Stress and anxiety

Early signs and indicators in employees

Amongst all of the health problems that exist in our world, anxiety is one of the most common, yet overlooked. Many of us suffer with anxiety our entire lives, without receiving any treatment or help. People live in fear of being scrutinised and often buy into the stigmas and myths attached to mental health problems; one being a false belief that mental illnesses cannot be treated.

Stress and anxiety are two mental health problems that can be managed easily with proper treatment, motivation and support. Feeling anxious in a specific situation, (situational anxiety) and living with anxiety (generalised anxiety) are two quite different things. An example of situational anxiety; say you have sat an exam, or applied for your dream job, then feeling anxious in anticipation of the result is an appropriate, normal response. On the other hand, a person who worries disproportionately about most things in life could be suffering from generalised anxiety and should seek help. The latter is the more serious problem. Nobody develops a full-blown, severe anxiety disorder without there being signs or indicators present, but to avoid labels and embarrassment it's not unusual for a person to bottle them up and hide them away from the outside world.

When asked, most workers admit that their anxiety is exacerbated by the worry that someone, especially their boss, may notice their vulnerabilities. Their absenteeism or lack of participation in group meetings is often interpreted as a lack of willingness to do their best, or skiving off their duties. Unfortunately, these indicators go unnoticed and turn into severe panic attacks, obsessions and phobias, which can then develop into a generalised anxiety disorder.

“When I had my first anxiety attack at work, I waited until I was physically ill before I asked to go home.” This statement by an employee sheds light on the lack of education, screening, proper interventions and support in the workplace. With technology and innovation, we have universal screening tools to identify any mental illness, but nothing can undermine the power of simply observing people around you.

Early indicators of anxiety can often be recognised by a change in behaviour patterns, such as eating alone in the office, throwing up in the restroom before the meetings, mumbling ideas instead of voicing opinions, being visibly jittery and shaky, taking time off work, sweating whilst talking to an audience, or nervousness about making new friends. Some of us will have experienced it first hand, or seen colleagues with visible anxiety. Sadly, most people feel uncomfortable in such situations and avoid initiating a conversation, or the offer of help.

When at work, people often form a triangle in the hallways and vent to each other, or simply chat about their weekend. You can easily spot the person not saying very much and avoiding the conversation. You can also notice that same person with red eyes, visibly on edge. Although it can often be difficult to decipher the complex emotions and intentions of others, these tell tale signs can easily be interpreted and need to be addressed, for everybody’s sake.

Healthy, happy and motivated workers are the true asset of any successful company. Managers, having their own set of biases and expectations, tend to avoid conversing with their employees and often jump to conclusions about their declining performance. Most companies will arrange a few symbolic seminars on work anxiety and stress for their workers, but only a handful really care enough to change the culture.

There are people who may not even recognise their own anxiety when attending these seminars, but their symptoms could easily translate into their behaviour. It takes skillful and proactive management to have a secure conversation with them. Assuring them that they are valued, making resources accessible to them, or hiring an in-house counselor or psychologist allows the workers to come forth with their problems and admit their vulnerabilities, with the intention to overcome them and increase their performance. Creating a mentally and emotionally healthy workplace not only keeps current workers engaged but also makes an organisation a coveted place to work.

With timely screening and interventions and a progressive approach, many mental health problems, including work stress and anxiety, can be managed. It does not take much to notice changes in each other’s behaviours and cross the barriers of discomfort by offering to help. We rush to help people when they have physical symptoms and whilst anxiety symptoms may not appear as palpable or significant, they can be just as painful and require serious intervention. Company expenditure on mental health is an investment that pays off in the long run, resulting in a better financial outcome and by producing healthier workers.

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