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If You're Doing These 4 Things to Reduce Anxiety at Work, You're a Better Leader Than You Think

If the global pandemic has had one silver lining, it might be the realization among leaders at all levels that anxiety is a real business issue. They were home with family, feeling isolated, and struggling to stay connected with their teams. As their level of anxiety rose, many experienced a realization that mental well-being is a real concern. Anxiety levels are rising like nothing we've seen before. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by mid-2020 more than 30 percent of Americans were reporting symptoms of an anxiety disorder, including a whopping 42 percent of people in their 20s. In their new book, Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, & Get Stuff Done, New York Times bestselling authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton address this issue for anyone who runs a team. They dispel a number of pernicious myths -- for example, that anxiety-ridden people are less productive, and that those who are suffering from anxiety should avoid stressful situations. They then offer managers a set of simple practices that can help alleviate the anxiety of team members, nurture their resilience, and foster productivity. I recently caught up with the two authors, who shared a few of the steps from Anxiety at Work that will help leaders become better at building mentally healthy workplaces.

1. Remove what uncertainty you can. Few things generate more unknowns than our modern workplaces. And the biggest unknown of all: whether our jobs will last. While some leaders believe uncertainty and the resulting stress will get their people fired up for a challenge, that's simply not the case for a large portion of the workforce. Uncertainty often triggers detrimental consequences on performance. And uncertainty is intensified when managers at all levels don't communicate clearly, precisely, and consistently about challenges facing their organizations--and how those issues may affect their teams and their people. What managers can do is communicate clearly and regularly about the future vision of the company, what they know of challenges and what the organization is doing to address them, and especially how those issues may impact their team and their priorities.

2. Help manage perfectionism. According to the authors, perfectionism is becoming rampant in workplaces; and what makes it so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure. In other words, they believe acceptance is conditional on their flawless performance. Managers can do a lot to ease the tensions caused by perfectionism by giving those with this inclination the right jobs on the team (tasks with a narrower focus that are suited to their fastidiousness) and by helping them understand when a job is good enough and giving them explicit permission to move on. This also involves increasing people's self-awareness and helping them see how obsessive behavior negatively affects others, and even pairing them with reformed perfectionists who can serve as role models.

3. Transform exclusion into connection. More than seven out of every 10 workers say they have experienced some degree of exclusion in their teams, and that was even before the coronavirus pandemic isolated so many, state the authors. Exclusion in the workplace can have long-term psychological implications. How are managers supposed to see what's not happening--especially when so many are still working from home? Gostick and Elton say they must look carefully for snubs and omissions, for those who may be feeling left out. It's not just who doesn't get lunch invites, but who in team meetings is regularly cut off or disagreed with. They can also ensure that all team members can voice their opinions in meetings and have their voices heard in a calm, organized manner; buddy up new hires with more seasoned employees with whom they might form a connection (friendly seasoned employees, that is); and spend time in every meeting recognizing the contributions of individuals as well as those of the group as a whole.

4. Use gratitude to build assurance. One of the worst parts of anxiety is that it can make competent people feel insecure and start questioning their inner strengths. Many high-performing people constantly doubt themselves and their abilities. And yet too few leaders express gratitude to their people about work well done. The authors offer several tips to help. For instance, generic comments around the workplace such as "great work" have never cut it, especially when it comes to reassuring anxious team members. Employees hear such nonspecific praise and tend to dismiss it, especially those who may be feeling self-doubt. Instead, grateful leaders home in on a particular aspect of achievement or manner in which a person is going about their work. In addition, to help quell anxious feelings, they say gratitude should occur soon after an achievement. When team members do something above and beyond and then hear nothing from their manager for days or weeks, they can start to worry. And frankly, in 99 percent of cases, when managers put it off, they forget. If leaders want to reinforce the right behaviors and reduce anxiety levels, they should keep gratitude close to the action--soon after they see good things happening.

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