Anxiety in the Workplace Lowers Job Performance

Posted March 23, 2016

Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) — and they can have a major impact on the workplace. Research from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) found employees suffering from anxiety can be less productive. They may turn down promotions, or avoid staff events or meetings with coworkers because of their condition, too.

Now a study from the University of Toronto Scarborough and Rotman School of Management, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, concludes workplace anxiety can lead directly to lower job performance because it impacts the quality of relationships among employees and their managers and coworkers.

“Workplace anxiety is a serious concern not only for employee health and well-being, but also for an organization’s bottom line,” said John Trougakos, PhD, and Rotman School of Management expert on organizational behavior.

Dr. Trougakos and colleagues investigated the effects of workplace anxiety on officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian national police service. Although it’s obvious police officers have highly stressful jobs, the researchers point out that statistics show 41% of employees from a range of industries report suffering from high levels of anxiety in the workplace.

“Police officers, like all of us, have a finite amount of resources they can draw on to cope with the demands of their job,” said researcher Julie M. McCarthy, PhD, an associate professor of organizational behavior and HR management expert in the Rotman School of Management. “If these resources are depleted then high levels of workplace anxiety will lead to emotional exhaustion and this will ultimately affect job performance.”

The research team concluded that the quality of relationships the Canadian police officers had with their supervisors and peers played a crucial role in how their anxiety levels impacted their job productivity. When empathetic support was available to the officers, it fostered a positive work environment built on high levels of understanding and trust, which buffered the effects of anxiety, according to Dr. McCarthy.

“Our findings highlight the importance of programs that allow employees to recover, build resilience and develop strong social support networks in the workplace,” she said. “Our hope is that this research will trigger conversations among other organizations about the debilitating effects of a stressed-out workplace and the importance of developing strategies to help workers cope with workplace anxiety.”

The NIMH notes that stress-management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of any therapy for anxiety. In addition, it may be helpful to inform employees suffering from anxiety that excessive caffeine and some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders.

Encouraging workers to get exercise, take breaks and move around during their workday if their jobs involve hours of sitting may help reduce anxiety, too. Although many studies have shown that sedentary behavior is linked to an increased risk of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis, a review of the research published in the journal Biomed Central Public Health found a relationship between anxiety and sedentary behavior — which includes hours spent working in front of computers in an office.

The ADAA offers additional strategies that can be shared with employees to help them cope with and reduce anxiety, including:

• Practicing time management.

• Communicating with supervisors openly and calmly if an employee feels overextended.

• Setting boundaries so that working after hours, including constantly checking work email at night and on weekends, doesn’t interfere with personal and family life.

• Taking advantage of employer resources and benefits, including therapy and exercise programs that can help reduce anxiety.