Four ways to help employees with anxiety disorders

Four ways to hlep employees with anxiety disorders

As I’ve mentioned in the past, depression can have a significant impact in the workplace, including procrastination and missed deadlines, difficulties with memory and learning, and much more. Often overlooked in discussions about depression in the workplace is that anxiety can be a related factor. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly half of people diagnosed with depression have also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.1

In addition, a recent study from Harvard Business School and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business linked workplace-related stressors to upwards of $180 billion in healthcare costs.2 With staggering numbers like that, it’s abundantly clear workplace-related anxiety is a significant problem, both for the bottom line and, more importantly, the health and well-being of employees.

Anxiety symptoms versus anxiety disorders

It’s important to understand there is a difference between simply experiencing symptoms of anxiety and suffering from an anxiety disorder. Most, if not all, employees deal with varying levels of anxiety in their day-to-day experiences in the workplace. Anyone who has been under deadline on an important project intuitively understands a little bit of stress can actually be great for productivity — but only up to a point. Too much stress or excessive anxiety leads to decreased output and at some point can become disabling.

At the most basic level, employees with anxiety disorders often avoid additional tasks, social interaction and attention from others. Some engage in asking for feedback or reassurance far more than other employees. Many employees with anxiety feel as though they are already at their limit in terms of ability to tolerate stress, and they have difficulty managing any additional changes or stressors that are bound to occur in the course of day-to-day life in the workplace.

Accommodating anxiety

In addition to healthcare costs, anxiety disorders can contribute to lost productivity. Despite the complexity in which an anxiety disorder can present itself, some basic steps and accommodations can help employees with anxiety deal with day-to-day stressors and improve productivity:

    • Show concern. First, as with many other workplace mental health issues, those with anxiety will benefit from knowing that their employer is genuinely concerned with improving their health and wellness in the workplace, and from seeing that their employer does not discriminate against or marginalize those with mental health issues.
    • Identify behavior-specific performance feedback. When reaching out to the employee to address any work-related problems, ensure that you’re focusing on what behaviors they’re exhibiting in the workforce, rather than overreaching theories. For example, instead of saying, “You look anxious,” or “You look tired,” try “I see you’ve missed a few days of work lately. Is everything OK?” No matter your conversation, however, ensure you’re approaching the discussion with empathy.
    • Encourage predictable tasks. A way to curb anxiety can be assigning tasks to the employee that come with a certain amount of predictability — that way, the employee knows the parameters associated with a specific task. The routine helps those with anxiety because they know the steps to follow.
    • Match temperament to job responsibilities. If an employee has difficulty with social encounters, it wouldn’t be wise to have him or her facilitate large meetings or entertain clients when they come to town. Help accommodate them by finding the right type of work for their comfort level.

As simple as it sounds, just being open and accepting about mental health issues can go a long way toward a healthier workplace. Although some stress can be good for job performance, an abundance of anxiety can hinder employee productivity — and potentially result in a larger problem.


1 Understanding the Facts: Depression, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, October 2015, http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression.

2 The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States, Harvard Business School, http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/oph_MS_final_a97f5fc7-0ace-4e5d-b634-8e5516edfd9c.pdf.

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