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Anxiety in the workplace – It’s not all ‘Mental Health’

“Anxiety is weird. It’s all intense suspense, no action. It’s like Jaws without the shark” – Matt Haig.

There are 21 google searches per minute in the UK for the term ‘Anxiety’. That’s 30,240 per day or 11,037,600 per year. Those figures don’t include analysis of any other search engine’s data. Roughly equivalent to the combined population of the entire Northern Powerhouse, that’s the North East, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, West Yorkshire and Hull. The figures speak for themselves and mercifully, recognition and destigmatisation has resulted in more and more people seeking help.

The charity ‘Mind’ explains that ‘Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future’. It’s fair to say, the vast majority of people know what that feels like. Anxiety becomes a mental health problem however, when it impacts on our ability to live our life in the way we’d ideally want to. This could be due to strength of feeling, a disproportionate amount of fear of a situation, panic attacks and situation avoidance, or any combination of them all.

I have anxiety. I shy away from using the term ‘suffer with’ because I try not to, but I do. What follows isn’t second hand research or the feelings of others and I’m not ashamed of having written it.

“You know that feeling when you’re climbing out of the shower, one foot on the floor and the other still-wet foot moves an inch on the slippery shower floor and for a split second you feel like you’re about to fall? That horrible feeling in your chest. Just imagine that feeling setting like concrete in your chest for minutes, hours and sometimes even days without a definable trigger and without even knowing why.”

That’s anxiety.

In all of the environments and occasions where sufferers have to ‘manage’ living with it, doing so at work is the hardest, at least in my humble opinion. At home, if I’m having a bad time, I can curl up in a ball in a dark room where I feel safe. If ‘out’, I can return home and curl up in a ball in a dark room where I feel safe. At work, I can’t do that. I have responsibilities, deadlines, people who rely on me. We all do.

For me, the worst part is the opportunity to overthink, so here’s some advice… Never ever ever leave a colleague whom you know suffers with anxiety to think about an unknown situation for any length of time.

“Matthew, can we sit down for 5 minutes at some point today, there’s something I want to talk to you about?”

OH. SHIT.

“They’re going to sack me, what did I do, what didn’t I do, was it that pen I broke, should I run? I could probably live off the land in the woods. Maybe. Almost.”

Dealing with anxiety in the workplace requires a combination of awareness, communication, acceptance and understanding. If you’re a good enough manager that a staff member feels they can tell you about their issues with anxiety, ask them how best you can support them, and then do that. Everyone suffers differently.

Here’s another piece of advice though, and admittedly, it’s fraught with levels of interpretation and (dis)agreement…

Don’t constantly ask if people are ‘ok’. An anxiety sufferer critically considering whether or not they’re ok will only end in one way, they’ll decide that they aren’t.

George Bell is the Marketing Manager for Sanctus and he recently shared their mental health policy on LinkedIn. Read it. It’s outstanding. Mental health is no less debilitating than physical health and it should not be viewed any differently. Crucially, it’s no more difficult to fake either so you can’t stop fake mental health days anymore than you can stop fake physical sick days.

There’s not really much else to say on the topic. Awareness. Destigmatisation. Understanding. Acceptance. Of anxiety itself, that it is a real and debilitating illness, its effects and why it may mean people need to not be at work when they’re suffering.

Cheers.

Matt

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