How can you support your team members dealing with workplace anxiety? What should you avoid to stop the situation from getting worse? And what does it take to develop your emotional intelligence and understand your team's feelings to help them thrive?
Knowing how to deal with anxiety at work is a complex issue. Even if your people are hurting, they may not feel comfortable sharing that with you or anyone else.
According to Gostick and Elton, authors of the bestselling book Anxiety at Work, "only one in four people who suffer from anxiety say they have talked about it to their boss”.
And in an effort to truly quantify this issue, a study by Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School professors has shown workplace stress and anxiety may be a contributing factor in more than 120,000 deaths annually.
That may seem crazy, until you realize that the leading cause of death in America is heart disease with over 659,000 deaths annually.
Now, we're not suggesting you need to become a therapist to your team. However, as a leader, you must take responsibility for their well-being at work.
Today's post takes a look at the four potential causes of your team's troubles and ways to help them overcome them to be happier and more productive members of your team.
Table of Contents:
Uncertainty and a lack of communication will inevitably cause your team to suffer
Perfectionism hurts productivity, and morale for you and your team
A lack of career progress can cause people to get bored and leave
People may assume the worst if they don't hear the truth from you
1. Uncertainty and a lack of communication will inevitably cause your team to suffer
Uncertainty can trigger various negative responses in people. The most obvious way you can create uncertainty in the workplace is by not communicating with your team regularly.
When that happens, people may start questioning themselves and your team; they may wonder whether they have a future at the company or whether you care about them at all. This can easily turn into them feeling underappreciated and isolated.
If they feel like they can't come to you with their problems at all, their mental well-being and engagement at work will begin to suffer rapidly.
Gallup reported on this back in their State of the American Manager report when they found a clear difference in engagement based on how comfortable they were coming to their manager:
If your team isn't approaching you, and you don't have a foundation of trust, it's likely problems are brewing...they just aren't comfortable bringing them up to you.
Despite the clear importance of this connection, data from the MHA shows that less than 50% of managers regularly check in on their people in 2021.
Anxiety is often exacerbated by uncertainty. If you fail to communicate with your team regularly, they will unfortunately likely assume the worst.
Luckily, there's a straightforward fix for this - have regular 1:1s to keep their morale and performance up.
Be more intentional in your 1:1 meetings to overcome uncertainty
We keep bringing up quality 1:1s as the most versatile solution to your team's troubles, and there's a very good reason for that.
The value of great 1 to 1 meetings is well known. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, says they offer a 10x return on investment for managers:
Despite this, 1 on 1 meetings are too often wasted…. or don't happen at all. This robs you and your teammates of the opportunity to address uncertainties and any other issues they may be having.
Yet, great 1 on 1s don't happen by accident. You can't just walk into meetings expecting to have all the answers and for everything to be handed to you without asking.
Instead, the most productive meetings happen when you're intentional and well-prepared.
Set aside time before each check-in to prepare an agenda, and you'll be able to get to the root cause of your team's concerns. You'll also build momentum and continuity in your conversations, which is essential for dispelling uncertainty and anxiety, as well as creating clarity.
Agendas will help your team understand what to expect of you and vice versa. They'll also demonstrate to your team you value this time you spend with them.
Further, more structured meetings will bring you additional benefits such as:
Higher engagement: Research by Gallup found that employees who have regular one on ones with their managers are up to three times more engaged than those who don't.
Boosted productivity: one on ones are essential for working through employee issues and overcoming blocks. When GE adopted regular one on ones, they saw a 5x productivity increase in just 1 year.
Reduced turnover: People leave managers, not companies. Adobe achieved a 30% reduction in turnover when they started having regular one on ones.
Now, these benefits sound great, but they won't happen unless you take action and prepare for each of these meetings.
You have to be intentional with how you approach your one on ones. And a one on one agenda can help you immensely with that. Here are a couple of links you can use to learn how to make great agendas for your 1 on 1s:
Why Your One on One Needs a Meeting Agenda (and How to Make Them Great)
3 Things that Don't Belong in Your One on One Agenda
2. Perfectionism hurts productivity, and morale for you and your team
Hearing your team member say they are a perfectionist sounds good in theory, but studies show that constantly chasing perfection may seriously harm their mental health.
