According to the WHO’s 2022 World Mental Health Report, an estimated 15% of all working-age adults suffer from some form of mental disorder, and 1 in 8 people worldwide live with a mental health condition. Anxiety disorder is the most common condition, impacting more than 301 million people.
In 2020, the numbers of people living with anxiety disorders and depression rose significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic with initial figures indicating a 26% increase in anxiety disorders alone. Add to this the fact that approximately 12 billion workdays are lost annually due to anxiety and depression at a cost of nearly US$1 trillion to the global economy, and it’s clear that cultivating mental health-friendly workplaces is no longer a “nice to have”, but is quickly becoming both a human and business imperative.
When it comes to supporting employees suffering from anxiety disorders, there are a number of communication strategies you can adopt as well as policies and procedures you can implement to ensure those affected have the resources and environment they need to thrive.
In this article you’ll learn:
- How to recognize anxiety disorders
- How to manage a mental health crisis in the workplace
- 7 ways to support employees with anxiety disorders
- How to reintegrate an employee after a mental health absence
How to recognize anxiety disorders
According to the WHO, “anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fear and worry”, exhibiting symptoms that are “severe enough to result in significant distress or significant impairment in functioning.” In some employees this may manifest as nervousness, reduced productivity and/or difficulties with interpersonal relationships.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services specifies five main types of anxiety disorder:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – characterized by chronic, excessive worry
- Social anxiety disorder – overwhelming fear and worry in social situations
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – recurrent unwanted thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors
- Panic disorder – characterized by panic attacks
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – manifests in wide range of symptoms; develops after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened
Although stress can sometimes develop into anxiety, stress in and of itself is not considered a mental disorder. Stress is the body’s reaction to a threat, while anxiety is the body’s reaction to stress. Stress tends to be short term and in response to a recognized threat. Anxiety can linger and may seem as if nothing is triggering it. Both are part of the same fight or flight response and have similar symptoms, making it hard to distinguish between them sometimes. In any case, feeling stress and anxiety from time to time is completely normal, the issue is when either of these becomes overwhelming or chronic.
Many people experience anxiety in some form every day. While this type of anxiety disorder reduces quality of life, the good news is that with the right treatment it can be managed.
Technically speaking, “acute anxiety” is used to describe panic attacks, however the term can also describe any attack of “extreme, significant anxiety that comes on suddenly”. It may be triggered by intense fear, such as when confronted with a phobia or when experiencing real danger. “Attacks” of this nature can be experienced by those who do not have panic disorder as well.
How to manage a mental health crisis in the workplace
Before we dive into the ways in which you can help ensure employees with anxiety disorder feel safe and supported, it’s important to note that no matter how proactive you are about building a mental health-friendly organization, sometimes a mental health crisis just can’t be averted.
Here are some tips on what to do in an emergency:
- Assure the suffering employee that help is on the way and that you are there for them. If they are violent or you don’t feel safe in their presence, remove yourself and others from the space before calling for help. Keep emergency helpline numbers in a convenient spot!
- If possible, start talking to the affected individual with empathy. If it feels appropriate, encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply. In the case of a panic attack, you can ask them to watch while you gently raise your arm up and down and/or encourage them to stamp their feet on the ground – this can help take them out of the mental “loop” they’re in.
- If it feels appropriate, ask non-judgmental questions about how the employee is feeling and how they arrived at their current state. Listen carefully to their responses without offering advice, rationalizing or making remarks that downplay their emotions. Ensure they feel comfortable, seen and heard until professionals arrive.
7 ways to support employees with anxiety disorders
People with anxiety can often feel as though their lives are out of control. As a result, these individuals may avoid taking on additional tasks or even interacting with those around them.
Here are seven ways you can optimally communicate with and support employees with anxiety issues:
1 – Create a welcoming environment
Cluttered spaces can contribute to an employee’s anxiety as much as toxic behaviors and stressful work conditions, so evaluate all of these factors on a regular basis.
2 – Start the conversation
As the foundation to building a mental health-friendly workplace, reducing stigma and – in turn – the barriers many employees have to seeking support, experts recommend leaders broach the topic of mental health and serve as allies by “sharing their own personal experiences to foster an environment of transparency and openness.”
3 – Keep an open-door policy
Once you’ve started the conversation, it’s important to ensure workers feel there’s someone they can talk to in addition to their team lead, should any issues arise. Training someone in-house to be a Mental Well-being Ambassador or Mental Health First Aider can be helpful. Establishing an atmosphere of trust and authentic communication not only builds connection and community, it helps keep managers abreast of developing issues. Consider using anonymous surveys to reach out to employees (such as those created by employee evaluation specialists, Leapsome or Peakon), or even sending individual employees a link to a playful check-in scale and asking which image they most resonate with.
4 – Educate team leads
The WHO recommends manager training be used to “improve managers’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors” around mental health. Mental health benefits, such as those offered by nilo.health, not only cultivate mindfulness and resilience in individuals and promote authentic, healthy and caring interactions with colleagues, self-learning programs and virtual webinars teach team and leadership essentials such as psychological safety and mental health awareness.
5 – Offer accommodations
The UN recommends “reasonable work accommodations be implemented for workers with mental health conditions, including psychosocial disabilities, in line with international human rights principles.” Such accommodations could include shorter work weeks or allowing employees to telecommute.
Meet with the affected employee to discuss what course of action would best enable them to continue performing their duties while maintaining optimal mental health. Make sure you also discuss their preferred level of confidentiality—some people may feel better letting their team members know why their work status has changed, while others may prefer this information only be shared with those who absolutely need to know.
6 – Be flexible
Employees who have anxiety can experience days where their symptoms are worse than others. Because of this, they might sometimes need additional time for assignments or adjustments to their workload.
Keep in mind as well that employees coping with anxiety tend to not like surprises, so be transparent about the reasons behind any actions you take.
7 – Provide constructive feedback
Giving additional feedback to employees with anxiety can help manage goals and expectations all around, but be aware that the review process itself can trigger anxiety. To make reviews a more positive experience, be sure to focus on things the employee is doing well and give specific suggestions for how certain tasks can be improved upon, rather than generalizing.
Reintegrating an employee after a mental health absence
If worse has come to worst and one of your employees has had to take a leave of absence due to their mental health challenges, it’s essential that you have a clear roadmap in place to help them smoothly rejoin the team. For members of HR and direct team-leads: be there to listen, support and take any necessary action in the background. Sadly, relapses are common with many mental health issues, so it’s critical to create as powerful a safety net as possible.
Start by telling the affected employee in person that it’s good to have them back and ask how they’re doing. Make sure they know they can reach out anytime if they need anything.
On a larger scale, check that everyone involved in the employee’s reintegration knows what their role in the process is. Is there a support system in place within the team? Is there a safe space for the employee to work through any fears and issues they may have? Naturally having already established an open culture around mental health will be an enormous help here. Download our Corporate Sanity Guide for more in-depth advice on how to build a mental health-friendly organization.