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Three tips to reduce anxiety at work.

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Author: Andrew Jackson, CEO Rethinkly

Stressing situation at work

As I write this, I notice I didn’t sleep well last night. I was worrying about a work challenge and didn’t turn the laptop off early enough. D’oh…. Unfortunately, I don’t think this story is unusual. 35% of Britons get less than 7 hours of sleep a night with many of us affected by work-related stress and working anti-social hours. The numbers are stark - in the UK alone, stress, anxiety and depression are now the leading cause of work-related sickness absence, accounting for 17 million days.

Like so many of today’s challenges, there doesn’t seem to be a single or simple solution – action on employee wellbeing requires action from several different places in the system and is many people’s responsibility. In a recent blog, we covered the important role which employers can play. What about our role as colleagues, co-workers, teammates or peers – how might our own behaviour support those people around us, those we work with closely and see or talk to most days?

Anxiety is an emotion. Psychologists are still trying to work out exactly how emotions work, but one recent theory (1) is that they are generated as ‘predictive responses’ in our brain and body. Emotions are the result of our minds taking prior experiences and generating something which lands in our consciousness at any given moment. Put simply; they’re there for a reason: they evolved to help us take better future actions. Another evolutionary viewpoint (2) suggests that our ‘threat’ response is arguably one of our most powerful ‘defenders’ – it has evolved to protect us from dangers. So how might we support someone who may be struggling with anxious thoughts and feelings? And how would we even notice someone whose ‘threat response’ has kicked in? Here are 3 ideas which might feel a little unusual to you, perhaps not. Try them and see if they help.

  1. If you notice that a colleague’s behaviour is unusual, think about what else might be going on for them. What if, like me, they just had a bad night’s sleep, and they are not at their best? Taking other perspectives, particularly under pressure, is not easy and takes practice.

  2. If you think someone is worried about something, but you are not sure, gently ask them about it. “You seem a bit anxious / worried / uneasy about this. Is that right?” This might sound odd, but the naming a feeling can be very helpful for the other person – it may just be that they have not identified it, noticed the impact of it or called it out.

  3. Behaviours are contagious. If you notice yourself feeling stressed or anxious, try to explain it – firstly to yourself and then to others. It can be extremely helpful for others to make sense of how you might be acting. And sometimes the most powerful things you can bring are support or empathy.

There is now a body of evidence (3) which shows that an employee’s behaviour and performance are in large part predicted by how they feel about their work.

If we are someone’s manager, or someone’s colleague or simply someone’s friend at work, our potential to change this for the better may be significantly greater than we think.


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