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Anxiety: conquering conversation barriers at work

Guest Blog by Colette Norbury

Ever had that feeling of fear, unease—nervousness—when you are under pressure?  Followed by tired relief or a rewarding ‘buzz’ once a goal has been achieved; a deadline reached?

In the workplace, anxiety can be a positive force.

But what if the intensity of anxiety doesn’t match the issue, or continues long after the stressor has gone?  What if the symptoms deprive you of sleep, affect your productivity, encroach your relationships?

This is unhealthy anxiety.  The effects of anxiety can have a human and financial cost.

‘In any given week in England, 6 in 100 people will be diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder’. (Mind)
But ‘less than 50% of people with generalised anxiety disorder access treatment’. (Mental Health Foundation)

I’ve seen some powerful results when people learn how to communicate effectively about anxiety at work.

But I have also noticed some barriers that affect our approach to this topic – whether we are experiencing anxiety or work with someone who is.

Here are five common barriers

With tips on how to conquer them


1. Anxiety? It’s not that bad! What’s the big deal?

Long term it is a big deal.

Symptoms of unhealthy anxiety can include persistent heart palpitations, digestive issues, thought distortions, memory problems, agitated, angry or withdrawn behaviour, feelings of terror, overwhelm, exhaustion.  It can be debilitating and lead to illness.  We are all vulnerable to it and it is important to understand the impact.

In the workplace, some people may try to mask their symptoms for fear of losing their job or being thought of as lacking leadership.  They may internalise their struggle or push themselves harder, perhaps taking on more and more work, becoming overly perfectionist in behaviour, or needing more reassurance.

In my training sessions, we highlight the impact of anxiety disorders and the signs that we might see at work.  The main tip here is to know our colleagues and build relationships of trust, so that we can notice changes in them that might signify a change in their health.

As individuals, it is vital to be self-aware, and able to note changes in ourselves.  Reading and learning about the topic can be helpful. These early actions can help to prevent illness.

So, compassionate curiosity is a key tool – applied to ourselves and each other if something ‘doesn’t seem quite right’.



2. ‘I don’t have time for conversations about mental health!’

The workplace can be a pressured environment and it is natural to think ‘I don’t have time for chats like this.’  But ‘chats like this’ are a wise investment.  And employers have a responsibility to look after their workforce.

It can be the simplest things that help.  Make time to truly listen without judging.  I expand upon these skills in my training, and they always go down well!

If opportunities are ignored it risks being far more time consuming and disruptive for all, further down the line.

Therefore, it makes human and business sense to respond if we notice a change – before it becomes a serious health issue.



3. Do they really have anxiety?

When the topic of anxiety comes up, some people express doubts about whether an employee really does ‘have anxiety’.  Or we may be in denial about our own symptoms.

Try not to fixate on the ‘anxiety’ label.  Instead view this as a signal for purposeful communication, or a plea for help.  The message is, ‘I can’t do this/I’m struggling because of how I am feeling.’  And that is what we try to gain understanding of.

As responders, we do not diagnose or judge.  But, within our roles, we can support or ask for help.  And doing so can make a huge difference.

And if this is related to absenteeism then follow the recommended process in your workplace (with a GP referral and ‘FIT’ notes).



4. Are you a fixer?

This is the most common hurdle that attendees (especially managers) on my courses experience.  And I love the dazzling ‘light bulb moments’ of learning that happen here!

Often, we are ‘wired’ to fix a problem and then move on.  And, of course, this is vital in the workplace.  However, conversations about mental health can be different.  The problem solving can come later (for example, if the anxiety is triggered by work-related issues).  Initially, people need to know that it is safe for them to talk.  Anxiety is often driven by fear, shame, and frustration.

Let’s step into the shoes of someone experiencing anxiety … Imagine a feeling of persistent overwhelm, of intense fear, dizziness, even nausea.  Decision-making is impossible.  Usually, you are so organised and clear-minded.  So, these changes are frightening, and your self-esteem is crumbling.  And then your well-meaning manager lists what they think could fix this.  Why might this be unhelpful?  Read on…



5. Ownership and boundaries

Anxiety can be fuelled by not being listened to properly or by not having ownership of the issue.  If a manager says, ‘here’s what you need to do’ – it could initially cause frustration.  And – it might not be the correct advice!

Instead, we could ask, ‘what might help you with this?’ or, ‘what has helped you in the past,’ or ‘how can I help?’  The conversation should never force someone to reveal a personal story (therefore ‘why’ questions are used sparingly).

Similarly, if you are experiencing anxiety, apply curiosity and ask yourself the above questions, or seek support in doing this.

It might help to talk to a GP, a listening service such as Samaritans, your local Mind, or perhaps a counsellor via the company’s Employee Assistance Programme.  Anxiety UK’s website has resources, information, and support options.

What a relief!

It is not your role to transform a workplace conversation into a therapy session. (‘Boundaries’ are a key element in mental health training.)

It is about seeking to understand as far as is appropriate – within a work culture that proactively supports wellbeing.  This is often a huge relief to anyone who feels apprehensive about ‘mental health’ conversations.  It is a powerful place to start.

The course was really useful; Colette is very reassuring, knowledgeable and caring.  The emphasis on looking after our own mental health was great, as I tend to get too involved and affected by other peoples worries.  The tool kit is excellent, and I learnt a lot about myself. Thank you very much.

Anxiety is just one aspect of Mental Health.

Our training covers more on the practical skills and knowledge that enables us to have effective conversations in the workplace, including how to signpost to support.

Contact us if you would like to learn more about Mental Health Awareness Training with Colette at Jewel.