accessed March 21, 2021.
- Asmundson, Gordon J.G., et al. “Do pre-existing anxiety-related and mood disorders differentially impact COVID-19 stress responses and coping?” Journal of Anxiety Disorders, August 2020. Accessed March 21, 2021.
- Babwah, Terence J., et al. “Most Major Side Effects of Caffeine Experienced by Young Adults Are Acute Effects and Are Related to Their Weekly Dosage Ingested.” Journal of Caffeine and Adenosine Research, March 1, 2018. Accessed March 21, 2021.
- National Institute of Mental Health. “Anxiety disorders.” July 2018. Accessed March 21, 2021.
- National Institute of Mental Health. “Any anxiety disorder.” November 2017. Accessed March 21, 2021.
- Ogle, Connie. “Are you getting enough sleep during quarantine? If you live in Miami, the answer is no.” Miami Herald, April 22, 2020. Accessed March 21, 2021.
- Pires, Gabriel N., et al. “Effects of acute sleep deprivation on state anxiety levels: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Sleep Medicine, August 2016. Accessed March 21, 2021.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Provide support.” December 3, 2020. Accessed March 21, 2021.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.” Accessed March 21, 2021.