Is It Me or the Job? The Causes of Workplace Anxiety

Dennis Relojo-Howell

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Dennis Relojo-Howell, (2019, October 17). Is It Me or the Job? The Causes of Workplace Anxiety. Psychreg on Organisational Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/causes-of-workplace-anxiety/
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Do you feel unhappy at work? Do you feel a sense of dread when you wake up each workday morning? Do you get butterflies and feel panicky walking into the office each day? If the answer is yes, you could be suffering from workplace anxiety.

Statistics released by the Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal that in 2017–18 there were 595,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety and that 15.4 million working days were lost as a result.

A recent survey by the Korn Ferry Institute of 2,000 professionals found that nearly two-thirds of respondents feel their stress levels are higher than they were five years ago. More than three-quarters said stress was having a negative impact on personal relationships and 66% reported losing sleep as a result of stress.

Workplace anxiety is on the rise

Research indicates that a significant number of people are suffering from workplace stress. This isn’t good for employees or business. It’s detrimental to productivity, work quality, work and personal relationships, well-being and ultimately business success. Employers should be doing more to tackle this issue and support employees.

There are lots of factors involved in anxiety and the exact causes can be difficult to unpick. Anxiety can build slowly and manifest long after the real cause. Childhood experiences, your current situation (including a build-up of stress at work), mental health problems and medication can all have an impact on anxiety levels.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a person’s response to stress and is typically characterised by a feeling of dread. In small doses stress and anxiety is a normal part of neurological functioning. It can help us to handle difficult situations more effectively and perform better. But when these feelings become persistent or overwhelming, anxiety becomes detrimental.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the signs and symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • Restlessness
  • A feeling of dread
  • Feeling ‘on edge’
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Dry mouth

In addition, anxiety can cause fatigue and muscle tension. Constant worrying is another sign. So, when does anxiety become a problem? When symptoms start to impact on your happiness and ability to carry out your daily life, then it could be a sign of something more serious. 

Symptoms can reach a crescendo to cause a panic attack. Commonly this includes a racing heart, tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers, shortness of breath, chest pains, feeling faint and a feeling of terror, all of which combine to mimic the common signs and symptoms of a heart attack.

While anxiety in certain circumstances is a natural human response, continued stress can keep us in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ state, leading to health problems such as anxiety attacks and depression, as well as increasing susceptibility to a variety of chronic diseases, such as digestive disorders and heart problems.

What are the causes of workplace anxiety?

The previously mentioned Korn Ferry study found that bosses are the largest source of workplace stress. Heavy workload, job insecurity, lack of direction, lack of fairness, and long hours can also all take their toll on the hardiest of employees.

Let’s take a look at some of the causes of workplace anxiety in more detail.

Your boss

Bad managers can take a serious psychological toll. Toxic bosses range from the mildly incompetent to those with controlling and bullying tendencies. The extreme kind of toxic boss (narcissistic) creates an environment of fear. Prolonged exposure can have a profound effect on anxiety levels and well-being. But even a slightly dysfunctional boss can unknowingly contribute to anxiety levels. 

Micromanagement, poor communication, a lack of direction or never being there to help may not constitute extreme bullying behaviour, but can still have a negative impact on employee satisfaction and contribute to feelings of anxiety.

Ultimately, toxic bosses only exist in poor business cultures. If you are working in a toxic work environment (see some of the signs here), then it’s likely your job is considerably contributing to your anxiety, even if it isn’t the sole cause.

Long working hours

Evidence suggests that long working hours are a considerable contributor to exhaustion, stress and anxiety. It’s unsurprising since long working hours are likely to mean less time to relax and often results in getting less sleep. The end of the 9–5 era, thanks to our digital age and always-switched-on culture, is playing havoc with working hours. Many in the gig economy compensate low wages with extra hours.

One study of 51, 895 employees across 36 European countries found that increased work effort has a detrimental effect on employees with reduced well-being and poorer career-related outcomes noted as significant. Persistent exposure to tight deadlines was found to be a strong predictor of reduced well-being.

US researcher and business consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues that most modern employees get more done when they work less, and that optimum productivity comes from working for as little as four hours a day. 

One report exploring the impact of long working hours on well-being points out the need to also look at the effect of working conditions on stress. If a job is wretched and overly stressful, even a few hours of it can be an existential nightmare.

A lack of autonomy

If your boss is looking over your shoulder every five minutes, it sends a message that they don’t trust what you are doing. Quite simply, this erodes confidence. 

At best, micromanagement can make one feel frustrated and resentful, but over longer periods a persistent lack of autonomy can seriously add to feelings of anxiety.  Research shows that when employees are given more freedom and autonomy in their job roles, job satisfaction and employee happiness improve.

Heavy workload

Bizfluent report that a heavy workload is one of the primary causes of stress in the workplace. While outside factors, such as financial insecurity, may force people to take on heavy workloads, it is still the expectation in many businesses that employees take on more work than they really have time for. 

Heavy workload is linked to increased stress and anxiety, poor sleep, fatigue and ultimately job burnout. The impact on business is as negative as the effects on the individual. Employees who are under pressure to perform and suffering from stress are less focused, make more mistakes and are less productive.

Summary

Workplace anxiety is real, it’s growing, and employers need to do more to address the problem. If you are feeling anxious at work and don’t feel you can trust your boss to talk openly about it, then chances are your job is one of the reasons why you are feeling anxious in the first place.

Recognising the signs of workplace anxiety is the first step to making improvements. This may include a frank discussion with your boss about working hours and workload. 

There are also steps you can take to reduce job stress and look after yourself, such as taking regular breaks, eating healthily and getting enough rest. The more you can do to support good health, the easier you will find it to deal with stressful situations at work.

Ultimately, if you are working in a toxic work environment, or have a narcissistic or bullying boss, it could be time you found a new job in a business that values its employees.


Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He is also the editor-in-chief of Psychreg Journal Psychology, and writes a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today

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