This article originally appeared on Forbes.
Do you know which members of your team have anxiety? Don’t assume you can tell, according to Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick, the authors of Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done. Elton reports that even before the pandemic, of the 18 percent of people living with an anxiety disorder, “Our data shows that only 1 in 10 felt safe talking to their boss about it.” When you contrast mental health with physical health, this is extraordinary because, as Gostick says, “You can’t imagine 20% of your workforce walking around with a broken leg that they don’t talk about.”
Many people with anxiety choose not to disclose the issue at work out of fear that they’ll be excluded from raises, promotions and great assignments—not to mention the possibility that they’ll lose social status or be rejected by colleagues. But the prevalence of anxiety in society means that workplaces must respond as part of their efforts to hire and retain employees. Here are six recommendations to help you figure out which of your team members need your support to deal with anxiety, and how you can provide it.
Encourage your people to level with you about their struggles. Many leaders who believe they are good leaders may tout their open-door policy and have the self-perception that they’re easy to talk to and that their people trust them. But given that 94 percent of employees complain of work-related stress and 40 million Americans cope with some form of anxiety, if none of your people have explicitly disclosed their anxiety to you, then they’re probably keeping you in the dark. Gostick explains that workers are afraid that bosses may be sympathetic about their struggles, but that sympathy is distancing, because it portrays the boss as strong and the worker as weak—not the way employees typically want to be perceived.
Empathy and compassion are business imperatives, particularly if you work with younger employees. Elton says it’s a requirement to develop work relationships that address the personal side: “Because of everything going on, if you can’t empathize with your people, if you can’t develop that skill, your odds of recruiting, retaining [staff and] getting stuff done” are very low. “If you’re going to be a great leader,” Elton adds, “and you’re not willing to talk about [anxiety and] empathize with these brilliant young people coming up, you’re dead.”
Watch out for “cowboy” culture. Hard-driving, star-based cultures are likely to create extra turnover and be especially challenging to younger people, most of whom are looking for collaborative workplaces. Gostick reports that “the younger generation talks about mental health all the time—we don’t… 75 percent of Gen-Z have already left a job for mental health reasons—that’s three-quarters of people in their early 20s. They are not going to stand for these kinds of cultures. They’re going to leave.”
It helps to share your own struggles. Elton emphasizes that all high-performance employees suffer from anxiety, so when leaders express their own vulnerability, it’s more likely that others will open up too: “Once you tell your own story, it makes it easier for them to tell theirs.” This way, not only are you creating space for team members to share their own stories in the belief that their concerns will be accepted, but they will also learn from your transparency and authenticity that it is possible to struggle with fear and anxiety and still be successful.
Take steps to reduce employee uncertainty. When conditions and expectations are unclear, team members worry more and have more to worry about. Gostick recommends addressing three specific concerns: The first is explaining where the organization is heading, including the strategy of the organization and the short-term steps your team is taking to meet that strategy. The second is affirming that the employee is adding value and making an impact as a way to show that they are secure in their job. And the third is to explain how the employee can grow and develop in the job to ensure they have a future with the organization. When leaders do these three things consistently and regularly, says Gostick, “You help me feel like we’re going into the dark together as a partnership, and you’re going to bring my anxiety levels down significantly.”
It’s a mistake to standardize your organizational response to anxiety.Gostick makes the compelling point that three decades of talking about employee engagement has not actually changed engagement scores much, and engagement programs don’t have the desired effect, because “it’s very personal to the individual what they need…you can’t treat everybody the same. Somebody may be a perfectionist, somebody else may need external validation…others may be more intrinsically motivated…but are more in need of career development.”
He notes that “everybody presents in different ways. Somebody who is quiet may get more talkative, and other people get quieter when they’re anxious. As leaders, we have to learn to be able to spot it. Typically, we’re looking for changes in behavior, not a certain type of behavior: ‘I know this person, and this is out of their norm.’” It’s critical to find a way to raise the issue with people without asking directly if they have anxiety. Pointing out their change in behavior and asking if they need additional support may elicit more information about their situation so you can actually help them.
Anxiety is on the rise and Elton and Gostick believe it will have significant impact on workplaces for at least the next five to 10 years. But leaders who get to know their team members as the individuals they are will have a better chance of creating psychologically safe workplaces and helping their teams retain and develop talent.