How to deal with anxiety in the workplace

January is traditionally a month of conflict. Apparently more divorces are initiated this month than any other. I am the son of a divorce lawyer who liked to remark that “young people in tears is music to my ears”! There is money to be made in misery.

For those thinking that they might get some much-needed respite at work from domestic hostilities it may not be the catholicon they were seeking. Statistics cited by Beyond Blue suggest one-in-five Australians have taken time off work in the last year due to stress, anxiety, depression or mental ill-health. An even greater number (26 per cent) are estimated to have experienced an anxiety disorder.

Typically, mental health issues in the workplace are approached from the economic point of view, that left unmanaged they represent a serious inefficiency in terms of lost productivity and absenteeism.

However, at the individual level, anxiety has its impact in terms of heightened arousal, a state of being super alert, and worried about some perceived threat. Common symptoms are constant worry, lethargy, being on edge, irritability, even muscle pain – such as tight shoulders or pain in the jaw.

Mental health issues in the workplace are approached from the economic point of view.
Mental health issues in the workplace are approached from the economic point of view.Credit:fairfax media

Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint the causes, sometimes they are very specific. For instance, the anxiety may be caused by phobias related to flying, rodents or spiders.

Of particular relevance to the workplace are so-called social anxiety disorders. These are the intense fear of being judged negatively or rejected in social situations, or in performance evaluations. Given work is both social by definition (ultimately all work is done with and for others), and frequently is subject to performance measures, it provides a potent stage on which our anxieties can be played out.

For many of an anxious disposition, social interactions at work can be a trial. If the mind is full of worry about how your behaviour is being judged by others in the interaction, there is little capacity left to process the information you are receiving. This can lead to performance problems.

However, more immediately, if during these interactions your mind is processing other people’s behaviour or comments in a way that turns neutral or innocent actions or remarks into perceived slights, this can lead to you responding very defensively, or worse, firing back against the perceived slight.

Alternatively this social anxiety can lead to inappropriately accommodating or submissive behaviour as a tactic to elicit praise from the other parties, or at least to avoid conflict.

The aftermath of these interactions can be sheer hell, with the socially anxious ruminating endlessly and usually unproductively about the interaction, which in turn causes more anxiety. Worse, colleagues may come to see you as argumentative, brittle, or obsequious. You become that “difficult” person that the HR courses train you to “deal” with.

What is required is a much greater understanding of the problem of anxiety in the workplace, helping people to recognise the symptoms in themselves and others, and to provide appropriate support, counselling or referrals.

The good news is that we don’t have to avoid January, and it doesn’t have to end in tears. There are plenty of very effective methods for combatting anxiety. A good start is or the Australian Psychological Society (

Jim Bright is a professor of career education and development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy. Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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