40% of America’s employees experience persistent stress or excessive anxiety in their daily lives. 72% of them says it interferes with their lives and performance. Globally, anxiety is the sixth-leading cause of disability (and growing).
I’ve seen this trend growing firsthand. When facilitating team development workshops, anxiety has made it at the top of the list — it’s the most pressing emotion people want to get rid of.
However, anxiety is not an emotion but an experience — it harms our ability to be in control making us feel paralyzed. Anxiety clouds our judgment — it’s a disorienting experience when facing a threat we can’t understand. On the contrary, fear is an emotional response to a danger that we are aware of.
Stress and fear can be either positive or negative — you can turn them into fuel. However, there’s no such a thing as positive anxiety. That’s why it needs to be confronted if we want to neutralize it.
Taking a toll on productivity
Productivity is not just about doing more things in less time; it’s also about doing the right things right.
Anxiety doesn’t just affect performance; it hurts engagement and passion — it’s hard to enjoy your job if you are not present.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, it’s taking a toll on the ‘anxious’ individual and beyond. It affects:
- Workplace performance (56%)
- Relationships with coworkers and peers (51%)
- Quality of work (50%)
- Relationships with superiors (43%)
Anxiety is emotional anticipation — it’s the thought of something going wrong in the future. Health professionals use the term “anxiety” to describe a persistent fear or a chronic sense of worry, the sources of which seem unclear.
The problem is that most organizations don’t encourage people to address anxiety. More than 60% of employees suffering from it have NOT discussed it with their bosses.
Avoiding the conversation makes things worse.
Drivers of anxiety
Anxiety is not caused by one, but multiple reasons. That’s what makes it harder to fight. Here are the most frequent causes I hear when coaching teams.
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1. Lack of executive presence –– Engaging with the “here and now” is one of the two most significant trends in leadership development. Unfortunately, senior managers have a hard time being present. Executives’ difficulty to focus on the here and now hurts their ability to really listen to and understand what’s going on with their teams. The distracted mindset of team leaders makes people more anxious.
2. Unsafe culture — People don’t address anxiety issues because they fear their boss would retaliate. They are afraid they would interpret it as a lack of commitment, label them as weak, or laugh at them. The lack of a safe culture doesn’t promote open conversations — it creates more anxiety too.
3. Ongoing speculations — Lack of transparency fuels rumor and speculation. Our brain likes certainty over waiting — when we don’t know something, it tends to fill the void with hypotheses. That’s the problem when organizations lack clear and ongoing communication — speculations make people more worried.
4. Personal anxiety — Organizations hire professionals, but people have personalities too. They bring their anxious-self to the workplace every day. Very few companies are aware of which employees suffer from this chronic condition. Or, even worse, how they can help them.
5. Modern distractions — Social media, technology notifications, back-to-back meetings, email, you name it. When external stimuli are driving our focus and priorities, it’s hard not to become anxious. Rather than thinking on what’s going on now, our mind wanders to what’s coming up next.
Dismantling the anxiety bomb
This productivity killer won’t go away . Iignoring it can make things worse. You have to act before it explodes. Like wildfires, anxiety can quickly get out of control. Here are some ways to get you started. Remember, negative behaviors take time to build. Neutralizing anxiety takes time and consistency. There are no shortcuts here.
1. Increase awareness
- Notice anxiety: Every time you feel anxious, ask yourself why? Write it down on Post-Its. Keep them in front of your working space. From time to time observe the narrative. What’s the story? What are the recurring themes, moments or stimuli that are driving your anxiety?
- Notice your breath: Anxiety shortens our breath. It can be subtle or too evident, depending on how much it affects you. Either way, becoming more aware of your breath is a powerful first step to recover control of your mental health.
- Play with your visual focus: Stress and anxiety affect your vision. On the other hand, playing with your visual focus can help you relax. When you are feeling anxious, try to close your eyes slightly. By changing your perspective, you emotionally detach from an event and relax your mind. Similarly, completely closing your eyes drives more focus — shutting our eyes frees up brain power and increases memory and attention.
- Improve your breathing: To move from noticing to actually increasing your breathing cycle, you have to lengthen the breath in and out time. The 4–7–8 technique is one of the most common ones. Learn how to practice it (and other breathing methods) here.
- Stretch your body: Pain is a signal. Notice the parts of your body that are tense due to your stress or anxiety. When you in a meeting you can stretch your neck or legs without bothering anyone and still be present in the meeting. Body awareness is an effective way to regain control of your mind.
- No phone rule: Silencing our devices is not enough. Most people leave visual notifications on and get distracted during meetings. Having a phone box is an easy way for people to put their devices away and focus their attention.
- Declutter your working space: Make a regular practice of cleaning your desk, inbox or calendar from time to time. Decluttering removes more than distractions and anxiety — there’s nothing more energizing that throwing ‘stuff’ away.
- Have a break: Your brain, just like your body, needs to pause from time to time. Formal breaks can help you recharge, relax, prepare for what’s next or have some time to reflect and think. Block your calendar to protect your personal pause.
- Alternate your body position: Sitting is not the new smoking; standing still is. The solution is not standing up or sitting or walking all the time. The answer is finding balance — you need a little bit of each. Switch your body position throughout your working day.
- Take it easy: If your job throws you lemons, smile back. Don’t take yourself or your job too seriously. Humor is the most effective tool to decompress and let go off steam.
3. Try new behaviors
- Walking meetings: Going out for a walk to discuss a pressing issue or get someone else’s feedback is more energizing than being in a conference room. Walking meetings are calmer, provide perspective, and eliminate the usual distractions. Learn more here.
- Check-in rounds: Understanding what’s got your team’s attention at the beginning of a meeting helps to let go of anxiety and drives focus too. Read more about how to incorporate check-in rounds.
- Meditate: Meditation is an effective way of calming your mind. However, it’s harder than most people think — that’s why most people quit. It requires much more than an app to remind you about meditation. I recommend finding a meditation group or instructor to get you familiarized with the technique. Practice with someone else before flying solo.
- Anxiety parties: Google Ventures has meetings to discuss people’s tensions to alleviate both individual and collective anxiety. It includes capturing everyone’s biggest anxious questions in private, ranking them in order of severity, and then finding common threads. The most significant realization is that most of the times, anxieties are baseless.
- Shorten your meetings: Being overbooked or double-booked fuels more anxiety. Everyone can benefit from having fewer or shorter meetings. Learn more about the ‘prune and grow’ approach to cut down our addiction to meetings.
- Remove unnecessary tasks: Trying to do more than it’s possible, drives frustration and anxiety. Remove meaningless tasks that add not value — let your team decide the meaningless activities they want to remove. This exercise will help free up everyone’s calendars so that they can focus on things that matter.
The above suggestions will help you get started. Experiment and see what works better for you and your team.