Decreasing Workplace Anxiety through Leadership Development

By Jeff Dwarshuis LMSW ACSW 

The workplace is a social system and like any group it is susceptible to changes in the social climate. For example, the workplace can be impacted by the economy, traumatic national news stories and loss issues of employees. Generally this will show itself through decreased performance, more sick days, anger and making decisions based upon feelings instead of facts. Leaders and employees can change this process by recognizing the differences between acute and chronic anxiety and recognizing how their own emotional issues and past relational patterns impact their workplace communication and behavior.

Acute and Chronic Stress

There are two types of stress that impact any social system. First, Acute Anxiety is from typical stress producing events such as being understaffed, having broken equipment or experiencing workplace accidents. Chronic Anxiety however, is a long term anxiety that is caused by past organizational events and employee reactions. It is usually hidden, very difficult to detect and contagious. Chronic Anxiety has many forms. For example, it may be initiated by a traumatic event in an organization and unknowingly spread through people and across time. Examples might be an employee death, chronic illness, the loss of a CEO, and mergers. Due to anniversaries, constant reminders, communication, perceived threats and unspoken reactions, Chronic Anxiety will spread from one generation to the next. A new employee may feel anxiety on their first day of work due to an event that occurred a decade before. Chronic Anxiety may be experienced to a higher degree if the employee’s past consists of several common themes or conflicts to the traumatic past event of the organization.

Employee reactions to Chronic Anxiety

Chronic Anxiety will grow when leaders and employees begin to react to the stressful situations at work by unconsciously repeating patterns of their own youth and family. Generally these reactions fall into one of four behaviors

   A. Closeness – As an employee grows anxious he may respond with getting too close to fellow employees, managers or customers. This may be shown by private complaining, secrecy, hidden agendas and inappropriate decision making.

   B. Distance – Anxiety may cause an employee to become distant from everyone else. This may be shown by a decrease in communication with colleagues, hiding behind closed doors, leaving work early and a non-participatory attitude. The extreme form of distance is a complete cutoff.

   C. Over and Under Functioning – As an employee feels stressed he may bond unconsciously with another worker in a pattern of over/under functioning. This is shown by an uneven sharing of a workload. One becomes lazy while the other picks up the pieces. 

  D. Projection – As an employee becomes stressed he may revert to a personal defense of projection. Projection is shown by an irrational behavior shown to one person when it is actually meant for another person. It has the quality of being unfair and unreasonable. 

Change workplace anxiety through a personal action Plan

The effects of Chronic Anxiety can be reversed if leaders and employees begin to evaluate self behavior and communication. This is especially important with leaders since they have a more significant impact on the organization as a whole. Follow the suggestions below.

  1. Observe behaviors when you become stressed at work and ask yourself if these are the same behaviors done at home in adult relationships and/or when experiencing anxiety as a child.
  2. Observe your role in emotional patterns at work. Do you over or under work or become clingy or distant? Do you involve others in your conflict or feel ostracized by others who do. Identify relationships you want to change, resolve conflicts and be sure leadership is not undermined.
  3. Identify the hot button issues that increase anxiety among coworkers. Determine if the problem is within the reach of the organization for possible change. If so, decease anxiety by establishing a position based on facts instead of feelings and use appropriate forums for communicating these issues.

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