• Leah Norman

Managing an anxious employee

On average, one in four people – one in three women and one in five men – will experience anxiety at some stage in their life. So chances are, you, at some stage may need to support an employee with anxiety. The good news is, it's not as difficult as you may think.


The actual feeling of anxiety is a very human thing. It’s part of our biological make-up. We all experience it from time to time. Living with anxiety is much more than simply feeling concerned or stressed. Anxiety is a natural response to stress or danger. It’s caused by a rush of adrenaline being pumped through your body to prepare you to deal with a potential threat. It’s what makes us feel fear and is what causes us react with either ‘fight or flight’ - a key part of basic human survival.


However, anxiety disorders can develop when this response is blown out of proportion. Panicking when really there is nothing to panic about. Sometimes, the feeling of anxiety can become so overwhelming that it can lead to what’s known as an anxiety attack.


As with most medical conditions, there isn’t one sole cause. There is a whole host of factors that can trigger it – and sometimes it can develop for what seems like no reason at all. The common everyday causes include trauma, stress, relationship or family problems and alcohol or drug abuse. Health problems such as thyroid problems, biochemical changes (e.g. serotonin) or genetic predispositions can also play a part.


A lot of these triggers are often beyond a person’s control, making it difficult to stop anxiety in its tracks. But, there are a number of work-related causes that you need to watch out for, too – which is hardly surprising as we typically spend 90,000 hours of our lifetime at work (ouch).


As an employer, you already know that it is in your best interests to care for your employees, to look out for those cues that somebody might not be coping well or feeling stressed, making an effort to notice any slight changes in the individual and if their performance has changed. Not only that, but it is becoming increasingly crucial you know how to support your people should they be suffering from an anxiety, or other related, disorder. But, unless you’ve experienced these issues first hand it can be incredibly difficult to understand the condition, let alone know how to give them the right support.


In order to be fully prepared to support your employees, first make sure you’ve established a positive, thriving culture that puts employee wellbeing first (and nothing less). A culture that supports mental health will not only determine how comfortable an employee feels about opening up with you about their struggles – but could prevent them from ever suffering in the first place if the cause is work-related.


There are a number of behaviours that can indicate that an employee could be suffering from anxiety. You should keep an eye out for these – identifying it early will allow you to have a conversation sooner and get cracking with an action plan. Spotting the issue is the first step to getting your employee back to their usual self, re-integrated into their team and producing the work you know they’re capable of.


Things to watch out for include:

  • Increased sick leave

  • Drop in performance

  • Struggling to make decisions

  • Changes in eating habits

  • Excessive smoking/drinking

In some cases an employee's level of interactions might have changed or they might be contributing less and you can identify that something isn’t right, but you can’t pinpoint exactly what that is. That is the time to just step in and inquire ‘how are you?’ and ‘is everything alright?’ In other words, it’s about asking those open-ended questions and acknowledging that it is a difficult time. Research indicates that if you show genuine interest in a person, they are much more likely to feel safe to open up and say, ‘actually I am finding it hard at the moment’.


As an employer, this can sometimes be a difficult conversation to initiate. You may not want to hear that your employee is struggling, in any area of their life either personal or professional, as you may worry that you are unable to 'fix it'.


The important thing to note here is that it is not your position to fix it. It’s about recognising it and then guiding them to seek the help that they need from a health professional. It is about acknowledging that you have noticed that somebody is feeling anxious and saying ‘I’m sorry, it must be very hard’. 'Thank you for doing so well at the moment.'


From there the next step is regularly checking in with the employee. You don’t have to check-in with them every five minutes. But just ask every now and then: Are things improving? Are things getting worse? Have you sort any help anywhere else? Is there anything else I can do to support you? It is amazing how much better individuals feel just knowing somebody has heard and cared. Just having that level of support will give them the confidence.


If you’re to take away one thing from this blog post, make sure it’s this;

Communicating is key if you’re wanting to help your employee get better.

When you become aware of the issue, put some time aside to have a chat with them in a private space to try and understand more. Try to get an idea of what triggers their anxiety and what kind of support they might need. Offer to work with them and their medical professional if they would like. Reassure them that you’re there to help and support them. It is important you don’t make assumptions here and that you promise absolute confidentiality.


These honest conversations will give you the means to create an action plan together and decide what the best step(s) forward might be.


Further tips to help employees with anxiety, or an anxiety-related disorder include:

  • provide information about mental health and other support services available to your employees

  • maintain regular communication with your employees and when working remotely encouraging employees to stay in contact with each other

  • offer your employees flexibility, such as with their work hours, where possible

  • make sure employees are effectively disengaging from their work and logging off at the end of the day

  • inform employees about their entitlements if they become unfit for work or have caring responsibilities

  • provide employees with a point of contact or EAP service to discuss their concerns and to find workplace information in a central place

If you have the resource, I would also suggest looking into mental health training/awareness sessions. This trainings, often provided by mental health experts, will provide you with the tools you need to tackle stigma in the workplace and educate you about mental health – both incredibly important when it comes to supporting an employee with anxiety.


Disclaimer This article, and any information contained on our website is necessarily brief and general in nature, and should not be substituted for professional advice. You should always seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters addressed.