Leaders are often consulted for answers, security, and stability. In times of high stress or sudden change, leaders are increasingly relied upon to reassure team members and instill a sense of safety, confidence, and calm. Truthfully, though, they’re not always as certain as they want their team to believe, and sometimes they’re worried in moments they appear confident. Leaders get stressed, they get nervous, and they get anxious at the same rate as all employees. 

No one is immune to experiencing natural human reactions to stress. Leading with and through anxiety doesn’t make a leader any less effective– it just means they experience a different set of challenges and priorities each day.

Anxiety is often difficult to understand, and its presence is often hidden. Follow along for a comprehensive look at anxiety and how it manifests itself in workplace settings. 

An Informative Look

Occasional anxiety is normal, making one feel overwhelmed and out of control. Someone who experiences severe anxiety for an extended period of time (at least six months) may have an anxiety disorder. 

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., which affects nearly 40 million adults each year, or more than 18% of the population. The most common of anxiety disorders is titled Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, which affects 6.8 million adults per year, or more than 3% of the U.S. population. 

According to the ADAA, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by “persistent and excessive worry” about factors in one’s life, such as family, money, health, etc. People who experience anxiety have a low tolerance for uncertainty, and the thought of the future can provoke fear. Sometimes the level of worry is valid and rational, while other times it is a recognizable hindrance to workplace performance. 

As someone who has been diagnosed with GAD, Zach Mercurio, author of “The Invisible Leader” and Purpose and Meaningful Work Expert, shares his interpretation, “The best way I’ve heard GAD described is the intense, gripping fear of something that has never and will never exist.”

Anxiety produces a cycle of worry and inner dialogue that feels impossible to escape. In some cases, anxiety can also manifest itself physically— causing nausea, fatigue, headaches, shaking, sweating, etc. 

A View in the Workplace

Anxiety can erupt at different times for different reasons depending on its victim. For many people, aspects of the workplace are anxiety-triggering. The ADAA 2006 Stress & Anxiety Disorders Survey reported that only 9% of employees have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, yet 40% of employees report that they experience frequent and excessive stress and anxiety. Anxiety is therefore even more common than the diagnosed numbers suggest. 

In the study, employees reported that their anxiety mostly affects their performance (56%) and quality of work (50%). Nearly half of employees with anxiety state that it interferes with relationships with coworkers (51%) and superiors (43%). As a result, some find themselves opting out of social intercourse, keeping quiet during meetings, and becoming increasingly impatient with coworkers. 

The most commonly reported triggers to workplace anxiety include: dealing with problems, meeting deadlines, maintaining interpersonal relationships, changes to work situations, and staff management. All such triggers are normal expectations in any workplace and can be difficult to avoid– creating a never-ending cycle of worry and severe stress for many workers. 

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Workplace anxiety is more common than meets the eye. Unlike someone who has a physical disability that is clearly visible or easily uncovered by simple analysis, anxiety disorders often go unnoticed and undiscussed. Employees at all levels can feel crippling anxiety that undermines their ability to function in their role. As a leader, carrying a team through a crisis or period of change becomes increasingly daunting. Anxiety lives in our workplaces, and almost half of all employees are heavily affected by it. 

As we are finally recognizing the presence and effect of anxiety in the workplace is far more debilitating than originally imagined, a number of tools are necessary to help employees and leaders with anxiety navigate their everyday work life. For a detailed list of useful strategies to help manage anxiety at work, keep an eye on Knowted’s blog for next week’s article Strategies for Dealing With Anxiety in the Workplace. 

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