Dealing with work anxiety? How, when, and if you should tell your boss

November 10, 2021 - 13 min read

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How work anxiety is different from anxiety at work

What causes work anxiety?

11 signs of workplace anxiety

Effects of work anxiety

Should I tell my employer?

Coping with work anxiety

How work anxiety is different from anxiety at work

In a perfect world, your biggest concern would be just getting through your to-do list at work, and life would be predictable. Unfortunately, anxiety can make your work life feel out-of-control. It’s hard to know when an anxiety attack will come up, so it’s hard to plan out your responsibilities. On top of that, anxiety has an unfortunate habit of popping up exactly when the stakes are high and we need to be at our best.

A little bit of nerves before a big presentation is normal, and it’s common to worry about things like doing a good job at work or hitting a deadline. In fact, in these situations, our anxiety can provide us with a bit of a competitive advantage. But when it becomes maladaptive (the psychological term for when a response becomes unhelpful) it can start to make work feel impossible.

What causes work anxiety?

Generally speaking, there are four kinds of anxiety at work: performance anxiety, impostor syndrome, urgency, and generalized anxiety. Here’s how they differ from one another:

Performance anxiety

If you’re generally pretty comfortable at work or around your colleagues, but get nervous when you have a project or presentation to complete, you likely have performance anxiety. This is a short-lived phenomena that tends to disappear after you’ve successfully completed the project (or even sometimes, in the middle of it when you start to build confidence).

Impostor syndrome

Imposter syndrome makes us feel as if we don’t deserve the level of success we currently have. People that deal with imposter syndrome tend to second-guess themselves and dismiss compliments. They constantly worry that someone will find out they’re not qualified for their role — despite evidence to the contrary.

Urgency

Some jobs require quick decision making or crisis management. These roles can be inherently stressful. Particularly when someone’s decisions can mean the difference between life and death (for example, emergency medical staff) the body reacts by triggering the stress response. 

Ideally, this response dissipates when the immediate threat is gone. However, over time the result of chronic workplace stress and trauma can accumulate, leading to anxiety disorders.

Generalized anxiety

For many people, anxiety is an invisible companion that accompanies them everywhere — even into the workplace. Nearly one in four workers say that they’re affected by stress, anxiety, and performance pressure at work on a weekly basis — and 1 in 20 say that it affects them daily. 

Unfortunately, most people are taught to sacrifice their mental health to achieve peak performance. Doing this on a regular basis can make anxiety disorders worse — just as repeated strain at work can exacerbate an existing injury.

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11 signs of workplace anxiety

Many people who deal with anxiety become desensitized to the feeling. They may not notice their anxiety getting out-of-control until it begins to affect their daily life or work performance. Here are 11 signs that your anxiety about work is on the rise:

  • You feel tired or achy
  • You get sick more than usual
  • You’re irritable or short-tempered
  • You experience brain fog or have difficulty concentrating 
  • You feel better at night and worse in the morning
  • You feel anxiety when checking your email or Slack messages
  • You feel physically ill or have panic attacks when thinking about work
  • You fantasize about quitting your job
  • You find it hard to start working until the last minute (procrastination)
  • You become afraid or intolerant of feedback
  • You miss deadlines or have to take a lot of time off

Effects of work anxiety

Workplace anxiety can leave you feeling awful. Because we spend so much of our time at work or thinking about work, anxiety can quickly make its way into every area of your life. Here are some effects of untreated anxiety in the workplace:

Loss of self-esteem

For many of us, our jobs reflect part of how we see ourselves. Doing well at work is important to us because not only does it provide financial security, it affirms how we see ourselves. When our identity at work is compromised, it tends to impact our ability to feel positively about ourselves.

Reduced self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is our faith in ourselves and our ability to produce results. A key part of building self-efficacy is whether or not you feel positively about the task at hand. When you feel good, you’re better able to take on and succeed at new challenges. When you don't feel good, it becomes harder to stay resilient in the face of work-related stress.

Physical illness and pain

The body doesn’t function well under chronic stress. Near-constant anxiety can cause — or exacerbate — a number of health issues. Some stress-related ailments include migraines, heart disease, gastrointestinal upset, and sleep disturbance. Stress can also compromise immune function, making you more susceptible to illness and colds.

