Simple Steps to Help with Work Anxiety

If you have found yourself taking a sick day because you can’t face going to work, you’re certainly not alone. A recent UK study found that between 2019-2020, 828,000 people were affected by work-related anxiety and stress. Understandably, the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to extra stress at work, and now we find ourselves adapting to the ‘new normal’ of different ways of working, such as splitting our time between the office and working from home. A certain amount of anxiety around work is normal and helps to motivate and energise us, but what do you do if you still feel too anxious to go to work or find that the anxiety you feel is affecting your quality of life?

As with most forms of anxiety, we must first understand the cause of it to overcome it. There can be many triggers and underlying issues that contribute towards workplace anxiety and being able to identify them can help us develop the coping skills needed to manage it.

‘Healthy’ anxiety

Starting a new job can cause anxiety for various reasons, the most common cause being the fear of the unknown. A new role brings with it a host of new things, such as unfamiliar colleagues, a new environment and different expectations, which can cause anxiety as you try to get up to speed. Nerves about a new job are healthy and ensure you are trying your hardest.

Similarly, anxiety over a difficult project, tricky work colleagues or a challenging client are to be expected. While those situations can be very stressful and hard to handle, the problem is easily identifiable as something external to you and hopefully a supportive HR department or colleagues can go some way in helping you work through the problem.

However, when feelings of anxiety about everyday parts of your work become overwhelming, rather than helping you perform at your best, they can do the opposite.

Imposter syndrome

When you feel like a fraud and not up to a task – even when you have the skills and experience necessary – it is known as ‘imposter syndrome’. Although it is fairly common, the anxiety brought on by imposter syndrome can cause a lot of distress. Fear of not being able to live up to other’s expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it can lead to self-sabotaging behaviours, such as procrastination or avoidance which may lead to missing deadlines and failing to meet expectations. It can also spark feelings of social anxiety, leading to difficulty networking with others and shutting yourself off to opportunities. 

Thoughts and feelings are not facts

One of the first things to try to remember is that thoughts and feelings are always not facts. You may think you’re not good enough or feel not good enough, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t good enough. Negative thoughts are just thoughts so it is important to train ourselves out of listening to them. Similarly, feelings are not facts so feeling scared doesn’t always mean we’re in danger. If we can remind ourselves of the evidence that we can do our jobs – we have done similar roles before, the company hired us over others – we can start to calm our nervous systems and recognise those negative thoughts for what they are.

Challenge your inner critic

While we may have learned that by being hard on ourselves, we do our best, that is not in fact the case. By criticising and shaming ourselves, we lose even more confidence. Try telling a child they’re hopeless and seeing how they do, versus telling them how nicely they do something. You’ll see that with positive praise and encourage most children perform much better. The same goes for you. Try to recognise the negative voice in your head for what it is and challenge it with a kinder, more accurate one. You are not being boastful or cocky, you are encouraging yourself to be your best.

Managing expectations

A common cause of anxiety at work is poor expectation management. Taking on more work than is realistic in a certain timeframe, or promising more than you can deliver is a guaranteed way to feel overwhelmed – and to cause friction with clients and colleagues when you fail to deliver. By setting out clear expectations at the start of a project or piece of work, you minimise the possibility for misunderstandings and problems further down the line. If you need to push back, do it. Be assertive and explain that what is being asked of you is not realistic. You may have been taught to always say yes, but in the workplace saying yes can be counterproductive. Similarly, it is important to delegate both up and down when necessary. Trying to take on too much doesn’t help anyone in the end.

Beware of perfectionism

Another common trait of people who suffer from excessive anxiety around work is perfectionism. By setting ourselves such a high bar, we can get bogged down in making a piece of work better than it has to be. In most cases, 80% of something is better than 100% of  nothing, so remind yourself that good enough really is good enough. In most jobs, there aren’t enough hours in the week to make everything as perfect as you might like, so doing things efficiently and with integrity to the best of your ability in the time available is perfectly acceptable in most cases.

Making time for yourself

With many of us juggling work and family, the lines between work and play can often become blurry. Work/life balance can be even more challenging when working from home – the spaces we use in our home for sleeping, eating and resting might also be used for working, which makes it more difficult for our nervous system to regulate itself.

When work takes over our lives, the areas essential to our well-being may be compromised. For example, we may eat less or rely on unhealthy food for energy, sleep fewer hours, see our loved ones less and neglect things like exercise and relaxation. Combined, this can put our nervous system into overdrive, which tells the brain that there is a threat, leading to the physical effects of stress and exacerbating the psychological impact of anxiety. It is important to take time out to recharge. Whether that’s going for a run, mediating, playing with your children or relaxing in front of Netflix, calving out time to switch off from work is vitally important.

The Bottom Line

Work anxiety often has one core belief at the heart of it: ‘I am not good enough’. To challenge this belief, it is essential to recognise when this feeling is popping up and to remember that everyone experiences self-doubt at times. Additionally, it is important to focus on the successes and accomplishments you have achieved and to recognise your strengths. It can be helpful to work with a therapist to understand if there have been events in your past that may have led to this core belief so that you can work on your self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, in addition to learning practical coping skills for managing anxiety at work.

As a BACP-registered integrative counsellor, I am trained to work with a wide range of issues, including feelings of not being good enough and work-related anxiety and stress. I use a range of therapeutic methods that I tailor to the needs of each client based on their history and goals for the future. If you’d like to find out more or set up an intial chat, please do send me an email