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3rd May, 2023

Olivia Maguire
Olivia Maguire
Job Title
Content Marketing Lead

This Mental Health Awareness Week (15-21 May) is focussed on the theme of anxiety – aiming to increase awareness and understanding of anxiety, how it can impact people, and how to prevent it from becoming a big problem.

To gain insight into how managers can better support their team members who are suffering with anxiety, we spoke to Simon Coombs, Founder Director of Working Minds Group - specialists in mental health and wellbeing and employability.

Simon Coombs

Q: This Mental Health Awareness Week aims to promote the difference between being stressed/worrying and suffering with an anxiety disorder. Please can you explain the difference?

A: When we consider our own mental health, or that of a loved one, friend or colleague, it is important to understand the difference between a natural or ‘normal’ level of stress, which all of us will encounter in everyday life, and ‘distress’, when we are adversely impacted by our thoughts and feelings. We can differentiate between these by considering what might represent normal stress/anxiety circumstances in our lives. For example, feeling anxious (we might call it ‘butterflies’ in our stomach) before a job interview or appraisal at work, going on a date, making a presentation, performance anxiety and so on. This type of anxiety is normal, expected and generally healthy. Ordinarily, we can recognise this as a natural process, sometimes with a little adrenaline release, which enables us to remain in control of ourselves and our outcomes. This is important.

Conversely, an anxiety disorder is when we become overwhelmed or paralysed by specific, or nonspecific, thoughts and feelings, leading to negative emotional and physical experiences and outcomes. There are several types of anxiety disorders including general anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and separation anxiety disorder.

GAD for example, can be a long-term condition, developed over time, that can lead to someone feeling anxious about a wide range of issues and situations rather than one specific circumstance. These can manifest at home, at work, socially and so on. People experiencing GAD often feel anxious every day and will find it difficult to relax or ‘switch off’ as their minds jump from one issue to another. They will feel restless and worried, they may experience difficulties with concentration, and almost always struggle with healthy sleep patterns.

As opposed to natural levels of stress/anxiety, these conditions occur when we feel we are overwhelmed and not in control of our outcomes, whatever they may be.

Q: What causes anxiety disorders and to what extent can they be brought on by work?

A: Anxiety disorders almost always develop over time. More often than not, they may have origins in our past life experiences, such as childhood, school life, parenting, relationships and so on. If we have not been able to process past negative life experiences/circumstances – in other words, understand and move beyond what has happened and its impact on us as a human – it’s likely that we will remain troubled at some level, by them. This could potentially manifest later into an anxiety disorder, which in turn, can be triggered by something in the present.

Triggers are reminders of moments when we have been at our most vulnerable. These reminders may be obvious to us, or they may not. We may have been bullied at school, so an overbearing manager or co-worker can, without knowing it, bring all those feelings of distress flooding back. Excessive workloads can remind us of being unable to manage and feel out of control (we might worry about being fired). Poor training may make us panic about ‘getting it wrong’. High targets may lead to feelings of failure, low self-worth, and performance anxiety.

Q: At what stage is an anxiety disorder considered a disability and what does an employer need to do if this is the case?

A: In broad terms, a mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a substantial and long-term effect on your day-to-day activity. This is defined under the Equality Act 2010, and I would refer all employers to consult that document.

Q: To what extent is anxiety linked to depression?

A: While it does not necessarily follow that someone suffering with anxiety or depression will also experience the other condition as a result, studies indicate that these conditions can be linked and there is a potential likelihood that this can be the case.

Q: Should the way you approach a team member change depending on whether they are struggling with feelings of anxiousness versus if they have a diagnosed anxiety disorder?

A: These situations are extremely sensitive and should be managed accordingly. Many people struggle through their lives without a formal diagnosis from their GP, and many will have developed their own coping mechanisms to get through day-to-day living. These may work, they may not, but if the underlying reasons are not tackled, through employment-related therapeutic support, those mechanisms may well erode over time and manifest in different ways at work.

All mental health related concerns require a compassionate, inclusive, and supportive approach at work which must be managed with consistency and a duty of care. Being a caring employer with an open, honest, and positive working culture around mental health, with access to support services, leads to better performance, retention, decreased sick leave, and employee loyalty. This can contribute massively to making an organisation a great place to work.

Q: How can anxiety impact someone at work? And what signs can managers look out for in their team members that might signify they are suffering with anxiety?

A: All the signs are there if we care to look out for them, both in ourselves and our colleagues. We can feel constantly worried or apprehensive. We may become avoidant to our day-to-day duties such as answering the phone and emails. We may ‘overthink’, fearing the worst outcomes. We may have panic attacks, feel short of breath or muscle tension. We might notice someone getting angry or impatient or tearful. Increased sickness or becoming more withdrawn, less talkative or, conversely, more outwardly negative, and lacking motivation are common signs to look out for.

Q: Are there any common misconceptions around anxiety that people should be aware of?

A: Like any aspect of mental health, sometimes we may feel like there is nothing that can be done to help, or “I can’t have any control over these feelings”. This is absolutely not the case. Sharing how we are feeling is so important. At work, talk to a friend/colleague, your manager (and if you are a manager, this means you too). If you have access to employee therapy support, check it out. It’s there for your benefit so use it. Talk to your GP or, in extreme situations, call Samaritans.

Q: What are some things that managers shouldn’t say or do to those with anxiety?

A: A client recently shared with me, that their manager had told them to “pull themselves together” (yes, really!!) when they were really struggling with anxiety at work. Despite the major inroads into better understanding and support for employees’ mental health in the workplace, I am certain there are still many people who, for their own reasons, choose not to recognise their responsibilities in this area.

Rather than focus on what should or shouldn’t be said, it’s a common-sense approach that is required. Be discreet and sensitive. Creating a positive culture where it’s okay not to be okay, and checking in regularly with how people are doing, brings huge benefits in health, wellbeing, retention, and performance.

Q: What are the best ways that managers can support employees who are dealing with anxiety or anxiety disorders?

A: In 2023, awareness around mental health and wellbeing has never been higher but there is still much to do in terms of employers providing a compassionate, supportive, and educated work environment for their employees. Forward thinking organisations are providing specialist mental health support services to colleagues, to complement the additional help, that for various reasons, employees are less likely to access.

In addition, managers can promote healthy attitudes to exercise, diet and nutrition and relaxation. Providing ‘down time’ or relaxation spaces and organisation workshops and awareness sessions are proven to increase colleague satisfaction in these areas and focusing on Mental Health Awareness Week is a good place to start.

A positive working culture builds confidence in all to be honest with themselves and their colleagues, about health and wellbeing. At Working Minds, we don’t expect managers to be clinicians – that’s our job – but if you begin with compassion, do not judge, listen, and then ensure your colleagues are aware of the support available and check in with them, you’ll build a great environment for your people and yourself which will benefit everyone and make your organisation a great place to work.

If you are looking for talented professionals to join your team, get in touch with one of our specialist consultants today.