Anxiety in the workplace: ‘I see it in CEOs and in young people starting and everywhere in between’

People can function with anxiety but if it’s the dominant theme in their lives, they will not be at their best

Anxiety respects neither age nor background and is as likely to be found in the C-suite as at other levels within an organisation. Photograph: iStock

“Do you ever find yourself struggling with worry and even dread about all the things that could go wrong? Are you ambitions and driven – but you also ruminate, stew and have a hard time letting things go? Do you sometimes feel you’re in over your head and that any day now others will discover you’re faking it?

“Are you someone who avoids certain situations at all costs, like flying or public speaking, even if it means sacrificing opportunities or not advancing in your career? Do you ever find yourself micromanaging, or redoing others’ work because it’s not up to your standards?”

If you’ve answered yes to any or all of these questions there’s a good chance you’re experiencing work-related anxiety and it may be damaging your wellbeing and effectiveness, says entrepreneur and mental health expert Morra Aarons-Mele, who delves into the management of destructive anxiety in her self-help book, The Anxious Achiever, which was published by Harvard Business Review Press in April.

Anxiety is part of being human but it is not an easy bedfellow. Anxiety-related disorders top the list when it comes to global mental health conditions. Recent studies have shown the problem to be on the increase, particularly among young adults aged 18-35, but anxiety respects neither age nor background and is as likely to be found in the C-suite as at other levels within an organisation.

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Some people have what’s known as trait anxiety, which means it’s part of their make-up and hard to kick. But anxiety also comes in short-term, corrosive forms that get in the way of working and living.

Despite its impact on individual and organisational performance, however, it rarely gets referenced in a business setting. There seems to be an unwritten rule that talking about one’s mental health is not the way to the top and Aarons-Mele, whose day job is “helping anxious leaders to thrive”, whether that’s in start-ups or Fortune 500 companies, puts this down to one thing: shame.

“They believe that exposing their anxiety will make them seem weak,” she says. “They worry that opening up about their mental health challenges will tank their company’s stock price. They think – correctly, based on my experience – that people consider anxiety and strong leadership incompatible.”

Aarons-Mele wants the corporate world to rethink its approach to mental health. And to help make it happen she hosts an Apple podcast that encourages people to ponder the relationship between their mental health and their leadership. Time and again she could see that the connection between the two was strong and often problematic, yet she found it incredibly difficult to get senior managers to talk about experiencing anxiety.

“Anxiety is not a weakness, and learning how to manage it certainly isn’t,” says Aarons-Mele. Yet she has come across many leaders who will do anything to avoid letting their anxiety show. In short, they’re afraid of it whereas “when you understand your anxiety and learn to leverage it, you develop a leadership superpower”, she says.

“Being anxious all the time robs you of joy. And the capacity for joy is essential to your leadership (and your life) ... unmanaged anxiety keeps you stuck in imagining, and then reimagining, a scary future.”

Organisational psychologist and psychotherapist Margaret Forde says anxiety is one of the most common reasons people seek her help.

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“I see it in CEOs and in young people starting their careers and everywhere in between and I think it’s useful that this author is normalising the conversation around it,” she says.

“People can function with anxiety but if it’s the dominant theme in their lives, they will not be at their best and it will affect them in areas such as decision-making and mental focus, so you end up losing concentration and staring at a screen or a document but nothing is going in.

“The thing to remember about anxiety is that it can be managed and that it is possible to break that anxiety loop that people often get caught up in. It’s a question of what works for you, and sometimes people need a bit of help to find it. When people are anxious, they often discount the positives and their perceived ‘failures’ loom much larger than their successes. It’s important to redress the balance.

“I’m a great believer in self-compassion, which is not about letting yourself off the hook. It’s about treating yourself with the kindness you’d extend to someone else in a difficult situation. This helps stabilise your mood and get you into a more creative and functional space instead of being stuck and hard on yourself.

“Anxiety is often disproportionate to achievement, and high achievers can be very anxious,” says Forde. “When you learn to externalise it – and self-awareness helps here – it’s easier to look more objectively at what you’re anxious about and what you fear may happen.”

When Aarons-Mele was writing her book, she went through the worst mental health crisis she had experienced in 13 years. It was completely debilitating so she couldn’t work or care for her family, and her mind lived permanently in catastrophe. It took medication and therapy to break the cycle, and she recovered. For those feeling debilitated by anxiety, she has two pieces of advice: get the treatment you need and do something, anything, no matter how small or simple that gets you out of your head and focused on something other than yourself.