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Many business leaders—at least the ones who’ve stayed alert—learned something really important during the global pandemic lockdowns. They came to the realization that anxiety is a serious business issue.
Think about it. Millions of people were working remotely, managing their at-home responsibilities while feeling the pressure of staying connected with their work teams.
Many issues contribute to rising anxiety levels. People struggle with “always on” work styles, increased use of social media, unhealthful comparisons to others, and concerns about job security. Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are also common symptoms (and causes) of anxiety.
Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton are global workplace experts and thought leaders in corporate culture, leadership, and employee engagement. In addition to coaching leaders at companies like American Express, Intel, and Proctor & Gamble, they’ve appeared on NBC’s Today, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, CBS’s 60 Minutes and many other media outlets. Their latest book is Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done.
Through extensive hands-on experience with managers and their teams, Gostick and Elton developed eight strategies—along with practical steps—for assuaging anxiety in any workplace by helping team members (and leaders):
- Deal with uncertainty
- Balance an overwhelming workload
- Chart their way and plan their career paths
- Manage perfectionism—the biggest enemy of workplace productivity
- Find their voice
- Feel valued and accepted
- Build social bonds
- Promote confidence by leading with gratitude
My visit with Chester Elton shed some illuminating insights into the anxiety epidemic in the workplace.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Many people use the words “worry,” “stress,” and “anxiety” interchangeably. How do you differentiate between those conditions, and why do you focus on anxiety?
Chester Elton: It’s true that some people use the terms “worry,” “stress,” and “anxiety” synonymously. They are different. Worry is a mental process that includes repetitive, nagging thoughts—usually focused on something like losing a job or worrying about getting sick. Stress is a biological reaction when changes occur, to which the body responds physically, mentally, or emotionally. Anxiety involves the body and mind and can be serious enough to qualify as a mental disorder. It can combine stress, fear, and worry in ways that interfere with life. I tend to think of anxiety as feeling that my ability to cope is small and the problems I face are huge.
We focused on the issue of anxiety because it is the most common of the mental health issues facing workers today and is estimated to cost more than $40 billion a year to American businesses alone. It’s also something managers can help with.
Duncan: What are the early warning signs that anxiety is becoming a serious problem in a workplace?
Elton: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2020 more than 30% of all Americans of all ages were reporting symptoms of an anxiety disorder, including 42% of people in their twenties. With an issue that’s affecting just about half of all young people at work and one-third of all workers, smart managers must assume this is a serious problem in their workplace.
Duncan: You’ve identified eight simple practices or strategies to help leaders significantly reduce the anxiety their people are experiencing. How did you settle on these specific eight?
Elton: We took a deep dive into the science of what provokes anxiety in order to identify the practices that managers can use to relieve it. We have spent 20 years coaching executives about how to improve the work experience and organizational culture, and with research partners have surveyed more than one million employees. That gives us a lot of data to work from. To help shape the solutions offered, we also interviewed some of the world’s leading experts in mental health as well as dozens of people who live with anxiety at work. The eight practices come from this research and experience. And we’ve seen powerful effects can be achieved by making easily implemented adjustments in how leaders manage.
Duncan: What can leaders do to help their people navigate through uncertainty, ambiguity, and even uncertainty?
Elton: Few things cause more anxiety than the unknown, and few things generate more unknowns than our modern workplaces. While some leaders believe uncertainty and resulting stress will get their people fired up for a challenge, that’s simply not the case for a large portion of the workforce. Uncertainty triggers diverse physical responses in people, with often detrimental consequences on performance.
While there may be little managers can do to address the root causes of big-picture uncertainty, what they can do is communicate about what they know of challenges and what the organization is doing to address them, and especially how those challenges may impact their team and their priorities. The job of the leader is to say, “Come with me into the unknown. Together, we are going to navigate our way through this to a better place.” And then, most importantly, a leader harnesses the collective intelligence of the team to find answers along the way.
Duncan: When team members feel overloaded and overwhelmed, how can leaders help?
Elton: As the saying goes, you don’t try to eat an elephant all at once; you have to divide it into easily digestible parts. The point for leaders: Many employees are feeling overloaded with crushing amounts of work to accomplish, and it’s leading to unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. A first tactic any manager can try is to help team members break down their work into chunks. This is only one of a number of methods of helping lessen the mental weight of workloads.
