If your anxiety revolves around work, you might be experiencing workplace anxiety, also known as work stress. And you’re most certainly not alone.
According to Mental Health America’s 2021 Mind the Workplace report, almost 83 percent of respondents felt emotionally drained from their work. And 85 percent — or nearly 9 in 10 workers — reported that job stress affected their mental health.
Of course, you don’t need to go into an office or job site to experience workplace anxiety. You can experience these feelings when working from home, too. (Zoom anxiety, anyone?)
Workplace anxiety vs. anxiety at work
First, it’s not always easy to tell whether you’re experiencing workplace anxiety or symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
The tell-tale sign? Your anxiety is limited to work.
Annia Palacios, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with Tightrope Therapy, offers a few key signs of workplace anxiety:
- On your days off, you feel pretty good and your anxiety lowers.
- If you work Monday through Friday, feelings of anxiety and dread overshadow your weekend, especially when you think about work.
- You have a tough time talking with colleagues due to a competitive work culture, but you have no problem chatting with people outside of work.
How do you know when your symptoms might relate to generalized anxiety disorder or another anxiety condition?
Anxiety disorder symptoms are “persistent, consistent, and negatively affect several aspects of your life,” says Emme Smith, a licensed psychotherapist and CEO of GraySpace Counseling Group.
The key difference between the two, explains Alexandra Finkel, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and co-founder of Kind Minds Therapy, is that workplace anxiety generally develops in response to stress at work. An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, tends to develop, and persist, regardless of your work circumstances.
What are the signs?
Workplace anxiety can involve a wide range of symptoms.
According to Palacios, you might:
- feel better at night but worse in the morning
- feel physically ill when thinking about work or receiving work emails or calls
- have a hard time focusing on work-specific tasks
- notice your motivation shrinking
- often procrastinate on work-related tasks
- avoid meetings, new projects, or work events
You might also experience a sense of dread when you think about going to work and feel overwhelmed once you get there, says Boone Christianson, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and author of the book “101 Therapy Talks.”
Workplace anxiety can involve physical symptoms, too. These might include:
- head and neck pain
- tension in your body
- sweating palms
- consistent stomach pain or nausea
What causes workplace anxiety?
A number of factors can contribute to workplace anxiety, and these can vary from person to person.
For example, says Palacios, work stress may stem from:
- needing to complete an urgent project or present at a meeting
- imposter syndrome, or a tendency to doubt yourself and feel deeply unqualified
- not having strong connections with colleagues
- dealing with a difficult boss
- lacking a sense of purpose around your work
According to Kimberly Wilson, PhD, LMFT, an organizational psychologist and therapist, you could also develop workplace anxiety if your job:
- has a toxic workplace culture
- comes with unrealistic expectations
- lacks enough staff
- is highly competitive
- didn’t provide proper training
- doesn’t compensate you for overtime
- doesn’t prioritize your health, wellness, or safety
In some cases, your work stress can also have a deeper, more subtle underlying cause or contributing factor.
For example, says Christianson, maybe you’ve had negative experiences in the past with making phone calls, or your boss reminds you of your dad. Maybe your college professor’s harsh criticism sharpened your sensitivity to any kind of feedback on writing-related tasks.
As Palacios also points out, “being an anxious person or having a pre-existing anxiety disorder can make us more likely to experience workplace-specific anxiety.”
For example, she notes, if you already live with anxiety you might go straight to the worst-case scenario. Consequently, your workplace might become a significant source of stress if you (mistakenly) assume:
- you’ll miss key deadlines
- your supervisor thinks you’re doing a terrible job
- you’ll always fall short of expectations
What can you do to manage workplace anxiety?
Workplace anxiety can feel overwhelming and unrelenting. But with a few small steps, you can successfully overcome or manage your work stress.
Pinpoint your triggers
The triggers of work stress aren’t always obvious. “Writing out moments when you feel nervous throughout the day will help you find patterns or triggers,” says Smith.
Maybe you regularly feel nervous and nauseous before weekly team meetings, or you have trouble concentrating on anything after you encounter one specific co-worker.
Identifying specific situations that increase your stress levels can help you figure out the best strategy to handle them going forward.
Zero in on your core fear
“Worry in the form of ‘what-ifs’ is a common type of workplace anxiety,” says Max Maisel, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who specializes in anxiety disorders and OCD.
To better understand what’s going on and explore possible solutions, you can try asking yourself questions about those “what-ifs” until you’ve uncovered your core fear. Maisel suggests “Why is that a bad thing?” and “What does this mean about me?” as good questions to start with.
How do you know you’ve found your core fear?
Typically, it’s “when you can no longer ask ‘Why is this a bad thing?’ or you feel a gut sense that you hit on something viscerally important,” says Maisel.