According to researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Miami University, perfectionists have higher levels of stress, risk of burnout, and anxiety. They also spend so much time tinkering or course-correcting that they actually get less work done.
The article summarizing their findings goes on to define a particularly damaging sub-category of perfectionism that focuses on obsessively avoiding failure.
As explained in the article:
"Failure-avoiding perfectionists are constantly worried their work is not quite right or good enough and believe that they will lose respect from others if they do not achieve perfection.”
If you see someone on your team who seeks excessive guidance, rarely takes on any sort of risk, and treats most decisions as if they were a matter of life and death, they're likely to be experiencing workplace anxiety.
Here's what you can do to change their mindset, and help them overcome the dark side of perfectionism.
Teach your team that it can be safe to fail
Being right 100% of the time is impossible. In fact, failure can often teach you more than getting things right every time.
Many great leaders understand this important lesson, including Jeff Bezos, who has gone as far as to say, "failure and invention are inseparable twins.”
Even in nature, failure is not a final outcome, but rather a way to reorganize and evolve (we've written about how this applies to management in our post on Chaos Theory).
Make mistakes okay by teaching the waterline concept
To teach perfectionists on your team how to be more comfortable with failure, teach them about the water line principle coined by W.L. Gore:
"The waterline principle means that it's ok to make a decision that might punch a hole in the boat as long as the hole is above the waterline so that it won't potentially sink the ship.
But, if the decision might create a hole below the waterline, which might cause the ship to sink, then associates are encouraged to consult with their team so that a collaborative decision can be made.”
Remind your team that as long as an experiment is above the waterline, there's no risk that the failure causes a great problem.
Instead, it's a way to learn and grow no matter the outcome.
And meanwhile, if they are working on something below the waterline, so there are some risks, provide the extra support they need and talk about how to mitigate any risks (like more hands-on monitoring, and check-ins with them about the work).
Additionally, if you foster a culture of psychological safety, equal speaking, and diversity of thought, you'll make failure a tool for progress, rather than something to be ashamed of.
We've written several posts about how to get the most value out of failure and support your team when they take risks, especially when they make mistakes. You can check them out here:
5 Principles From Jeff Bezos' Leadership Style You can Apply to Your Team Now
Chaos Theory and Management: Learning from Systems in Nature
Why You Should Prioritize Psychological Safety to have an Innovative Team
3. A lack of career progress can cause people to get bored and leave
Without direction and career progress, your team can start to feel anxiety if left unaddressed. They may begin to wonder what their future is with your company.
That's because the urge to make progress is one of our most important driving forces.
Your employees want to know the direction they're heading and that there's a path forward for them at your company. A 2019 study by InsideOut Development has shown more than 75% of Gen Zers believe they should be promoted within their first year on the job.
While it may be unreasonable to promote someone that quickly, if you don't manage their expectations and help them understand what a real path looks like, that's what they'll expect.
Keep in mind that it's not just Gen Z that wants career growth; it applies to all generations.
According to Universum Global's Generations series 2017 study, the majority of each generation (57% Gen X, 61% Gen Y, 61% Gen Z) want the same thing - to grow in their career and become a leader.
If you don't help your team make long-term career plans with actionable steps, they are likely to feel like they're stalling out...which leads to them thinking about seeking growth at another company and leaving yours.
Actions, not words - don't leave your people's career growth to chance
One of the most important conversations you can have with a team member is about their long term goals. And since it will take a while to get there, you need to make it a regular conversation to make incremental progress.
But when do you have time in your busy schedule for this?
Easy. Talk about it in their 1 on 1s. Here's why:
It's already on your calendar, so you don't have to find more time for the discussion
1 on 1s are their meeting, so this is a *great* topic
The gap between your 1 on 1s with them provides opportunity for them to make progress (note if you meet weekly, then you may only talk about goals every 3-4 times)
Best of all, when you make goals part of your ongoing conversation with your team, they are typically prepared to do much of the work on their own.
According to a 2012 study by The Alliance, "75% of employees say that they're willing to use their own time to further their careers and take on additional learning that would benefit them at work.”
Connecting with your team's goals will improve your relationship with them, because they see you care about something very important to them. It will also help you address the anxiety they may be feeling about their current role as they'll know what you really think of their work and the potential for the next move they want.
