A Guide to Supporting Employees with Anxiety

4th March 2024
 minute read

Table of contents


Anxiety is a significant concern in the contemporary workplace. When an employee is dealing with this issue, it can impact their performance, productivity and working relationships, as well as their wellbeing. It can also affect overall team morale. That is why it is essential for leaders and HR professionals to  understand the workplace factors that can lead to anxiety. It is also crucial to be able to recognise the different types of anxiety, make any reasonable adjustments that employees need, and create a workplace culture that supports recovery. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response to perceived or actual danger. It is a signal to our bodies to prepare for a potential threat, which can be physical or social. This can arise from actual events or situations that trigger fear or concern, such as believing someone is going to harm us.

Certain thinking patterns, for example, a tendency to catastrophise or a belief that we know what others are thinking, can make people more prone to experiencing high levels of anxiety. Past experiences can also sensitise individuals to be on the lookout for danger, making it more likely that an anxiety response will be triggered. For example, traumatic experiences can heighten one’s sensitivity to cues that signal threat, even if the threat isn’t present.

Understanding anxiety diagnoses

Anxiety is a normal emotion experienced by everyone at various points in their lives, often as a reaction to real or perceived threats, or stress. It's not always pleasant or comfortable but it is a natural part of the human experience. When we have a stressful experience — such as presenting in a big meeting or doing something new — we might experience anxiety. But usually, it goes away once the event is over.

However, if the anxiety doesn’t reduce or it’s something that someone feels constantly, then this can cause problems. For some people, anxiety can be more intense, frequent or overwhelming, which may lead them to develop unhelpful ways of trying to avoid or cope with it. This might then result in a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder by a psychiatrist. These are considered mental health conditions and might include:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Widespread anxiety about various situations or activities.
  • Panic Disorder: Characterised by sudden, intense episodes of panic or fear.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder: Extreme fear of being judged or negatively evaluated in social situations.
  • Specific Phobias: Intense fear triggered by specific objects or scenarios.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Anxiety triggered by unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviours or mental acts (compulsions).
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Severe anxiety and a sense of danger triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is a variation of this that arises from prolonged exposure to stressful conditions, usually in childhood.

Some people experience high levels of anxiety but have not been formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. However, they may still be struggling and require additional support. Acknowledging that anxiety varies in intensity and impact is crucial for appropriate support and intervention.

Recognising signs of anxiety

Anxiety can show up in many forms and affect individuals differently. Some signs to look out for might be:

  • Persistent worry: Excessive concern about work tasks, deadlines or personal issues that seems disproportionate to the situation.
  • Perfectionism: An excessive drive to complete tasks perfectly, often at the expense of personal wellbeing.
  • Rigidity and over-reliance on routines: An overwhelming need to stick to routines or ways of doing things, or showing distress over changes.
  • Avoidance behaviours: Avoiding tasks, meetings or social interactions due to fear. For social anxiety, this would extend beyond shyness. 
  • Physical symptoms: Reports of frequent headaches, muscle tension, or other aches without a clear physical cause.
  • Performance changes: Notable shifts in work quality, difficulty concentrating, or inconsistency in meeting deadlines.
  • Emotional fluctuations: Heightened irritability, mood swings, or a noticeable withdrawal from social interactions.

Being aware of these signs is the first step in providing timely and empathetic support to those in need.

What can cause anxiety in the workplace?

As well as internal factors, there are several workplace factors that can contribute to increased anxiety among employees, including:

  • High workload and tight deadlines: Excessive demands on time and high expectations can overwhelm employees, leading to stress and anxiety.
  • Unclear job expectations: Lack of clarity about job roles, performance criteria, and expectations can create a sense of uncertainty and insecurity.
  • Lack of support: Feeling unsupported by managers or colleagues can leave employees feeling isolated and anxious about their ability to perform their roles effectively.
  • Workplace conflict: Interpersonal conflicts, whether with colleagues or superiors, can be a significant source of stress and anxiety.
  • Change and uncertainty: Organisational changes, job insecurity, or uncertainty about the future can trigger anxiety, particularly for those who find uncertainty challenging.
  • Work-life balance issues: Difficulty in balancing work responsibilities with personal life can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, contributing to anxiety.
  • Performance pressure: Intense pressure to perform or achieve certain metrics can cause stress, especially if employees fear negative evaluations or consequences for failing to meet expectations.
  • Lack of autonomy: Limited control over work processes or decision-making can lead to feelings of helplessness or decreased job satisfaction, increasing anxiety levels.

Supporting employees with anxiety

In supporting employees with anxiety, it’s vital to recognise that uncertainty can be particularly challenging. Individuals with anxiety may catastrophise outcomes, be overly critical of themselves for mistakes, and be more sensitive to criticism from others. Managers can mitigate these challenges by:

  • Providing clear expectations: Reduce uncertainty by clearly outlining roles, expectations, and goals.
  • Offering reassurance: Provide positive feedback and reassurance, especially after setbacks or mistakes.
  • Cultivating a supportive environment: Encourage an open dialogue about challenges, as well as fostering a team culture of support and understanding.
  • Facilitating access to resources: Guide employees towards support services, such as counselling or therapy, and accommodate the need for therapy sessions.
  • Open communication: Create an environment where employees feel safe to express feeling anxious without fear of judgement or repercussions.
  • Workload management: Assist in prioritising tasks and setting realistic deadlines to alleviate overwhelming pressure.
  • Encourage breaks: Promote regular breaks and a healthy work-life balance to prevent burnout.
  • Reduce uncertainty: Where possible, let people know what meetings will be about and provide information about upcoming changes to prepare people.
  • Regular check-ins: Reach out to employees who experience anxiety to see how they’re doing, rather than waiting for them to let you know that they’re struggling.

Reasonable adjustments for employees with anxiety

Employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for employees with mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders. These adjustments are not just about legal compliance — they’re about creating an inclusive workplace where every employee can thrive. Considerations might include:

  • Workspace modifications: Tailoring the work environment to reduce stress triggers, such as offering a quieter workspace or allowing personalisation of work areas.
  • Flexible working arrangements: Allowing for varied start times, remote work options, or flexible scheduling to accommodate therapy sessions or reduce commute-related stress.
  • Task adjustments: Modifying job duties that cause undue stress, while maintaining the integrity of the job’s essential functions.
  • Support with time management and organisation: Providing tools or training to enhance organisation, reduce stress, and manage workload effectively.

Therapeutic interventions

There are various psychological therapies that can help to reduce anxiety and make it feel more manageable. Lumo therapists offer a number of therapeutic approaches that have been proven to be beneficial for individuals experiencing anxiety, including:

Supporting employees with anxiety

There are many elements to supporting employees with anxiety. These include recognising the signs, understanding the complexities of anxiety disorders, and implementing supportive and accommodating workplace practices. By acknowledging the challenges faced by individuals with anxiety and making concerted efforts to support them, HR professionals and managers can foster a more inclusive, productive, and healthy workplace.

Remember, the goal is to empower employees to manage their anxiety effectively, not to diagnose or treat it. Through empathy, understanding, and appropriate support, we can create a workplace where employees feel supported in managing anxiety. This can lead to a more engaged, motivated and satisfied workforce.

A Guide to Supporting Employees with Anxiety
You may also like
No items found.

Boost your teams’ mental wellbeing today

Ready to find out more? Let’s talk