Alleviating workplace anxiety

Relationships with co-workers, supervisors can help: Study
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/18/2015

It’s probably no surprise to hear workplace anxiety can affect job performance. But as it turns out, relationships with co-workers and supervisors can help combat this anxiety, according to a study.

“The quality of the relationships that we foster in the workplace is going to help us deal with our workplace problems, not only our anxiety but all kinds of workplace problems, and will lead to better outcomes for people,” said John Trougakos, associate professor of management at the University of Toronto-Scarborough and Rotman School of Management, and co-author of the study.

Typical levels of job performance require the execution of multiple tasks over sustained periods of time. These require the “protection and facilitation of cognitive and personal resources,” say the authors of “Are Anxious Workers Less Productive Workers? It Depends on the Quality of Social Exchange.” When employees experience high levels of workplace anxiety, these resources are depleted, resulting in emotional exhaustion and reduced levels of job performance.

“In the long run, to build social connections with people is obviously beneficial because we have to oftentimes invest resources to get resources,” he said.

While it’s known that one of the biggest sources of anxiety is cognitive interference — unwanted, distracting thoughts that can preclude or block the ability to focus properly on the task at hand — it’s now apparent we should also look at emotional exhaustion, said Julie McCarthy, co-author and associate professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the same university.

“If you’re anxious on the job, it may be harder to focus on tasks that you need to do because of the concern. But, above and beyond that, these high levels of anxiety are going to deplete our resources, they’re going to deplete things so that we’re going to eventually have higher levels of emotional exhaustion and burnout and, in turn, that is going to reduce performance.”

Ultimately, when people are not energetic enough, they don’t feel their best over a period of time and that’s going to reflect in their work performance, said Trougakos.

“Over time, this begins to deplete us, it drains our energy, it psychologically depletes us and it results in us just not being able to perform in the way we would want to or the way we might be expected to,” he said.

“If you’re always under a state of high anxiety, it’s draining your resources, it’s taking your energy, sapping your energy away from you in having to deal with that anxiety that then subsequently makes performing harder.”

Social buffers

But “social exchange relationships” can serve as buffers to the negative effects of this exhaustion and anxiety, according to the study, which involved a field study with members of the RCMP. Relationships with co-workers “significantly moderate” the relation between workplace anxiety and emotional exhaustion, while relationships with supervisors “significantly moderate” the relation between emotional exhaustion and job performance.

With co-workers, people are more likely to share emotions and information, and colleagues are more likely to be aware if a co-worker is anxious, said McCarthy.

Co-workers can help people deal with their emotional situations and anxieties, said Trougakos.

“When we have good relationships with our co-workers in a good team setting or whatever it might be, people can pull together and help the people that need it. So this is how people protect their resources, preserve their energy and make their job less taxing for them when they are under high-anxiety conditions.”

When it comes to supervisors, there’s a power difference, so employees are more likely to control their emotions. But leaders can offer different kinds of resources and tangible support, such as more time or materials, said McCarthy.

“That buffers the effects on job performance to the point where if the worker gets to the point where they become emotionally exhausted, a strong relationship with their leader can reduce the impact of that exhaustion on job performance — so both are important, they’re just important at different parts of the underlying process.”

While people might not want to share intimate emotional anxieties with a supervisor, leaders tend to be the gatekeepers of other types of resources, said Trougakos.

Fostering relationships

As a result, for employers, it’s important to train all employees to develop positive work relations and to engage in supportive behaviours.

“Sometimes organizations might not always think about… the relations among co-workers, helping to foster the co-worker relationship. And so (it’s about) having an understanding that it’s really important for your employees to have these strong interpersonal relationships,” said McCarthy.

That can mean training programs that foster trust and commitment among workers, or informal strategies that allow workers to interact on a personal level, she said, such as employee lounges.

“They’re engaging and they truly allow for work recovery, they allow for workers to have fun and not necessarily be thinking about the stresses of the job.” 

Some employers probably could care less and just look at productivity and the bottom line, said Trougakos, but it would be ideal for companies and employees to build situations that build relations, such as social functions or mentoring relationships.

“When we think about anxiety, a lot of companies… look at it as maybe like some sort of larger problem that a person’s having that they might tie with depression and other factors in their life but a lot of times companies have to realize that work itself can be the most anxiety-inducing thing in people’s lives,” he said.

Part of the irony is managers don’t get too concerned when they’re watching someone with anxiety, said Mary Ann Baynton, program director at Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, an initiative of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

“That person is often very focused on trying to do the right thing and until they are no longer able to function, people just let it go. Whereas because depression is more likely to impact productivity early on, we would be concerned and we’re more likely to act,” she said. 

“The thing about anxiety or burnout is that once it has reached that tipping point, it’s a long road back and managers should be concerned and should be trying to intervene early on to save themselves, their teams, the workplace and the individual from the worst effects of chronic anxiety.”

Issues such as precarious work, a lack of clarity, conflict in the workplace, economic uncertainty or job insecurity can cause anxiety levels to rise, said Baynton.

“Some research has said that there’s actually more people in the workplace managing anxiety than there are people in the workplace dealing with depression. The other piece around that is often depression and anxiety will go hand in hand, that one feeds the other.”

And there is evidence that workplace anxiety is on the rise, said McCarthy.

“Employees are often feeling like they need to do more with less; many companies are downsizing and restructuring and employees that are remaining in the organization are feeling pressure to keep their jobs and maintain these high levels of productivity; and some of them are in fact required to do more because now there’s less resources — so these are very real and very concerning issues,” she said.

“Organizations are more and more coming to terms and really recognizing the importance of thinking about anxiety among their workers, ensuring they don’t have a stressed-out workforce because, really, what we’re showing is that it comes at a very high cost.”

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