Managers often tell us there isn’t much they can do about overload as they aren’t the ones setting those big goals. And yet we find it is often possible to bring the work assigned to a team considerably more in line with what’s realistically manageable. Sometimes this can come when a manager makes a compelling case in negotiations with top leaders, or if that fails, by pitching to hire additional staff or short-term contractors. It can also come by reducing excessive red tape, balance loads among team members, regularly rotate people out of higher-stress jobs, and closely monitor progress and help people prioritize.
Duncan: FOMO—Fear Of Mission Out—is a reality in today’s world, especially among younger people in the workplace. How can a leader help team members chart their way?
Elton: Research shows that as people constantly peer into what others are up to online, they are often led to feel unsettled about their own lives. Few things create more unhappiness in human beings than comparing ourselves to others. When it comes to work, we are seeing similar FOMO worries. Workers can become concerned that by staying put in a job, they might miss out on something more interesting.
Young people, especially, can find the corporate world excruciatingly slow and frustrating. But there’s a great deal managers can do about this. We’ve found that when leaders offer younger workers regular chances to learn and advance, many of those valuable employees prefer to stay longer. Following further strategies can help reduce employees’ anxiety about where they’re heading in their careers, including creating more steps to grow in each job, having regular career discussions to help employees assess their skills and motivations, and encouraging peer-to-peer mentoring and support in learning new skills.
Duncan: What role does striving for perfectionism play in some people’s anxiety, and what can leaders do to help someone manage such an impulse?
Elton: It’s important to understand that perfectionism isn’t about a rational quest to get things right when they have to be. It’s a corrosive impulse to appear perfect. And, in a horrible irony, perfectionism can seriously undermine people’s performance and has become a warning sign for many employers.
A key difference between unhealthy perfectionism and healthy striving is being able to know when to say, “that’s good enough.” And that’s where leaders can help. If left entirely on their own to determine whether their work is up to snuff, perfectionists are more than likely to overthink and rework, make tweaks, second-guess, or even do too much—maybe doing inventory for everyone instead of only on the products they were asked to count, or handing in War and Peace when their boss really wanted an executive summary. We know that most managers have no desire to handhold their people, and they rightfully worry about micromanaging. But with employees who tend toward perfectionism, it’s important to guide them clearly through the standards you’re looking for.
Duncan: Managing—or mismanaging—conflict can be stressful. What steps have you found to be helpful?
Elton: A common complaint we hear from managers is that many of their people today are conflict-avoidant. They shy away from disagreements, can’t handle honest feedback, and will not engage in tough conversations.
For employees who are conflict-averse, when they see debate brewing it can be upsetting and cause them to flee or freeze. Leaders can help their employees understand that sugarcoating or withholding are actually selfish acts, and candor is a gift. While we may think we are sparing another person’s feelings, sugarcoating is a superficial attempt to seem more appealing. If you filter out bad news, you’re dooming others. We help people use better judgment when we arm each other with accurate information, even if it’s not what they want to hear.
Duncan: “Inclusion” has become one of the most prominent issues of our time. How can leaders help their people build healthful social bonds at work?
Elton: We’ve probably all been left out at some point in our lives. Exclusion evokes unpleasant memories from school playground days.
While much has been written on bullying at work as a serious concern for employees’ mental health and team cohesion, research shows exclusion can be just as toxic to anxiety levels and hasn’t received anywhere near the attention. This is because we as humans have such a strong need to belong.
Ostracism in the workplace can have long-term psychological implications. There is much team leaders can do to spot those who may seem to be left out: Which person is regularly cut off during group discussions, who doesn’t seem to be interacting with anyone? Regular one-on-ones are the best way to understand what’s really going on.
Leaders can encourage inclusion by ensuring that all team members can contribute in meetings and have their voices heard in a calm and organized manner, buddy new hires up with friendly seasoned employees, and spend time in every meeting recognizing contributions.
Duncan: What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?
Elton: We found a definite generational divide. Most young people want to be able to discuss their anxiety at work. Said one twenty-something employee in an interview, “My generation talks about anxiety all the time to each other.” Rightly so, they believe that it’s impossible to fix something we are scared to talk about. And yet a 2019 survey of 1,000 employed adults with anxiety, 90% judged it would be a bad idea to confide their situation to their bosses. Sad.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.