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Workplace Anxiety May Be the Culprit of Resignation Nation

Anxious people, feeling overwhelmed at work, raise worry.

Key points

  • Researchers found that 34 percent of workers reporteded anxiety at least once during any month in 2018.
  • More than half of millennials and 75 percent of Gen Z workers have reportedly quit a job for mental health reasons.
  • The best leaders create the benefits of a healthy work environment, free of passive-aggressive drama like gossip, sniping, setups, and sabotage.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one most adaptable to change” – Charles Darwin1

A global pandemic led to interrupted Zoom calls. But who could have known? Many preferred clocking in feet from the breakfast table. With mask/vax mandates and a big save on commuting expenses, social media has dubbed the mass exodus to better jobs the “Great Resignation.”

No doubt there’s anxiety. Working at home is safer amid a global pandemic and scary, new variants. It’s also isolating and lonely. Workers may perform better without water cooler distractions but may also doubt themselves and feel job uncertainty because of a lack of contact with decision-makers.

Mary Pahlke/Pixabay
Anxiety exists in many forms
Source: Mary Pahlke/Pixabay

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton likely began their book, Anxiety At Work, before lockdown. They stated that 34 percent of workers reported anxiety at least once in any month in 2018. Eighteen percent reported a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

According to a 2019 study published in the Harvard Business Review, more than half of millennials and 75 percent of Gen Z reportedly quit a job for mental health reasons.2

It’s old-school to believe that these employees need to calm down. As well, the notion that anxious employees perform in subpar fashion or are less valuable is nonsense. Quite the opposite: They work harder. Mensa members reportedly suffer from anxiety disorders at twice the national average.

So what’s a manager or employee to do? The best leaders create the benefits of a healthy work environment, free of passive-aggressive drama (gossip, sniping, setups, and sabotage). Our own book, Overcoming Passive-Aggression, includes a quiz to determine one’s performance style. Yes, whether you are direct and adaptable, shy away from confrontation, or are indirect matters greatly.3

The healthcare field is rife with exhaustion, and, it turns out, passive-aggressive behavior. Sixty percent of new nurses leave their job within six months of hire due to bullying; 20 percent leave the field within three years.4 These are pre-pandemic statistics leaving us to assume even worse numbers now.

If the global pandemic of 2020 had “one heartening result,” Shirley Weinstein at Kraft Heinz told Gostick and Elton, “it was the realization to managers at all levels that anxiety is a real business issue.”

Know the signs of anxiety and reach out for confidential help
Source: TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay

Here’s a template for tackling anxiety in the workforce:

Pay Attention and Listen. At Kraft Heinz, they call this “empathy and care.” Managers learn to understand that workers struggle with work/life balance, burnout, anxiety, decreased energy, and depression. They recognize the inability to concentrate, hypersensitivity, restlessness, over-checking, reassurance-seeking, and frequent somatic complaints as signs of anxiety.

Though many companies offer employee assistance programs, some employees are still reluctant to ask for help. As Murphy and Oberlin point out in Overcoming Passive Aggression, “ego and entitlement wall off good ideas” that employees often have; thus, managers should honor their employees’ experience and involve them, as well.

Loriann Oberlin, MS
Two books with many workplace insights
Source: Loriann Oberlin, MS

Meet uncertainty head-on. Learn six steps to combat this in Anxiety at Work. It’s okay not to have all answers. Ensure everyone knows work expectations. Keep the focus on what can be controlled.

Provide more training for email etiquette, anti-bullying and social behavior. Procrastinators are stressed. Perfectionists have way too much anxiety that can become obsessive as they hold themselves and those around them to unattainable standards. Poor email often shows a lack of communication skills.

Encourage time off and help make it happen. The 2021 “Great Resignation,” where employees have asserted what they want and left positions to obtain just that, has complicated this, but time away is vital to a healthy workplace.

Managers should set an example taking time to relax and encourage their workers to use vacation, say Gostick and Elton. “More than 70 percent of employees report increased productivity when they take short breaks during the day to exercise, socialize, or just grab a breath of fresh air,” they said.

Not all anxiety is equal. Nor is it all mental health-related or the result of a tense environment. Sometimes it’s because life is difficult and relatively unjust given individual journeys, no more true than for minority groups and LGBTQ. Wise leaders recognize stigma-related prejudice, chronic stress of being discriminated against, or hyper-vigilance fearing it. Good managers correct situations before they spiral into more significant concerns.

Know that anxiety can be hidden and debilitating. Imposter syndrome occurs when even successful employees or performers feel that the world is just waiting to uncover weaknesses. It’s happened to Steve Martin and Lady Gaga. Worrying about one’s limitations, without support or proper coping mechanisms, and without accurate diagnosis and treatment, forces the anxious person’s brain into an even more negative place.5 So too, the adverse health consequences mount such that there’s an entire chapter outlining them in Overcoming Passive-Aggression.

Rein in attitude and express gratitude. No one needs the former due to its stress-inducing consequences. Gratitude, on the other hand, helps to reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels. We also know that when we pay attention to good or exemplary behavior, we’ll see more of it. Yes, recognize what’s right, and you will often see people work to achieve that and be far less anxious.

Copyright @2021 by Loriann Oberlin, MS. All rights reserved.



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4. Overcoming Passive Aggression, chapter eight/workplace, page 146

5. Anxiety at Work, chapter nine/doubts into assurance, page 217

Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic & Worry by Catherine Pittman, PhD and Elizabeth Karle, MLIS

Rewire Your OCD Brain: Powerful Neuroscience-Based Skills to Break Free from Obsessive Thoughts & Fears by Catherine Pittman, PhD and William Youngs, PhD

Anxiety & Depression Association of America (