Here are a few steps you can take to help them succeed:
Make next steps concrete and actionable: Talking about goals isn't enough to move the needle for your team. Help them chart out a path forward and check in on how they're doing regularly.
Serve as a mentor: If you're experienced in their goal or skill area to build, helping them reach it can strengthen your bond.
Introduce them to a mentor: Whether inside or out of the company, if you know someone who can help them learn and grow, introduce them! It only takes you 1 minute and can have a lasting impact for them.
Give them resources to grow: Recommend a book, buy them a course, or give them a conference pass. Regardless of your budget, there are always options to help your team achieve their goals.
Involve them in future projects: Maybe you can't help them now, but remembering the promise to get them involved in a project months or quarters down the line will show them you genuinely care about them and their ambitions.
Here's an example of what an in-progress career goal might look like:
If you haven't worked with your team to create career plans together, you should do so as soon as possible. Nothing will motivate them and keep them happy more than knowing what to look forward to and strive for.
For more tips on how to set career goals and help your team members feel progress in their careers, check out the following links:
How to Help Your Team Achieve Their Goals
How to help when your team member can't answer "What are your career goals?”
How to grow your employees when you can't promote them
4. People may assume the worst if they don't hear the truth from you
It's a well-known issue - leaders don't praise their people nearly as often as they should. A 2021 report from Gallup has found that only 1 in 3 employees in the United States have received any kind of praise in the last 7 days.
A lack of attention from managers can be perceived as a sign that thing's are going badly. Too much silence leads to anxiety and can creep up on even your best performers. It can also make them feel un-valued.
Regular praise is a great long-term solution for helping people deal with stress. It helps them build up resilience and tolerance for when their work has to be corrected, because they also get rewarded when they do great work up to your standards.
An experiment from Harvard University has shown that people who receive gratitude for their good work are 2x as likely to be more optimistic and feel better about their lives than those who don't.
Meanwhile, if you don't praise your team enough, Gallup found that workers who feel unrecognized are three times more likely to quit in the next year.
Give your team praise in a meaningful way
Not all praise is created equally. It matters how you deliver it and what you say.
Fortunately, learning how to praise is quite easy if you remember just 3 words: Frequent, Specific, & Strategic.
As a manager, your opinion matters to your team. They are constantly looking to you for feedback on how they're doing. Unfortunately, negative feedback stays on people's minds for a long time, which is why it's super important to balance it out with regular praise.
A study published in HBR has shown that negative comments have an effect on the human brain for 26 hours or more. On the other hand, research conducted by academic Emily Heaphy has found that the best performing teams have a praise to negative comments ratios of over 5.6.
This means that you need to focus on praising your people a lot more than you probably are now. By doing so, you'll be helping them address any anxiety they may be feeling.
Tell your people *exactly* what you liked in their work. "Good job” and vague or hollow praise will have the opposite of your desired effect. We all know the feeling when someone really means it and when they don't, so focus on genuine praise only.
If you specifically acknowledge what you liked, they will know that you really paid attention. They'll also know exactly what to do to be praised again, which is a win-win for you and them.
The final step of giving praise in a meaningful way is to be strategic about it. When not praising their strengths, you can use praise them also to grow and take on new challenges.
When this is the case, you can pick an area each person on your team could improve, or a skill you want them to focus on.
Work with them on it, and praise them specifically for making improvements in that area. You will see them light up and stay motivated to get even better and keep working at it. This will help them build up confidence over time and overcome feelings of insecurity.
By giving specific and frequent praise, your people will feel less uncertainty and more support from you.
For more research and advice on giving praise, check out the following links:
How to Praise Someone Professionally
5 Ways to Give Effective Praise to Motivate Your Team
The Ultimate Workplace Praise Guide: How to be More Positive at Work and Give More Praise to Your Team
Learn how to deal with your team's anxiety at work to bring out their best
As a leader, it's your responsibility to learn how to deal with anxiety at work. Your team's well-being should be one of your main priorities, and that means supporting them through regular, quality 1:1s.
Your 1:1s will give you all the space you need to uncover what's bothering them and address it on an ongoing basis, whether that means building their confidence through praise, helping them understand where they stand in their career growth, or overcoming their perfectionism to take more healthy chances.
If you show patience, provide structure and guidance, and communicate transparently, that will show your team you care about them and keep them happy and anxiety low for the foreseeable future.