Understanding the Theory of Workplace Anxiety

A new poll by the American Psychiatric Association finds that almost 40 percent of Americans report being more anxious than they were this time last year. Roughly 40 million American adults, or 18 percent of the population, suffer from an anxiety disorder.

Widespread anxiety is hardly unique to 2018–a story in the New York Times last year titled “Prozac Nation is Now the United States of Xanax” featured this quote from Sarah Fader, a social-media consultant in her 30s: “If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious, there’s something wrong with you.”

We may indeed be living in the age of anxiety, but what can HR do to ensure that employees aren’t incapacitated by it?

A number of options exist, but one of the more intriguing ones is this: Help them see their anxiety as a fuel for enhanced performance, rather than a drag on it.

In certain situations, anxiety can boost performance by helping employees stay focused and self-regulate their behavior, says Bonnie Cheng, co-author of a new study on anxiety and an assistant professor of organizational behavior and leadership at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Basing their analysis on decades of previous research on the condition, Cheng and her colleague, University of Toronto Professor Julie McCarthy, have developed a “theory of workplace anxiety” that highlights the processes and conditions in which workplace anxiety can either undermine job performance or enhance it. Their study, “Understanding the Dark and Bright Sides of Anxiety,” has been published in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

In certain situations, says Cheng, anxiety can boost performance by enhancing concentration and motivation. Employees who can recognize their feelings of anxiety and use it to regulate their performance are less likely to suffer negative effects from it, she says.

The study outlines many of the triggers for workplace anxiety. Jobs that require lots of so-called “emotional labor”–constant smiling or, conversely, regular suppression of one’s emotions–are prominent examples, says Cheng.

“Emotional labor refers to the requirement that no matter what kind of day you may be having, you must greet every customer with a smile or–if you’re a police or border patrol officer, for example–you maintain a neutral or serious expression throughout the course of your work,” she says. “It’s really emotionally taxing on people.”

Control over one’s work is another important factor, she says.

So what can HR do with this theory of workplace anxiety–how can they ensure that employees are able to harness their anxiety rather than be wrecked by it?

Strategies include training to help boost self-confidence, ensuring that employees are receiving the necessary support for completing their tasks and providing emotional-intelligence training to managers, says Cheng.

Another approach is training for “self regulation,” she says, or the ability to recognize the symptoms of anxiety and channel them in a positive direction.

“Sometimes people try to repress anxiety, but often it’s more about recognizing and embracing it,” says Cheng. “From an organizational perspective, things like office politics, not letting employees have enough control over their work, too-frequent changes without sufficient communication–all that is going to trigger anxiety.”

Stress at Work

As a young entrepreneur, Jonah Sachs watched the innovative social-advertising agency he cofounded rapidly expand from several employees to dozens. The faster the company (called Free Range Studios) grew, the more Sachs found himself rushing to “put in place rules and procedures” and hire people who he believed fit the organization’s culture and would connect well with other employees. He grew increasingly concerned, however, that the company was turning into a rules-bound “monoculture” that would lose the nimbleness and creativity that had helped propel it to success.

“A lot of the things we were doing was trying to allay anxiety by trying to make things convenient and predictable, but anxiety can actually be a fuel for creativity,” says Sachs, the author of a new book, Unsafe Thinking: How to Be Nimble & Bold When You Need It Most.

Sachs says that after talking to experts and “reading everything I could about how to get out of a creative rut,” he changed his approach to running the company. “We looked at written and unwritten rules and cut them by 75 percent.”

He also changed his approach to hiring people. “We brought people into the agency who made us uncomfortable,” says Sachs, prioritizing candidates who brought a variety of experiences and backgrounds with them over those who seemed like a nice cultural fit.

Since then, the company has thrived, says Sachs.

He does not endorse anxiety for anxiety’s sake, of course–too much stress at work simply leads people to shut down, says Sachs. Instead, he suggests that HR leaders advocate for incentive programs that allow for a certain amount of failure and creative risk-taking and encourage teams to include people with diverse views.

“You don’t want a work environment that’s hostile, but you do want one that’s confrontational with ideas,” says Sachs. “Use gamifying methods such as ‘red teams,’ where you role-play these contrary positions so people can sharpen their ideas without feeling as if they’re being attacked.”

Above all, he says, HR should “view cognitive diversity as a strength.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.