5 Ways Workplaces Can Cause Employee Anxiety

In 2021, the modern workplace looks very different from its 2019 counterpart. We’ve swapped desks for kitchen tables, conference rooms for conference calls and Friday drinks for Friday Zooms. Our working life has changed dramatically over the past 12 months, and there’s no denying that times have been hard.

But how different is the working environment really? Our bosses can still be demanding, our colleagues can still be frustrating and our lunch breaks will never feel long enough to break up the day. The sudden increase in physical space between us and our least favourite manager doesn’t make them any less terrifying. Having to speak in front of 20 people on Zoom is equally as terrifying as presenting in a crowded meeting room.

Often, workplace anxieties can follow us home, and in today’s blog post, I want to share some of the ways that workplaces – physical and virtual – can make their employees anxious every single day.

Using vague, uninterpretable language in communications

Who else has spent an entire weekend obsessing over a ‘let’s talk on Monday’ message from their boss? Cried over an unexpected ‘we need to have a chat’ or panicked over a one-to-one meeting in the calendar?

In the pursuit of fast, speedy and efficient communications, often managers, superiors and employers can forget that their employees are humans – nervous, anxious humans who won’t understand that all you want to do is check their emergency contact details are still correct. They shoot out demands, questions and meeting requests without realising the effect their simple messages might have on the unwitting employee on the other end of the chat.

Even in issuing tasks, by not explaining them or assigning them clearly, your team could be spending more time worrying about them than actually completing them. Delegating to an entire room, for example, that ‘this strategy needs finishing by next week’ presents more questions than answers, with so many different opportunities for employees to get it wrong.

How to fix it: The easiest way to fix this communication problem – detail and context. If you need to meet with someone to ask them about a certain piece of work, tell them. If you want to chat about their thoughts on a particular project, let them know. If you want to give someone a task, tell them what to do, when to do it and when to submit it by. Even if the news you need to deliver is confidential, there’s no harm in adding some simple positive reassurance to help them relax ahead of your next conversation.

Your employees are not mind readers. They won’t know the difference between a meeting about organising the next office Zoom quiz, and a meeting about their future at the company, if all they have to work with is ‘we need to talk.’

Micromanagement and hypermanagement

No one likes the feeling of their boss watching over their shoulder. So why would your employees like the idea of you sitting in their Google Doc when they’re trying to work? Digital micromanagement is one of the easiest ways to make your employees feel anxious, paranoid and on edge, without you even needing to speak.

Sneaking comments into unfinished work, adding questions to half-written Trello boards, making assumptions about barely started presentations and criticising clearly unedited documents doesn’t make you a conscientious boss. It gives off an impression of impatience, lack of trust in your employees and ignorance to the continuing work happening around them.

From an employee perspective, knowing your boss is watching you type out every single word, and waiting to pounce on your next accidental typo, can bring on a serious bout of anxiety, and can slow down that has barely even begun.

How to fix it: Give your employees a break! Let them finish their work before jumping in and amending it, and let them discover any problems and issues for themselves as they work on their first drafts. Have faith that they will spot these flaws, and refrain from commenting on anything other than the final product upon completion. There’s no benefit to putting your team on edge just to make your point known.

Invasions of Privacy

For some people, their work-life stays at work and their home life stays at home. With the shift to working from home, those lines have naturally blurred, but there are still times when privacy needs to come first.

Managers who find the need to, even well-meaningly, pry into an employee’s personal life can often end up causing more anxiety than good; by making the employee feel watched and surveyed in their own home. By commenting on every single post your employee makes on social media, following them across the internet, asking personal questions about their family and relationships and opening up unwanted conversations about what they do in their free time, you’re not establishing a good relationship. By contrast, you’re more likely to make your employee feel more guarded and private than ever, and they could end up putting more walls up in order to avoid you.

How to fix it: Let your employee lead the conversations on their home and personal life. Let them set the boundaries of your working relationship and set your own at the same time. One of the easiest ways to maintain this healthy balance is to simply comment on that which you can see – i.e. the background of an employee’s Zoom call, a cat that walks into frame, a social media post they share directly with you and the information they willingly provide you with. Don’t dig any further than you need to, and if in doubt, keep it professional.

Unnecessary public speaking

Public speaking is one of those things you either love or despise. It doesn’t matter if it’s in front of three people or thirty, if the thought of presenting a pitch makes your hands shake and your voice wobble, it can be terrifying to be forced into the spotlight at work.

Employees who fear public speaking and presenting will often choose jobs that don’t require them to do it – avoiding fields such as sales, marketing, pitching and management, for example. They might even actively reject jobs that include public speaking in the description. So for a workplace to unexpectedly ask them to confidently present a piece of work can be extremely anxiety-inducing.

With stand-up culture on the rise, more and more workplaces appear to be enforcing active pitching from each and every one of their employees, regardless of whether it’s relevant to their job title or not. By forcing an employee to do something that makes them uncomfortable on a daily basis, you’re more likely to run the risk of a high employee turnover than a confidently spoken team.

How to fix it: Only ask those you know are comfortable with public speaking to present, and where possible, allow and encourage all employees to make notes before their presentations if they find them difficult.

It’s important to realise that you’re not in a position to cure these people of their anxiety, nor to ‘make them stronger’ by asking them to present. You aren’t responsible for building up their confidence, but you are responsible for making sure they do their job – the job listed on the vacancy they applied for. Everything else they might be good, or bad, at is pure chance.

Show empathy and understanding if colleagues and teammates approach with their fears, or disclose that certain activities make them uncomfortable. Don’t try to fix them, but instead listen to them and accommodate them where possible.

Cultures of Overworking

When you hire a person, you employ them for a certain number of hours. It’s their job to do their work in those hours, and your job to manage them. But in some companies, a culture of boastful overworking, burn out and stress can make employees feel pressured to stay later, start early and be busy for every moment of the day.

Within certain industries, a popular ideology has emerged; if you’re not stressed, you’re not working hard enough and for many people, their daily workload is seen as a competition. They must be working later than everyone else, they must be more dedicated than other people, their to-do list must be longer than their colleagues, and their work-life balance must be completely destroyed in order to feel like they’re doing a good job.

This culture causes anxiety.

With so many people collapsing under the pressures of work, allowing people to come in on time and leave on time is vital to establishing healthy boundaries between home and business. Reinforcing the idea that your employees aren’t working hard enough, if they don’t seem stressed, is encouraging them to feel anxious in order to succeed at the company. This is a bad culture that, especially in 2021, needs to be re-imagined to help employees feel both accomplished at work and anxiety-free.

How to fix it: Don’t reward extraneous overtime in any way other than financially. Don’t encourage your employees to have long to-do lists that keep them awake at night. Make the effort to evenly distribute work and set reachable targets for your employees to achieve, without the need to sacrifice their home life in order to get there.

You don’t need your employees to feel as busy as you do. They won’t benefit from it, and neither will you. Take a step back and give them some flexibility, and I guarantee the end result will be better for it.

Feeling anxious, stressed and burnt out at work is all too common right now, and with so many of us struggling to balance our careers and our home life, it’s important to start making these changes happen.

If you’re struggling with anxiety at work, please talk to someone you trust and where possible, flag it with your managers to see what they can do to help. You’ve got this.

Thank you so much for reading, and have a good week.

Nikki McCaig

Nikki McCaig

More of my posts