3 ways anxiety can hold back your employees’ careers

Employers want their employees to grow and succeed at their jobs. Unfortunately, there are a variety of external and psychological obstacles that can stand in the way of employees reaching their full potential. While most workers would like nothing better than to perform well on the job, anxiety can prevent them from doing so.

Anxiety disorders are extremely common: They affect 40 million adults in the U.S. each year, and nearly six in 10 American workers report anxiety impacts their workplace performance, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. A study in the academic journal Anxiety found the economic effects of this mental health condition are huge — costing employers almost $35 billion from lost or reduced productivity in the workplace, the study says. The good news is 80% of employees treated for mental health problems report improvements in their job satisfaction and productivity.

For employers to mitigate the impact anxiety has on their employees, it’s important to understand the form it takes in the workplace. Anxiety often takes shape in various thinking traps that can sabotage an employee’s growth. Three of the most common traps are social comparisons, personalization and overmagnification.

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To explore how these thinking traps manifest in the workplace, let’s consider a scenario in which an employee sees a co-worker gets a promotion instead of them.

The social comparison trap. The research is clear that comparing yourself to others is bad for your mental health. However, that doesn’t stop people — especially those with anxiety — from doing just that. A co-worker’s promotion can lead an employee to leap to the conclusion they must be inferior to their colleague. In reality, there’s no way employees can fairly compare themselves to a co-worker. Their experiences, personalities and skills are different. Employees able to avoid that comparison trap might, instead, keep the focus on themselves, evaluating the growth they’ve achieved over the past year and determining how they can continue to improve in the year ahead.

The personalization trap. It’s hard for some employees to recognize not everything is about them. The co-worker who earned the promotion may have gotten the job because they were simply a better fit; that doesn’t diminish the talents and abilities of those who weren’t chosen for the position. Rather than assume the worst of themselves, employees could look at the situation more objectively and recognize that their co-worker may not be better than them, just different.

The overmagnification trap. Blowing things out of proportion is another thinking pattern with a destructive effect. Being passed over for a promotion can expand to a sense of being permanently, hopelessly, bad at one’s job. Instead of being able to parse out the specific reasons why the promotion didn’t go their way, employees who overmagnify convince themselves that they are not only unqualified for the promotion, but they’ll never get a promotion and their career is doomed — so why even try? To keep those overblown feelings at bay, a better approach is to stay focused on the specific and transient nature of what has just happened. Being passed over hurts now, but it won’t hurt forever. Not getting this particular job says nothing about the person’s ability to get other jobs. It may mean that they are missing certain skills or experience, but it doesn’t mean they will always lack them.

Workplace culture and practices can either exacerbate or diminish the self-sabotaging thinking traps that go hand in hand with anxiety. Some effective strategies that can help foster a positive work environment for all employees, but especially those who tend toward anxiety, include:

Create a collaborative workplace. Workplace collaboration helps employees feel valued for their contributions and allows them to see how their skills are important to achieving success for their team or company. It also provides the opportunity to learn from other employees and appreciate what they bring to the table, rather than viewing them as their competition.

Promote transparency. Employees who are kept in the loop, who understand their role, the criteria for what promotions are based on, and understand what they can do to get to the next level are more trusting of their leaders. Be particularly sensitive to what employees may be experiencing during annual performance reviews and make sure to overcommunicate during those times.

Offer tools and services. Providing programs and services to help reduce stress and anxiety can be beneficial for all employees. These can include subsidizing gym memberships, offering yoga classes, encouraging “mind vacation” breaks throughout the day, providing online programs that guide employees through mindful meditations or other well-being exercises.

Model self-care. Employees are more likely to engage in self-care at work if they see their supervisors practicing it, not just encouraging it. If a meditation class is offered in the workplace, employees are more likely to take part if their managers are taking time out of their day to participate as well. Similarly, organization-wide activities, such as a mid-day walk, allow employees to see management promote the message that self-care is a workplace priority.

Given the high number of working Americans with anxiety conditions, easing their anxieties and helping them avoid those thinking traps is good for business. It will improve employees’ overall well-being, workplace satisfaction and professional growth.

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