According to the charity Mind 1 in 6 workers in the UK will suffer some kind of mental health issue like stress or anxiety during the course of their career. Indeed, around 15% of people across the UK as a whole are affected by an anxiety disorder Anxiety UK. The largest group of sufferers is said to be 18 to 34 year olds, who feel they need to put on a brave face and “look fine” when they’re feeling anxious. Worryingly, almost a third of this age group are said to believe that showing your emotions is a sign of weakness.
It’s so important to understand that mental illness is just as unpleasant – and as real – as physical illness. You can’t help it and it’s nothing you’ve done wrong. After all, it’s unlikely you’d feel embarrassed to tell HR or your boss if you’ve got a cold or broken your arm. Anxiety is a normal human emotion, just like feeling happy, angry or excited. Unfortunately, for some people the anxiety they feel doesn’t seem to have an ‘off’ switch, which over time can lead to panic attacks, weight problems, poor sleep patterns and more.
Sadly there’s still plenty of work to do when it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety in the workplace. But the good news is there are steps you can take to help yourself if you’re starting to struggle.
Stress is very common with employees, and everyone is likely to feel stressed from time to time. But how do you know when it’s not just normal stress you’re feeling, but a possible anxiety disorder?
1.You’re making changes to your daily routine to accommodate your anxiety
These might include avoiding certain situations, even if they used to be things you enjoyed.
2.You’re struggling to concentrate
This might mean you can’t follow the plot of a film or TV programme like you used to, or you repeatedly read the same page of your book without taking it in.
3.Your thoughts are racing
Acute stress is often characterised by overthinking and worrying a lot about different things, as well as having too many thoughts all at once. It can be very hard to stay calm and think clearly.
4.You don’t feel like eating, or you overeat
Sometimes stress and anxiety can make you feel queasy so you don’t want to eat. Or some people go the opposite way and comfort eat. Look out for any unusual changes in your appetite or the kinds of foods you’re eating.
5.You feel short tempered
Stress and anxiety can make you feel wound up, and you might notice you’ve been snapping more at your family and friends.
6.You have difficulty sleeping
Sleep is vital in keeping your mental health in the best condition it can be. If you’re stressed or anxious, you may find you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. You might also find you wake up much earlier than usual or end up sleeping longer than you used to.
If you’re worried about your anxiety levels at work, there are several things you can do.
Tell your boss or speak to HR
The best way forward – if you feel able to – is to speak to your boss, line manager or HR. Choose a time when you won’t be rushed and where you can speak somewhere private. Explain the difficulties you’ve been experiencing and try to be as open and honest as possible. Your employer has a duty of care towards you and you need to give them a chance to make reasonable adjustments to help improve your stress levels. It’s actually in the best interests of your workplace to keep you there because they won’t want to lose you to long term sickness leave if it’s at all avoidable.
Consider your workload
If you’re feeling swamped at work, set aside a few minutes to write a to-do list at the beginning of each day. Work your way through it and try not to be distracted by incoming emails. If you’re constantly ‘firefighting’ - trying to deal with everything as it pops up - you’re quickly going to feel stressed and overwhelmed. The end of the day will come and you’ll realise you’ve done nothing on your to-do list, which is enough to make anyone stressed. By concentrating on one thing at a time you’ll keep a clearer head and be more productive.
Visit your doctor
Stress and anxiety are very treatable and a trip to your GP is a good place to start. Tell them everything you’ve been feeling and how it’s affecting you, your job and your life. Depending on the course of action your doctor recommends, you may be given a prescription for some antidepressant or antianxiety medication as well as a referral for some talking therapy, either individually or in a group. The important thing is you get the ball rolling as early as possible.
You may also find certain websites helpful in offering tips and therapies, or simply so you can find out more information. Anxiety UK, Mind, the NHS website and Elefriends are great sources of support and advice.
Give yourself a treat
When you’ve managed to tick something off your to-do list, sit back and relax for a few minutes rather than going straight into the next task. Although it’s tempting to just carry on quickly, by thinking about and appreciating what you’ve just achieved, you’ll foster a feeling of accomplishment and wellbeing which is great for reducing stress. Also, plan something at the end of the week for you to look forward to. This could be a trip to the coast, a Friday night takeaway or simply a piece of your favourite cake.
Take regular breaks
Every hour or so, have a couple of minutes to yourself to go for a walk around the car park or grab a coffee. Also, don’t take all your annual leave at the beginning of your leave year! Spread it out evenly so you’ve got time off to look forward to when you can unwind or go on holiday.
Download a mindfulness app
Offered through Anxiety UK, the Headspace app is well worth a try as it allows you to access mindfulness in easy bite size chunks and takes only around ten minutes to complete. Sit somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed (sitting in your car over lunch time is good) and put your headphones on. It’s designed to slow your thoughts and calm you down so you can be in the here and now, without overthinking the future.
Stay fed and hydrated
It sounds obvious but when you’re busy it’s easy to forget the basics. Make sure you get plenty of good, nourishing food throughout the day, and aim to drink at least two litres of water or squash. Caffeine stimulates the production of adrenaline in your body which can make anxiety worse, so keep tea and coffee to a minimum.
Keep a clean and tidy workspace
At the end of your working day, tidy up your desk and do some brief planning for the next day so you haven’t got a pile of paperwork waiting for you when you come in. If everything is clean and tidy you’ll be more organised and will be able to find things more easily, which is helpful in restoring a feeling of control.
Don’t let work dominate your life
Of course work is very important but it doesn’t define who you are and it isn’t the be-all and end-all. If things aren’t going your way at work – which they are bound to sometimes – it’s easy to catastrophise and feel like everything you do is wrong and life is falling apart. This is very common when you’re stressed, and certainly if you have an issue with anxiety.
Your work is something you (hopefully) enjoy and take some satisfaction in, but it’s not who you are or your reason for being. Try and nurture some interests away from work like socialising, or taking up a sport. Not only will these alleviate anxiety symptoms naturally, they will also give you a sense of perspective.
No employee is perfect – in fact no person is perfect! Even the most experienced and enthusiastic workers make mistakes or have periods when they’re not as productive as they’d like to be. It’s called being human.
Remember - You’re not alone
Anxiety and is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. The fact is at least 1 in 3 people will go through some sort of mental health issue, like depression or anxiety, during their lifetime, and the figure is growing.
The worst thing you can do is try to ignore it and hope it gets better; it won’t, in fact it’s likely to get worse. By sharing your experience and how you’ve been feeling, you’re very likely to be surprised at how supportive people can be – and how many people admit to feeling the same.
I’m worried about having a panic attack at work. What can I do?
Firstly, try to stay calm. By worrying about having a panic attack, you’re likely to kick off a negative cycle that is self-fulfilling – i.e actually make it more likely. If you can feel panic starting to rise, you may notice your heart races and your breathing rate increases. As soon as this happens, step away from the situation and have a breather. Go for a walk, sit in your car for a few minutes or simply head off to the loo. Take some deep breaths and concentrate on breathing more slowly to help that racing feeling pass.
Go easy on yourself
Work is about being productive, energetic and enthusiastic. Sure you’re not going to feel on top of the world every day, but if you’re becoming stressed and anxious most days, or whilst you’re at home, then it’s time to do something about it. Reach out, be kind to yourself, and don’t suffer alone.