Workplace anxiety: what to do if you feel too anxious to work

If your anxiety is affecting your ability to work, read our advice on how to manage your symptoms and get the treatment you need in order to start feeling better.

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What is workplace anxiety?

Workplace anxiety is the presence of the symptoms of anxiety, such as feelings of unease, worry or apprehension, about work. These feelings could occur whilst you’re in the workplace or outside of working hours. The causes of workplace anxiety include worries about your job performance, working relationships, working excessive hours, upcoming deadlines, your job security or a toxic workplace culture.

Workplace anxiety, and similar mental health concerns like stress and depression, is a common issue in the modern workplace – with the Health and Safety Executive stating those conditions accounting for 50% of all work-related ill health cases.

Suffering from anxiety at work can seriously affect your ability to do your job.

Work anxiety symptoms

We all feel stress and anxiety in our daily lives, so it is totally normal to feel anxious about your job from time to time. Given our jobs play a significant part in our lives, it’s normal to feel anxious when workplace pressures are especially high or if you’re starting a new job.

If you have workplace anxiety, you might experience symptoms such as:

  • A persistent sense of worry, apprehension, dread or hopelessness
  • Feeling trapped and unable to find a ‘way out’
  • Feeling fearful, paranoid and tense
  • Anger and impatience
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Panic attacks
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue

These symptoms might result in an inability for you to do your job, as you’re unable to concentrate or feel motivated to do the tasks that you’ve been given. Over time, it might lead to your performance dropping, a breakdown in your working relationships or you spending more time on sick leave.

If you are experiencing a number of these symptoms over a period of weeks and months, it could be that your workplace is causing you to develop generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). If you’re really struggling with your professional life, you should seek an anxiety diagnosis from your GP or other mental health professional.

Managing anxiety at work

While you may feel too anxious to work at the moment, you may find some of these tips useful when the time is right and you’re ready to re-enter the workplace:

Plan ahead

Take the time to plan out your days and weeks. That way, you will have full visibility of the tasks you want and need to accomplish. A well-structured plan will help you to feel in control of your work and your working day, which can ease any feelings of anxiousness.

Break each task down into manageable chunks

While this may extend the length of your to-do list, breaking bigger tasks down into smaller action points will help you to methodically work through tasks. This way, you avoid becoming overwhelmed by the idea of having to complete the larger project. Being able to tick off each step you do can also be a great confidence boost.

Give yourself realistic deadlines

Setting ambitious deadlines for projects will only ever add to your anxiety. By breaking down bigger tasks into smaller steps, you can start to get a realistic picture of how long a project will take – use this planning stage to set deadlines that you are comfortable with. If you need to, make people aware of the different steps that need to be completed, to help them understand why’ve you’ve set certain deadlines.

Ask for help

We understand that asking for help at work can be difficult for someone with anxiety, as you worry that people will view you as inadequate. If your workload becomes too much - or you need a little bit of support on a project - a reasonable manager will respect you for being responsible and will want you to have the support that you need to get the work done.

Accept that you will experience some anxiety

Everyone experiences anxiety from time-to-time. When people experience stress, it’s the natural human response. For people struggling with an anxiety disorder, who may experience anxiety more intensely or more often than people without the condition, it is important to have the coping strategies in place to help manage the moments that feel overwhelming. Professional support and therapy can help you to develop these coping skills for the future.

Take good care of yourself

Good self-care is important, as it can stop your stress and anxiety from becoming unmanageable. Take proper breaks during the working day so that you have a chance to rest and recharge. And make sure that you are getting adequate sleep, eating healthily, exercising, and taking part in social.

What should I do if I’m too anxious to work?

If you’ve been feeling too anxious to work lately and want to start tackling your symptoms, below are a few steps that you may find helpful:

Contact your GP or a mental health doctor

A GP or a mental health specialist will be able to provide you with access to the anxiety treatment you need to start dealing with your symptoms.

Working through a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) programme is a common treatment that is used to help people with anxiety disorders. During these sessions, you work with a therapist to understand the causes and triggers of your anxiety. You then learn and practise coping techniques to help you better manage triggers and symptoms going forward.

When you have the right coping skills and strategies in place to deal with anxiety, you are likely to feel more comfortable and confident about going to work once again. Medication may also be prescribed alongside a therapy programme, to help with the management of your anxiety disorder.

Think about your past jobs to help you plan for the future

Take some time to identify what caused you to feel anxious during previous jobs and, if you are currently employed, what makes you feel too anxious to work in the job you have now. Is there anything you could do to manage these symptoms in any future work you do?

For example, you may have found that your anxiety spikes when you have to interact with certain people, or when you become overloaded with tasks, responsibilities or deadlines.

Think about what you would want to be different in a future workplace. Would you prefer to work with a smaller group of people or to be employed in a less deadline-driven, high-pressure environment? The right job for you will be one that doesn’t cause your anxiety to rise to an unmanageable level.

Talk to someone you trust

If you feel too anxious to work, it is likely that your anxiety is impacting on other areas of your life too. Don’t try to keep what you are going through to yourself.

Speak to the people you are close to. Talking through anxiety can be a good way of processing your overwhelming emotions. Also, having a conversation with someone you trust, such as a family member or close friend, will help you to feel supported and understood.

Join a support group

Many people with anxiety find it useful to talk with those who have had similar experiences to themselves. It can help you to feel understood and it can also be a way of getting advice and support from people who can relate to what you are going through.

If you would like to join a support group, contact your GP or health professional who will be able to make recommendations and refer you to the most suitable group.

Page clinically reviewed by Dr Renju Joseph (MBBS, MD, LLM, MRCPsych), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Woodbourne

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