How To Manage Workplace Anxiety in Difficult Times

Earlier this year, Salesforce research highlighted a major awareness gap between C-suite leaders and their employees: 71% of leaders said their employees were engaged with work, but only 51% of employees said they were. What’s more, 70% of leaders reported their employees were happy, but only 44% of employees said they were.

This gap in perception versus reality — what I call the Great Disconnect — is stunning and has real consequences for the health of your company. 

To be blunt, the C-suite appears to be out of touch with its employees’ reality. The research shows that employees are not only disengaged and unhappy, but also anxious and fearful.  

How is the Great Disconnect affecting your bottom line?

Learn how bridging the gap between leadership and employees can drive revenue.

In June, McKinsey dedicated an entire newsletter to the topic of workplace anxiety. The consulting firm said “anxiety and depression levels have increased by 25% globally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

That shouldn’t be a surprise. But McKinsey went a step further and surveyed executives about not only workplace anxiety but fear as well. What the survey found is alarming: 85% of executives believe fear holds back innovation efforts at their organizations. And according to the research, 90% of companies aren’t doing anything about it. 

Understanding what “fear” means in the context of business is important. McKinsey discovered that corporate innovation is stifled primarily by three types of fear: fear of criticism, fear of uncertainty, and fear of negative career impact

Criticism and rejection can cause physical pain. Your brain processes them the same way as pain.

Fear can also have a negative career impact by affecting personal growth. It stops you from trying new things. And trying new things is the foundation of innovation. 

The impact of workplace anxiety is deep — and costly

You might think anxiety doesn’t have a real business impact, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The World Health Organization states that anxiety and depression have a significant economic impact, costing the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity

Another recent study found that a quarter of non-executive employees feel stressed all or most of the time. For supervisors, it’s 49%. 

Some of this stress can be attributed to the fact that trust and accountability are lacking between employees and their managers. Further, career development opportunities for employees can be scarce. The World Economic Forum says 50% of employees will need new skills by 2025, but only a small percentage of companies and employees are taking action. Employees are not prepared, which means companies are not prepared, and a lack of skills to “do the job” leads to even further stress, burnout, and quitting.

Why you should care about the Great Disconnect

During the first five months of 2022, 26 million people quit their jobs. That was up 14% from 2021, when a record number walked out the door. Nearly one in five employees said in a survey that they were planning to leave their companies within the next year.  Furthermore, at least 50% of the U.S. workforce is “quiet quitting”, according to Gallup — meaning they’re doing the bare minimum at work

What’s the actual cost of high turnover? Studies show that replacing an employee can cost up to 200% of their salary. 

Once their trust and confidence is broken, today’s employees have few qualms about leaving. Their happiness and balance are more important.

How to help your team with workplace anxiety

What can you do to help your team, especially as we head into the unknown with the economy? The first answer is to help yourself. That’s right: as a leader, you need to manage your own anxiety before you can lead others through theirs. Here are some things that have helped me manage my stress throughout the years:

  1. Get to the root of it. Identify what’s preventing you from getting started and “put your fears on trial.” Oftentimes, naming my fear enables me to remove the roadblock keeping me at a standstill. 
  2. Be precious about your to-do lists. Break up that never-ending list into what can be done today. I assign blocks of time for each task, no matter how big or small. 
  3. Celebrate your wins each week with a “to-done” list! Take time to reflect on your accomplishments — even the smallest wins count.

Harvard Business Review offers some great steps on how to manage your anxiety. Another area to focus on is mindfulness. The wellbeing website Thrive lists 10 strategies to implement and practice mindfulness at work.

Lead by taking action 

Once you’ve gotten a handle on your own anxiety, you can show up to support your team. It’s important that we foster environments where teams can experiment and innovate without a fear of failure. 

Employees expect their teams — and their leaders — to support them and value their input. In a recent survey, 1,050 knowledge workers in the U.S. were asked, “How valuable is it that your team does the following?” Of those surveyed:

  • 87% saw value in “Steps up when times are tough.”
  • 82% saw value in “Supports me so I can take time off.”
  • 84% saw value in “Shows recognition and gratitude.”
  • 83% saw value in “Fosters a sense of belonging and purpose.”

The same survey found that only 39% of managers act on feedback, despite its importance to employees. Don’t be that manager. Use your soft skills and beef up your emotional IQ to listen and learn, and to build empathy and trust. And from trust, innovation will grow.

With all the conversations I’ve had with leaders on these topics, I often wonder if I’d be a better people leader today than I was in the past. While it’s been a long time since I was a people manager, there are many things I hope I’d do differently today. I’m more aware of burnout and wellbeing, and how they affect innovation and growth. In the spirit of having a beginner’s mindset, here are some ways you can support your team:

  1. Prioritize psychological safety. Go beyond everyone’s to-do list in your meetings. Keep an eye out for hidden anxiety, fear, or burnout. Be patient and, when possible, be open about your own wellbeing.
  2. Give your team the tools to manage wellbeing on their own time. Introduce resources (like the Thrive App), which people can use when they need it. 
  3. Celebrate failure – it’s a learning opportunity! Encourage people to share what they tried that failed and what they did to correct it. The first few times won’t be easy, but people will gradually be more willing to share, especially if you lead the way. Their solutions will become invaluable to others facing similar challenges. 

Here’s where you can start today

We’ve covered a lot of strategies, and there’s one common thread across many of them: listening. It all starts by being a good listener — and then a good responder. Even the harshest feedback can be a gift, especially if it helps you meet your team’s needs. The result will be stronger bonds, more creativity, and innovation for the future. 

Where is the economy headed?

Hear Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers speak about the global economy — its past and its future — at Dreamforce.

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