Is anxiety the last taboo?

Written by: Jack Flanagan Posted: 06/10/2017

anxietyWhile stress in the workplace is quite widely discussed, its counterpart, anxiety, is perhaps less well understood – but it’s evident that needs to change

Marc Lainé, the Managing Director of C5 Alliance in Guernsey, remembers his most stressful days with surprising fondness. “The thing is, it felt good. It was like a coffee high,” he says. “And if you were stressed, people felt you were working hard. It was like a badge of honour.”

Yet Lainé now stresses (pun intended), within his own business and at conferences, that chronic stress can be dangerous later on. In the beginning, it can be a good thing. Our body is experiencing a natural release of energy and hormones, which hypes us up for the task ahead.

This gives us that ‘coffee high’ sensation. It helps us work faster and more precisely, so we can meet tight deadlines, for example, or do a tough presentation. 

If we’re stressed for long periods, however, it can lead to chronic anxiety – or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) as it’s more properly known. The result is that our nervous system, which was previously helping by giving us that ‘second wind’, begins to fire constantly – a ‘fight or flight’ response that never gets resolved.

Each new piece of work added to the in-pile, or a single criticism, causes your body to react as if in a crisis. When you’re anxious in this sense, your entire body is running at full capacity, as much as if you were in a fist fight or fleeing a dangerous animal.

Unsurprisingly, this negatively affects productivity in the longer term, which partly drives Lainé’s advocacy. And he’s not alone – those who see his way of thinking are increasing in number. 

Nicky Jenkins, Director of Mindful Guernsey, which provides mindfulness and meditation workshops for businesses, says a major shift has taken place in the perception of the good her company can do for its corporate clients. “In 2012, when we started the company, we found not very many businesses wanted us.

However, in the last two years, that has changed considerably. Corporations now get in contact to run workshops on mindfulness and breathing. These techniques aren’t as taboo as they once were,” she says.

Despite these advances, the problem of employee anxiety is still widespread. Even though awareness of mental illness is high in society, this hasn’t yet formalised into programmes to foster more health-oriented attitudes at work. Fewer working hours, for example, like those recently adopted in Sweden, aren’t discussed in the English-speaking world. 

Yet studies show the problem of anxiety is serious. In Guernsey alone, 44 per cent of people report having at one time struggled with mental health problems, according to a survey conducted by the CIPD in May. This is higher than it was in England (31 per cent).

Cause and effect

Anxiety and stress, far from being signs of productivity, adversely affect employee output. More than half of those who have mental health problems, including those stress-induced, say they’ve taken time off work.

Managers also suffer. A 2016 Harvard Business Review study found managers tend to be more risk-averse the more anxious they are. The lack of a movement to help prevent anxiety in the office is perhaps in part because the damage it does isn’t more widely known.

Instigating a shift in the attitude towards anxiety will help kickstart such a movement. And it helps to understand how we got to where we are now. 

Lainé, who earned his senior management stripes in the 1980s, says films like Wall Street (1987) presented a new, aggressive and cocksure model for ambitious men. Although the essence of the ‘Greed is Good’ philosophy, as represented in that film, is that the profit motive makes capitalism work, it inflamed dormant puritanical instincts, which prize hard work and materialism. 

Meanwhile, it undervalued the strain that work puts on our minds and bodies. Businesses will have to move away from this attitude if they’re interested in long-term productivity (or humanitarianism).

That’s perhaps the long-term goal. In the short term, there are a number of things businesses can do to help their employees prevent anxiety, or deal with it when it arises.

Julie Dryburgh believes that our need to express ourselves is underserved in today’s workaday world. She runs a business under her own name, which provides a holistic approach to healing the effects of stress. Expressiveness, she maintains, can be key to recovering from stresses such as workplace grievances, which can lead to health problems later on. 

“It’s important as part of my practice to just listen – whatever they want to talk about, we talk about,” she says. As such, Dryburgh says managers must make it clear to employees how they should address interpersonal problems in the office, and who they can report to.

Recognising the signs of anxiety can also help stem more serious illness down the line. Employees who take more time off work, act short tempered or make out-of-character errors may be at risk. Marc Lainé says that, from his own experience, employees will become less social and more pessimistic. 

Furthermore, employees who consistently work late are at risk, and employers should advise them accordingly. “I don’t tell anyone to ‘go home’. Usually they will have a good reason to need to work late. 

But I’ll tell them to come in later the next day, and help offset the stress they accrued that night,” Lainé says.

Corporate shift

Companies may also hire firms like Dryburgh’s to provide employees with foundational skills to cope with their own anxiety. Dryburgh’s company, for example, employs a holistic approach to wellness: from being given a platform simply to express yourself, to what you eat and how to satisfactorily resolve interpersonal issues.

Others, such as Jenkins’ Mindful Guernsey, tailor programmes specifically to mesh with the aims of businesses.

Importantly, it should be appreciated that stress can only be limited, not avoidable, says Jenkins. Her clientele, who include overworked bosses, often ask for her to ‘treat’ their anxiety as soon as possible – but it doesn’t work that way. 

“People like to think that we ‘tackle’ these sorts of things, or that we ‘sort them out’,” says Jenkins. “People think they need to fight anxiety with breathing sessions and meditation. Well, they can’t. It’s much more important to develop a real sense of what wellbeing is and to practise that.” 

Lainé concurs: “There will always be stress. Corporate law, for example, isn’t a walk in the park. It’s important, however, to be able to counterbalance the stress, with physical activity, for instance.”

Finally, a boss who’s open about their own struggles can often encourage others to face up to their problems. “I think having a boss that’s had similar issues de-stigmatises and normalises it, so it’s not so embarrassing,” Lainé says. 

Joanne Lowes, a Senior Human Resources Officer at Mourant Ozannes, cites stigma as a major factor that stops people addressing their anxiety problems. “Part of the effect of stigma is that people tend to bottle things up in the hope that no one will notice,” she says. “Or they’ll ignore the emotional signs that something’s wrong because they’re worried what will happen if they admit it to themselves and others”. 

Having a senior person set the tone on the business’s approach to anxiety can make a world of difference. Business leaders should ensure that a clear and practical approach is in place to tackle anxiety in the workplace – both for their own good and that of their employees. The cost in time and money may be great, but greater still is the cost that comes from having chronically tired, frantically overworked staff. 

In that way, businesses can ensure that they have a happier, more productive workforce – without the social cost of 1980s-style greed.

GETTING HELP

Five ways employers can help employees with anxiety:
• Know the signs of anxiety
• Invest in well-reviewed wellness workshops and make their purpose plain to employees
• Provide simple and practical advice to employees on managing themselves at work
• Make it clear where employees can go to report concerns, either work-related or personal 
• Remember that both senior as well as junior employees can suffer from burnout

Five steps employees should take if they’re feeling anxious:
• Look at lifestyle first – what do you eat and drink, how much exercise do you get?
• Counterbalance stressors with strategies to help you de-stress – for example, holidays or sports
• Acknowledge your personal limits
• Voice concerns and express yourself through appropriate channels
• Chill out – learn to relax and stop your mind from whirring

 


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