How to make the workplace a less anxious place

To combat anxiety in the workplace, managers have to “lead from the front.”

Successful businessman meditates sitting at a table in a classic office.

Companies are now realizing that making the workplace a less anxious space is not only in the best interest of their employees but it’s also good for business.

Photo: Liubomyr Vorona/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When Veronica Belmont returned to work after 16 weeks of maternity leave, she said she felt pressure to catch on everything she missed and immediately go full throttle like she had before.

As a 40-year-old in tech, she also felt the need to go over and beyond to thrive in an industry that “is typically a very young person's career or is seen that way,” she said.

“There's a lot of pressure that I would put on myself to say, well, ‘There's people who are coming up who are younger, they have more free time, they have more energy, how can I compete with that?’” Belmont, senior product manager at Adobe, told Protocol.

Belmont, who lives with generalized anxiety disorder, is quick to say that those stresses were largely personal and that her company has good internal policies to help workers cope with mental health issues.

The nature of work — as many people knew it before March 2020 — has also changed significantly with entirely remote or hybrid work becoming the “now normal,” as David Kingsley, chief people officer at software company Intercom, prefers to describe it. For many, the separation of the work and the personal self has ceased to exist as the two are now so often intertwined as we continue to work, at least part of the time, in our homes.

“That means we are spending less time in offices, there’s fewer in-person interactions, and that is shrinking our relationship ecosystem,” Kingsley said.

Whether anxiety at work comes from the pressures of one’s personal life affecting the work they do or the demands of the job affecting the personal, companies are now realizing that making the workplace a less anxious space is not only in the best interest of their employees but it’s also good for business.

Anxiety screening for everyone

Last month, the United States Preventive Services Task Force, which reports to Congress annually, recommended that all U.S. adults under 65 be screened for anxiety as part of routine care.

“The USPSTF concludes with moderate certainty that screening for anxiety in adults, including pregnant and postpartum persons, has a moderate net benefit,” the task force said alongside giving the draft recommendation its second-highest grade.

The recommendation comes after two years of a pandemic that has radically transformed every aspect of life and triggered what many experts are calling a mental health crisis. According to the World Health Organization, about 15% of the working-adult population has a mental health disorder at any one time.

“A person’s capacity to participate in work can be consequently impaired through a reduction in productivity and performance, reduction in the ability to work safely, or difficulty in retaining or gaining work,” it said in a new report released last month.

It added to further signaling from the global health body about the pandemic’s impact on the world’s mental health. In March, the Geneva-based organization said during the first year of the pandemic, anxiety and depression increased by 25% globally, a figure it concedes is an underestimation.

“The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health,” he added.

Role modeling by leaders

Making the workplace less anxious starts with managers.

“Many employees feel like they need to show up to their boss at all times, in all ways, as infallible and unflappable,” Kingsley said. “Those of us in leadership roles need to acknowledge that this is one of the places where we should be able to be most profoundly human because when we are feeling our true whole selves, we are going to do our best work.”

Belmont agreed on the importance of leading by example, even for people who haven’t been diagnosed with an anxiety or panic disorder. “Everybody is feeling a heightened level of anxiety right now,” Belmont told me. She recommended patience and “a little extra space and time for people to figure out what works best for them.”

After overseeing three wellness days in 2022 where everything work-related was shut down, Kate Parente, chief people officer at Pega, says one key ingredient is for everyone to participate.

For Parente, it is not enough for company leaders to institute wellness days and generous vacation policies without being seen to be participating themselves.

“The key to success is actually doing it and it means leading from the front: having our executive leadership team model the behavior that says, ‘No, we are not going to send emails today, no, we are not going to have meetings today.’”

Unstructured time

How many work Zoom meetings have begun with short pleasantries and then it’s straight to the agenda? While it may be efficient, it leaves out some of the social interactions colleagues had in pre-pandemic days.

“Back when we all worked in offices together, we would gather around a coffee machine or a water cooler and we would talk about life,” recalls Kingsley. “We would just check in, we didn't come up with an agenda.”

He recommends being intentional about making unstructured time routine so that colleagues and managers can have virtual tea or coffee to talk about anything outside of work. While it may not be as organic as bumping into each other in the office kitchen, it allows remote colleagues to remain in tune with each other and be deliberate about it.

A targeted benefits package

Even before the pandemic, a 2015 survey by Glassdoor found that a company’s benefits package was a major decision point for nearly 60% of prospective employees who had job offers. The pandemic has heightened that demand from employees who want a workplace that not only offers competitive salaries, but also offers a generous benefits package. Tech company offerings run the gamut from unlimited paid time off, fertility, and parental and bereavement leave to subscriptions to mindfulness apps.

“Things like mindfulness and wellness services, those are things that are not really super expensive, but they are things that can make a world of a difference,” Parente said. “Even if someone never uses them, knowing as a new employee that your employer spends the money on this and offers it to everyone just sends a signal that we prioritize wellness.”

But for Belmont, whatever you do, if you must schedule happy hours on Zoom (which she is no longer a fan of, even though she helped organize some at the start of the pandemic), please do it within working hours: at 3pm, not 5pm.

“My face literally hurts from talking to people on video conference all day and so for me, the last thing I want to do is spend additional time after my work day, still on a Zoom call,” she said. “I also respect and understand that it's very hard to find those moments to relax and get to know your co-workers better. As long as they are happening in the workday and not after hours, I think that's probably the key.”


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