If you're experiencing stress-related ailments, reach out to a professional for medical advice.

Poor performance

Anxiety makes it difficult to focus, organize our time, and meet deadlines. When we don’t feel comfortable asking for help at work, it makes it harder to get support or ask clarifying questions on projects. A sudden change in an employee's performance or participation is often a warning sign of underlying anxiety.

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Should I tell my employer? 

If your anxiety is severe enough that it interferes with your ability to work, it’s considered a disability. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you are under no obligation to disclose your anxiety or any other condition to your employer. Unfortunately, while telling your employer is a personal choice, your job can’t make any accommodations for you if they don’t know what’s happening.

Many people with mental health conditions are afraid to tell their jobs out of a fear that they’ll be treated differently or fired. If this is your concern, then rest assured that the law is on your side here. It is illegal to be discriminated against or have any adverse action taken against you on the basis of your mental health. 

However, it is possible to be fired based on poor performance. That’s why it’s important to take steps to manage your work anxiety. If you’re an employer or manager, here are some ways that you can support employees with anxiety. If you’re an employee, you may be able to request these as reasonable accommodations. 

1. Tell them what failure — and success — looks like

For people with work anxiety — particularly those with impostor syndrome — there’s a constant concern that they’re underperforming or about to be fired. Provide clear metrics on how they can reassure themselves that they’re doing their job well. 

In addition, go through the process for how employees are terminated from the company. Most employers won’t just waltz in and fire you out of the blue. There’s usually a process for putting underperforming employees into a performance development plan, with termination as a last resort.

2. Offer flexible schedules

A rigid schedule or difficult work environment may add to an employee’s anxiety. If possible, allow them a flexible start time or the ability to telecommute. The wiggle room may take a significant amount of pressure off of them and allow your employees to maintain a better work-life balance.

3. Provide structure

While micromanaging increases anxiety in the workplace, providing a clear structure can help alleviate it. Many employees complain that they don’t know exactly what their manager expects from them. Give your direct reports guidelines for what you expect to see from them, how often (and in what ways) they should communicate with you, and involve them in decision making. Offer plenty of lead time for bigger projects with check-ins along the way to make sure the project is moving (people with anxiety often struggle with procrastination).

4. Offer access to resources

Provide mental health support as part of your employee benefits package. Employee assistance programs (EAPs), behavioral health coverage, and one-on-one coaching can help them develop strategies to bring anxiety under control.

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Coping with work anxiety

If you have anxiety at work, there are a few things you can do to help manage your physical symptoms and feelings of anxiety.

Consider telling your manager

Sharing your anxiety with others is always your choice. However, if it’s really affecting your performance, the benefits of telling your manager about it may outweigh your concerns. If you’re still nervous about potential retaliation, get someone from human resources involved in the conversation.

Talk about previous jobs

In the book Dying For a Paycheck, Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer details how modern management tactics often contribute to worsened employee mental health. Find a colleague, friend, or therapist that you can unpack prior jobs with. A toxic work environment or difficult boss may have left you with social anxiety or “work PTSD.” Without treatment and awareness, you can bring that trauma into your new job. 

See a therapist or coach

Managing anxiety at work often consists of two parts — dealing with the symptoms of anxiety and finding effective ways of managing your responsibilities. A therapist or coach can help you identify anxious thoughts, unhelpful patterns, and create strategies to improve your experience at work.

Take a day off 

On days where your anxiety feels overwhelming, call out of work. Anxiety is a medical condition, and therefore you can — and should — use your sick days to treat it. Take care of yourself and mental well-being. Schedule an emergency call with a therapist if you need to. Don’t forget to take care of basic needs, like sleep, water, food, and hygiene. These self-care practices, along with professional support, can be medicinal for mental health.

Bottom line

You may not be able to control or predict when anxiety symptoms flare up, and that’s ok. Much like any physical condition, anxiety can be triggered or “flare up” due to stress at work. But — like physical conditions — anxiety can also be managed. 

One of the best ways to deal with work anxiety is just accepting that it exists. When you feel anxious, you don’t need to beat yourself up or feel powerless in the face of it. You can thrive in your life, even with anxiety. And if it ever feels hopeless or too much, you can — and should — reach out for emergency support from a mental health professional. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your job is to take care of yourself.

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Published November 10, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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