6 ways HR and People teams can support their workforce with anxiety

John McNamara
Last updated on 28th July 2020
4 min read

40 million adults in the US have an anxiety disorder, making it the most common type of mental illness.

Unfortunately, anxiety can affect and be exacerbated by many aspects of life including work, effecting productivity. The World Health Organization, believe anxiety along with depression is estimated to cost the global economy around $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

Combatting anxiety at work isn’t just the right thing to do but it can help to reduce loss of productivity, alongside increasing employee retention and the overall employee experience.

During this unprecedented time of change and uncertainty, employees may be experiencing increased levels of anxiety, making the need to tackle anxiety at work even more important.

So how can you and your HR and People team best support employees when it comes to anxiety?

What is anxiety at work?

It’s very hard to support someone with anxiety if you don’t know the signs.

The important thing to remember is most of us feel anxious from time to time, so we should be familiar with symptoms like these:

  • A ‘sinking feeling’ in the stomach
  • Behavior changes, such as becoming quiet or ‘snapping’ at colleagues
  • Physical reactions such as trembling and headaches
  • Emotional changes

However, most of the time we are able to move past anxiety and go back to feeling normal.

It’s when the problem is ongoing that a person is at risk of an anxiety disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18% of the population experience an anxiety disorder every year.

Here’s six things to consider when it comes to supporting your people with anxiety.

1. Learn to identify and reach out

Could you spot someone suffering with anxiety?

Mind, a mental health charity, recommends that employers routinely ask staff how they’re doing and discuss their mental health. This, they say, can help employees to develop confidence so that they start to speak up earlier and get the help they need sooner.

They suggest steps for employers who are approaching staff they believe may be suffering from a mental health issue such as anxiety including:

  • Choose an appropriate, quiet place to have a conversation
  • Listen, and respond flexibly, reassuring them that you’ll do whatever you can
  • Develop an action plan (perhaps using some of the tips below)
  • Reassure, reassure, reassure

2. Implement flexible working

Over a third of flexible workers have experienced an improvement in their mental health since starting to work flexibly, a survey found.

While many employees are working from home more than ever before, whether occasionally or on a more permanent basis, you can still implement flexible working. Less workdays or flexible schedules so employees can start and finish when works for them could be a way forward.

However, when it comes to remote working, many employees still prefer to work in an office if they can, so that they can enjoy social interaction and regular contact with managers – these are also important factors in helping employees to manage anxiety.

What’s important is giving the option to flexibly work.

3. Offer employees support

While it’s important to give employees the flexibility they need, you should also ensure your employees in the office feel supported too.

Anxiety can lead to an employee wanting to remove themselves from teams and isolate which can keep them from being team players and seeking the help they need.

If you have recognized symptoms of anxiety in your employees, you must offer them support within the workplace. This will help to help them face the challenges they experience at work.

Try to book a regular session to check in with staff who may be struggling, whether that’s online or face to face. Or, if you don’t feel qualified, call in the help of an expert. However, if the problem affects many staff throughout your organization, it may be time to…

4. Shift your company culture to relieve anxiety

Have you considered where the anxiety may come from for employees? Does it stem from their work?

If your organization are on the “work hard, play hard” side of things for example, you may be ostracizing employees who prefer a more balanced and holistic work experience.

We realize that a cultural shift isn’t something that can happen overnight. However, creating a culture based on values that can be shared by a wider group of people while still inviting employees to bring their unique strengths – their ‘whole selves’ – to work is a great way to ensure fewer employees experience anxiety.

5. Encourage employees to take breaks

“Not taking breaks at work can end up having negative effects on [employees’] physical and mental wellbeing,” says Health Assured, a wellbeing organization, leading to an increase in anxiety attacks and other cognitive impairments.

Yet, nearly 20% of employees believe their managers won’t think they’re hard workers if they take lunchbreaks and unfortunately, they’d be right. 22% of managers say that employees who take a regular lunch break are less hardworking, so it’s no wonder that 38% of employees don’t feel encouraged to take their breaks.

Therefore, it’s up to you to encourage staff to take their full allowance of break time each day. Try to incentivize them to leave the office by organizing more regular team lunches or outdoor activities.

Also, speak to managers about the importance of employees taking their breaks so they encourage too.

6. Appoint people to support roles

As a HR and People leader, you needn’t take on all the responsibility for supporting employees through anxiety.

You could try appointing a mental health first aider within your organization. USA Mental Health First Aid offers training sessions for exactly this purpose. The more people in your company are empowered to care for people with mental health disorders, the more support can spread.

You could also ask an external consultant, such as a therapist, to visit your organization on a regular basis. Or, you could point employees towards online resources and encourage them to make use of them during working hours.

Put your people first

Can you do more to support your people through anxiety?

Ultimately, your people are your biggest asset. Put the long-term health of your employees before everything else and show them how much you value them and do everything you can to support them through tough times.

If you nurture a culture where people feel supported in the right way starting now, your employees should feel happier, healthier and more productive.

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