4 ways to manage anxiety in the workplace

Aug 31, 2023 | Development, Home Featured, How-to

There are exercises that can help early talent manage anxiety so they can flourish in their transition to work and beyond, explains Alice Hooper-Scott, head of The School of Life for Business.


Though we have moved on in leaps and bounds when it comes to addressing wellbeing in the workplace, stress, burnout and anxiety levels continue to rise.

What’s more, there is reason to believe that workplace anxiety is becoming an ever-greater problem. Last year, according to data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 17 million workdays were lost to stress-related absence.

Given that wellbeing enhances nearly every single measure we want to see move up – productivity, retention, engagement and employee NPS to name but a few – this is gloomy news indeed.

Of course, we will never be wholly free from anxiety; it is hardwired into our DNA. But some anxiety is more detrimental than others, and when we are triggered into feeling anxious, everything is a threat, and we see bears everywhere – infusing every moment with panic and dread.

The kids aren’t alright

Anxiety affects us all, but research has shown that it is felt particularly keenly by the young.

A recent survey by Opinium and The Mental Health Foundation, revealed that 94% of 18–24-year-olds reported feeling anxious in the past two weeks, while 47% felt that their anxiety stopped them doing what they like or need to do.

The typical stresses associated with entering the workforce – losing one’s autonomy, learning new skills and having to prove one’s worth – have been compounded by their experience of the pandemic.

Their education was interrupted; many lived through lockdown in shared accommodation. They are much more likely than their older peers to have been made redundant, and to have their employment options severely restricted.

When it comes to managing anxiety at work, the main barrier young people face is a lack of skills. Here, we’re not talking about practical or professional skills. We mean emotional and behavioural skills; the skills that allow them to process and regulate their emotions and responses, to navigate the interpersonal and psychological dynamics of the workplace

With that, we have set out four exercises to support individuals, teams and organisations to manage anxiety, thereby enhancing wellbeing and performance at work, especially for early career talent.

4 ways to manage anxiety in the workplace

1. How to fail

Perfectionism is the unreasonable and self-defeating ambition of getting something absolutely right, which makes us difficult to be around and punishing to live within.

Learning how to school the inner critic and accepting the notion of good imperfection, can lead to a more innovative, creative and fulfilling approach to work.
So, how would we do things differently if we were to plan how to fail? In this reflective exercise, imagine a task that you completed this week. Now, imagine how you would have thought, felt and acted differently if you had set out to fail. Can you approach future tasks with the same mindset?

2. The rule of 5

Psychologists have a handy rule of thumb to alert us to the disproportionate side of our responses: if we experience anxiety or anger above a five out of ten, they tell us, our response is likely to be fuelled not by the issue before us, but by a past we’re overlooking.

In other words, we have to believe (contrary to our feelings) that the alarm won’t be what it seems to be about.

Think of what triggers you and causes anxiety. Is it being late for an event or presenting at a meeting? What might sit behind this fear? Does it remind you of someone or something? Can you predict when this response might happen again? How might you counter it?

3. Appreciation exercise

Appreciation has significant benefits for the recipient and the giver. In fact, studies show it can lead to a 10% increase in happiness and 35% reduction in stress at work. Appreciation is key to improving interpersonal relationships and team dynamics.

In this reflective exercise, consider how you might promote an enhanced culture of appreciation in your ECT team. Consider through the following lenses:

● Individuals: How might individuals be inspired to give more praise and recognition?
● Team: How might appreciation show up within your team environment?
● Organisation: As leaders, how can you embed a culture of appreciation? How might your employees experience this?

4. Improving clarity

Recognition and progression have a significant correlation with our wellbeing at work, leading ultimately to increased productivity and profit-making for organisations. Conversely, a lack of clarity and structure in this area can lead to anxiety, and cause dips in retention.

What might you do to improve the clarity of progression and reward for ECT in your organisation? How might you measure success in this area?

The School of Life discussed this important topic at this year’s ISE Student Development Conference. Read more content from ISE events.

You may also be interested in…

How to design work for good mental health

Handbook launches to help employers support early talent to flourish

Why small habit changes can lead to big wellbeing results

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