Workplace anxiety isn't always a bad thing

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Workplace anxiety isn't always a bad thing

Workplace anxiety isn't always a bad thing, according to a new study. The research, on anxiety in the workplace, has uncovered some intriguing findings: in some instances anxiety and stress can help boost employee performance.   "There are a lot of theories and models of anxiety that exist, but this is the first model situated in the workplace focusing on employees," says the co-author. The researchers looked at both the triggers of workplace anxiety and its relationship to employee performance.   "If you have too much anxiety, and you're completely consumed by it, then it's going to derail your performance," say the researchers. "On the other hand, moderate levels of anxiety can facilitate and drive performance."   Obviously if employees are constantly distracted or thinking about things that are causing them to be anxious, it will prevent them from completing tasks at work and that can eventually lead to exhaustion and burnout.   But in certain situations, anxiety can boost performance by helping employees focus and self-regulate their behavior. The researchers compare it to athletes who are trained to harness anxiety to remain motivated and stay on task. Likewise, if employees engage in something called self-regulatory processing, that is monitoring their progress on a task and focusing their efforts toward performing that task, it can help boost their performance.   "After all, if we have no anxiety and we just don't care about performance, then we are not going to be motivated to do the job," says the lead author.   

She maintains that work-anxious employees who are motivated are more likely to harness anxiety to help them focus on their tasks. Those who are emotionally intelligent, can recognize their feelings of anxiety and use them to regulate their performance and are also less likely to have anxiety affect their performance.   The model of workplace anxiety the researchers developed is broken into two categories.   One covers dispositional aspects, that is those that align with individual character traits. If someone already experiences high levels of general anxiety for example, their experiences with workplace anxiety will be different from those who don't.   

The other covers situational aspects, those that arise in specific job tasks. Some employees may be more affected by job appraisals, public speaking or other tasks that can distract them and lead to poor performance.   The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, also outlines many of the triggers for workplace anxiety. The most prominent include jobs that require constant expression or suppression of emotion—think "service with a smile”—as well as jobs with constant looming deadlines or frequent organizational change.   Office politics and control over work are other important factors. Employee characteristics including age, gender and job tenure can also affect the experience of workplace anxiety.   The authors note that anxiety is a growing issue for workplaces. Recent research has found that 72 per cent of Americans experiencing daily anxiety say it interferes with their work and personal lives.   While the authors do not condone inducing anxiety in employees to foster high performance, the good news for employees who chronically experience anxiety at work, or who experience it from time to time, is that it can help performance if they can self-regulate their behavior.   "Managing anxiety can be done by recognizing and addressing triggers of workplace anxiety, but also being aware of how to leverage it to drive performance," they say.   They conclude there are many strategies organizations can use to help employees. Some of these include training to help boost self-confidence, offering tools and resources to perform tasks at work, and equipping employees with strategies to recognize, use, and manage feelings of anxiety through emotional intelligence development.  

  So, what? A few years ago, Alicia and I did some work in South Africa and there I picked up a phrase which, I think, fits this research perfectly: Yes, well, no, fine! What is interesting about this research is the idea that some anxiety can drive performance. That is self-evidently true, and this is by no means the first research to highlight that. Management cannot eliminate all anxiety-provoking stressors from the workplace and human beings are programmed (like any other mammal) need a certain level of anxiety to keep their senses alert in case of danger.   However, as the researchers rightly assert, different people feel anxiety or stress at different times and it can be caused by quite different stressors. Only a full readout of a person’s history, neurochemistry and genetics would tell you which stressors might be harmful and which benign. At the moment even if we could do this, we couldn’t interpret it with any accuracy.   

The basic problem with the research is in the conclusions it draws. Firstly, there is no way of deciding what level of anxiety might be motivational for any individual. Secondly, emotional intelligence, whatever else it is, is not a tool that can be used to reduce or “manage” anxiety. They suggest it can be taught. That may be true, but I have seen no convincing research that supports it. Rather there are a bundle of studies which show that EI is, at least to some extent, genetic, (the most recent one done by Cambridge U scientists earlier this year) and a result of early childhood experience.   

What now? Reducing the level of stress and anxiety in the workplace is far more important than trying to “manage” it. The stress/anxiety/depression level of the modern work environment is rapidly increasing as multiple studies have affirmed (see past TRs). It’s not difficult to reduce overall stress and anxiety, as many organizations have found, but it does take a bit of thought, planning and leadership training. The benefits are huge—much greater than any gains that might come from trying to use anxiety as a motivator.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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