Leadership insight #8 / 2023: Managing anxiety at work

23 August 2023

A recent publication on managing anxiety at work provides useful insights for leaders and team members of all levels. In her new book, The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower, Morra Aarons-Mele talks about anxiety and the ways in which it can get in the way at work. She shares some realistic and practical tips for recognising anxiety in the workplace and how to put in place some strategies for managing it.

Feeling anxious is not a problem per se. It is a completely normal and necessary emotion and is an adaptive response to a stressful situation or threat. Such a response can be experienced as feeling worried, nervous, and/or as a rush of physiological symptoms such as sweating, dizziness and rapid heartbeat.

However, anxiety gets in the way when these anxious feelings aren’t short lived and don’t easily go away. When feeling anxious becomes  a long-lived, constant and normalised state, experienced as physically feeling on alert - too often and too much - it can be problematic and exhausting . At work this might be experienced as feeling distressed, overwhelmed, or worried by an upcoming meeting or a shift. If and when these feelings persist overtime and intrude in our effectiveness at work, then they must be engaged with and attended to.

Aarons-Mele talks about how anxiety at work can keep us “way too tuned in to fearful, critical and negative messages” and keep us stuck there, which is often not conducive to healthy collaborative work. In her research she has interviewed many leaders who have experienced how anxiety can “flood in” at certain times at work, and “threaten to overwhelm” them.

Interestingly, for certain work roles and professions being ‘on alert’ and tuned in to possible threats and emergencies is essential for effectiveness in role. This is certainly the case in an many medical specialities, particularly in acute inpatient settings. The problem becomes when we can’t turn this off; or when we are unable to control how and when we operate in this mode and when we don’t. Her point in this book is about how to learn to manage this and ‘take back power’ by reducing its negative impact.

So, what can we do?

Aarons-Mele says if we can learn and understand our anxious feelings – what they feel like (how they manifest for us specially) and when they are likely to occur, we can then predict them and rehearse planned strategies for managing ourselves in this state and finding a way out. She outlines a couple of small and practical strategies for doing this – and there are further resources mentioned in the podcast.

Here is a summary of what that can look like.

The skill is to recognise your symptoms and take them seriously. Knowing that when you experience yourself in this state, you can implement a type of small circuit breaker to recover, can support you to ‘take back the power’

Being ready with a planned set of words or actions is about designing a set of small behaviours, or a set of words, to use in the contexts in which you get anxious: Is there something you can do that feels protective? For example, arrive early (or a bit late), walk with a colleague, sit or stand next to someone you do feel comfortable with.

You could prepare a sentence or two that can be used to respond to someone you find anxiety provoking. For a difficult or challenging colleague, Aaron-Meles suggests the phrase ‘That won’t work for me’, or a longer version: That’s not going to work. I’m sorry, that’s not going to work for me.’

In my coaching work people have come up with phrases such as:

These become a highly personalised and curated set of sentences to use when a situation is anxiety provoking. These words and actions create space and time for you to respond rather than react. When the pressure it taken off, it’s easier to think clearly, and realise that the threat isn’t so great, that you do have some power and control, and you can have agency in designing the way you work.

It’s important to realise that this work takes time. It takes time to learn about the ways you react to things and people at work, and it takes time to stop entrenched patterns of behaving and learn new ones.

So, if you do try one of the strategies above – go easy on yourself! It can take weeks and months – usually around 6-12 months – to learn new ways of doing things. And – of course – it’s not a linear journey – there are ups and downs, and it’s not always going to go well each time you try. But it’s worth it. Over time the new things you are trying become easier and more habitual, which again reduced the amount of effort and energy required to get through anxiety provoking times. And for some of us, and at some points in time, we may also need more specialised support from psychologists or psychiatrists for example. And that’s ok.

Further resources

By Dr Anna Clark (PhD) – Leadership coach and educator at AMAV.

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