When you’ve reached that place, he suggests acknowledging the story without assuming it’s true and then thanking your mind for trying to protect you.
From there, you can gently challenge the fear by asking yourself:
- What’s the evidence for and against this?
- What would I say to a loved one who told me something similar?
- If the worst-case scenario happens, how would I cope?
- What’s actually most likely to happen?
Be gentle with yourself
When you get anxious and stress levels soar, your natural inclination might be to respond with self-criticism.
Instead, try to be patient and understanding with your reactions.
How? You can start by labeling and leaning into your feelings. You might simply say, “I’m feeling frazzled right now, and that’s okay.”
Similarly, you can also think about treating yourself like you’d treat a close friend or family member, says Maisel.
You might say something like, “It’s OK to feel overwhelmed. You’re doing a lot. But you’re doing the best you can.”
You can recalibrate your emotions by taking small, short breaks throughout the day, according to Palacios. For instance, she suggests:
- walking away from your desk or task to recenter yourself
- practicing box breathing, where you inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and hold for a count of 4
When anxiety pulls your mind elsewhere, you can also try the 54321 technique to ground yourself in the present moment, says Finkel.
To practice, she says, simply name:
- 5 things you see
- 4 things you hear
- 3 things you feel
- 2 things you smell
- 1 thing you taste
During and after exercise, the body releases calming neurotransmitters that create an overall feeling of well-being, says Karlene Kerfoot, chief nursing officer at symplr.
“Exercising before work can help your body cope with workplace situations that may cause anxiety, and exercise after work can help place you in a different mindset where you can better cope with such feelings,” she says.
When big projects and presentations produce anxiety, getting organized can help reduce feelings of overwhelm, says Finkel.
- breaking down large tasks into smaller steps
- assigning each step a completion date and time
In other words, try to use your anxiety to propel you to accomplish tasks instead of putting them off.
Could some boundaries help keep your work-related stressor in check?
If your stress relates work-life balance or work relationships, Finkel suggests:
- setting a specific time to start and end your workday
- engaging in one or two activities each week that honor your physical, emotional, and mental well-being
- identifying specific behaviors and tasks you will or won’t accept and communicating these boundaries to colleagues and clients
Laugh it up
Finding something to laugh about can release tension, shift your perspective, and stimulate positive neurotransmitters, says Kerfoot. Humor can even help you take yourself, not to mention your workplace, less seriously.
To give yourself a good laugh:
- talk or text with your funniest friend
- watch a comedy special or funny film
- take yourself to an in-person comedy show
- reminisce about silly memories
Create a safe, soothing space
If you have a workspace, you can create a mini sanctuary or retreat that offers solace during stressful or anxiety-provoking situations, says Smith.
For example, she says, you might:
- hang family photos
- keep a few fidget toys
- add a diffuser with essential oils, like calming lavender
Bring along a comfort kit
If you don’t have a designated workspace, you can assemble a kit that provides a “quick shot of relief during stressful moments at work,” says Wilson.
Your kit can include items that soothe your senses and help you move.
Wilson offers a few examples:
- a Ziploc bag with cotton balls soaked in your favorite essential oil or perfume to smell when stressed
- a smooth rock with an inspiring word you can feel and read when upset
- a playlist to listen to during a lunchtime walk
- hard candy, gum, or dark chocolate to slowly savor
Boost your time away from work
Strive to create a life filled with relationships, events, and activities outside of work that bring you joy, peace, and happiness, Kerfoot recommends. She goes on to explain that a fulfilling life outside of work can:
- minimize the impact of that work-related stress
- build up your resilience in times of stress
- crowd out work-related thoughts
When to get support
If you’re dealing with workplace anxiety, professional support can be incredibly helpful.
How do you know when help from a therapist might have benefit?
There’s no right or wrong time to connect with a therapist, Palacios says, so this decision will be unique to everyone.
In general, however, she recommends seeking professional help when you want your life to be different but you haven’t found it possible to make changes on your own.
Specifically, Palacios says, this could mean you:
- worry so much you can’t function, meet deadlines, or complete tasks
- find it difficult to fall or stay asleep
- feel nervous, edgy, and unlike yourself
- find your usual coping strategies no longer help
- need to take more time off than usual and begin planning your next days off as soon as you return to work
A therapist can offer support with:
- pinpointing triggers
- making value-based decisions
- exploring and practicing helpful coping skills
- determining when a new job might be a good option
Workplace anxiety is common, but it’s very manageable. Small steps, like understanding your triggers, setting boundaries, and taking restorative breaks, can go a long way.
That said, if your work stress becomes difficult to cope with alone, don’t hesitate to seek professional support. A therapist can always offer compassionate guidance with identifying possible causes and exploring your options for addressing them.
Above all, remember: You deserve to work in a safe, reasonable environment.