Guide to anxiety in the workplace for HR
We have been working with mental health charity Mind on a series of articles exploring mental health in the workplace. Take a look at the full content series today to get insight and advice on how to improve mental wellbeing throughout your organisation.
Right now, one in six workers is experiencing stress, anxiety or depression.
That’s a big chunk of your workforce who may not be performing at their best, so it’s vital that managers are equipped with the skills they need to support all staff, including those who are experiencing a mental health problem.
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Statistics suggest anxiety is more common than depression, with 2.3 in 100 people experiencing depression, 4.4 in 100 experiencing anxiety, and 9 in 100 experiencing mixed anxiety and depression (The Health & Social Care Information Centre, 2009, Adult psychiatric morbidity in England).
When anxiety and depression occur together, this is often described as ‘mixed anxiety-depressive disorder’, the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem.
Various conditions come under the heading of ‘anxiety’ such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and panic disorder (characterised by panic attacks); which helps explain why anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health problems.
Given how many people experience anxiety and depression in the UK, these are issues all HR departments need to consider and address, regardless of the organisation’s size.
Managing an employee who is experiencing anxiety should be handled in the same way as managing any other member of staff, whether they have a mental health problem or not.
After all, we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. We are on a spectrum and our mood can change not just from one day to the next, but several times within a day.
A three-pronged strategy
We recommend a three-pronged strategy for managing mental health in the workplace effectively. Such a strategy needs to promote wellbeing for all staff, tackle the causes of work-related mental ill health and support staff who are experiencing mental health problems.
It’s important that all staff feel comfortable discussing their mental health, whether they have a diagnosed mental health problem or not.
Many employees still don’t feel comfortable talking about their own mental health.
In addition to an employer’s legal duty to make reasonable adjustments and their duty of care to an employee in terms of health and wellbeing, organisations which prioritise staff wellbeing out a message to employees that they treat people well.
This approach should not be underestimated – a recent survey by Mind found that three in five people said that if their employer took action to support the mental wellbeing of all staff, they would feel more loyal, motivated, committed and be likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work.
So it’s clear that making small changes reap big rewards in terms of employee loyalty and productivity.
Anxiety disorders are fluctuating conditions and less visible than physical health problems, but just because someone looks well doesn’t necessarily mean they’re alright.
If someone has come to you to speak about their own mental health this allows you to jointly identify support measures to put in place.
However, many employees still don’t feel comfortable talking about their own mental health, particularly if the culture of the organisation is not one of openness and honesty, so it’s vital managers check in with colleagues, and this can be as simple as asking how they are.
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People experiencing anxiety disorders may benefit from tailored, additional support.
Staff experiencing anxiety may react differently to stress – stress could cause their anxiety to get worse, or it could be that people who have a diagnosed anxiety disorder are more susceptible to becoming stressed.
If a member of staff has disclosed that they have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, it’s important to check with them whether they need any additional support and what that support might look like.
Developing a tailored action plan is a great way of managers and employers jointly drawing up a list of potential triggers, as well as the measures that can be put in place to manage the impact.
A practical, real-world example
One individual experiencing anxiety told us how she needed reassurance from her boss, for example, by her boss acknowledging her work, by saying ‘thank you’, and greeting her in the morning.
If her manager did not do and say these things she worried she’d done something wrong. These quick and simple changes helped her stay well and strive within her role.
Similarly, many people who are experiencing stress or anxiety may prefer to take more regular breaks. Instead of taking one hour for lunch, they could take 3 20-minute breaks throughout the day, allowing them to time out when they are feeling under pressure.
For employees experiencing anxiety, stress and other mental health problems it’s key to highlight the support services available.
Many people who are experiencing stress or anxiety may prefer to take more regular breaks.
Even if a member if staff isn’t yet ready to talk to their manager, by creating an open and honest culture, this should facilitate these conversations. Employees might feel more comfortable speaking to someone other than their line manager.
That’s why peer-to-peer support and buddy teams can be really useful, particularly for smaller organisations who perhaps don’t offer Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or Occupational Health.
Prioritisation and workload
People experiencing an anxiety disorder may find it harder to make decisions and prioritise their workloads when under pressure.
As such they may need extra support with managing tasks and identifying which tasks are most urgent. Regular one-to-one catch ups between manager and member of staff create a vital space for employees to address these issues, ideally in a neutral space.
Other adjustments employers could consider include offering flexible hours, a change of workspace, the option of working from home sometimes, provision of quiet rooms and agreement to give a member of staff leave at short notice and time off for appointments such as counselling and therapy. Once measures or adjustments have been agreed, it is useful to arrange a time to mutually review how they’re working and whether they need to be tweaked.
A natural desire to do nothing?
Managers might be concerned that they will say or do something wrong when managing someone with anxiety, and as a result could become reticent to discuss these issues.
But doing nothing is likely to make things worse. Management style is also important – micromanaging or taking away all challenging and meaningful work responsibilities from someone is often counter-productive.
It is unhelpful if a manager is too distant with little input or guidance.
Having responsibilities reduced or removed can exacerbate anxiety and self-esteem issues, and leave staff feeling that their abilities are no longer trusted, which can often result in a loss of motivation.
Equally, it is unhelpful if a manager is too distant with little input or guidance. Whilst it can be difficult to get the balance right, the best way to find out is by checking with the member of staff and adjusting support accordingly.
Finally, remember that people with mental health problems can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace, so focus on what employees can do, as well as helping them manage those things they struggle with.
Everyone has good days and bad days and prioritising wellbeing is not just about retaining valuable members of staff but creating a culture where people feel comfortable talking about their wellbeing.
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Emma Mamo is Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind. Emma joined Mind in 2007 and, since 2010, has led Mind’s campaigning for mentally healthy workplaces - playing a pivotal role in thought leadership to position mental health in the workplace as a key priority for employers and Government.
Emma has led culture change through engagement with...