How to Deal With Anxiety at Work

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 05, 2021
6 min read

If you find yourself getting stressed at work, know that it happens to everyone and it’s completely normal. But if you realize that stress is constant, overwhelming, and prevents you from living your life, it could be an anxiety disorder.

Having anxiety at work can have a huge impact on you and your career. People who feel anxious at work might even make career decisions based on their anxiety. For example, you might feel like you have to turn down a promotion if it involves more managing, public speaking, or traveling to new places.

If you have workplace anxiety, you might have symptoms like:

  • Avoiding friends or family
  • Constant worrying
  • Crying
  • Feeling irritable, tired, or tense
  • Feeling like you need to be perfect
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Losing interest in your work
  • Overeating or undereating

Lots of things can cause anxiety in the workplace. Darcy E. Gruttadaro, JD, the director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, says anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States.

“It’s not uncommon for people to feel nervous about a big presentation, meeting with clients, or working directly with senior leaders,” Gruttadaro says. “Anxiety disorders involve more extreme, often crippling, and persistent levels of fear, apprehension, and worry.”

In fact, co-workers and managers might not realize a person they work with has an anxiety disorder. Gruttadaro says some red flags that might suggest a person has an anxiety disorder include:

  • A drop in performance
  • Excessive missed days of work
  • Not appearing engaged in work
  • Physical complaints, like sweating, upset stomach, and not sleeping well (without another explanation)
  • Poor job productivity

Debra Kissen, PhD, a clinical psychologist, says it can be helpful to take a look at how you’re feeling throughout the workday.

“[Evaluate your anxiety] in terms of how severe it is and how disabling,” Kissen says. “Maybe it’s showing up and you’re still operating pretty effectively or when you’re feeling that way, maybe you’re only 10% as effective as you would be otherwise.”

The root cause of anxiety at work depends on the person. For some people, extra-long work hours, high stress, a lack of support from managers and co-workers, and related factors can lead to someone developing anxiety at work, Gruttadaro says.

Other situations that might make you anxious include:

  • Dealing with issues at work
  • Giving presentations
  • Keeping up with personal relationships
  • Meetings, staff lunches, and office parties
  • Meeting and setting deadlines
  • Speaking up during meetings

Luckily, there are lots of things you can do to manage your anxiety and stress at work.

For example, Kissen suggests keeping a log to figure out what type of anxiety you’re having. Start by tracking moments where you feel uncomfortable or anxious during the workday.

“Maybe there are some trends, like it’s really more in the beginning of the day when you’re first looking at everything that’s due, or maybe it’s at the end of the day when you still have so much on your plate but you really need to leave to pick up your kids,” she says.

Listening to your internal voice and facing some of those anxious thoughts can help, too.

“If your mind says, ‘Oh, they definitely think I’m stupid,’ or ‘Oh, they just ignored me.’ Is there any other explanation they went by your desk or didn’t hear you on the Zoom call?” Kissen says. “So we’re not just trying to convince ourselves everything’s OK, but we want to have a more realistic interpretation versus catastrophic.”

Here are a few more tips:

  • Adopt healthy habits. Getting enough sleep, eating healthfully, regularly exercising, and not drinking too much alcohol or caffeine can help keep your mind and body shipshape.
  • Be organized. Although clearing your computer and desk might not seem high priority, staying organized will do wonders for you in the long run.
  • Be honest with yourself. If you don’t have enough time for it, don’t take on tasks, projects, and assignments you don’t have the time to handle.
  • Communicate. Ask for help if you need it. If you have too much to handle, speak up. Your manager might not realize you’re spread too thin.
  • Celebrate your successes. Before moving to the next task or project, take a second to celebrate your work and thank the people who helped you.
  • Educate yourself. Learn to spot signs of anxiety and get an idea of how to handle those symptoms at work.
  • Get it right the first time. Spend a little extra time nailing it the first go around. This can help in the long run as you won’t have to redo your hard work.
  • Prepare and plan. If you have any major projects, get started on them early and set mini deadlines for yourself. It can also help to prepare for issues that might crop up and try to prevent them.
  • Set clear boundaries. Don’t bring work home with you. For example, make it a rule not to check your voicemail or work email once you leave the workplace.
  • Steer clear of toxic co-workers. Don’t listen to gossip or negativity in your workplace.
  • Take breaks when you need to. Try some deep-breathing techniques or take a walk to clear your head. This also includes vacations. Chances are, you’ll feel refreshed and ready to get back to it once you return.
  • Tell a co-worker you trust. Having someone at work who knows about your anxiety can be comforting, and it might ease some of that stress and fear.
  • Use your time management skills. Practicing time management can help alleviate some of the anxiety. Try using to-do lists to prioritize your tasks. These lists can also ensure you set aside enough time to finish each task.
  • Work. Busying yourself with work can boost your self-esteem and add to your social identity, not to mention earning needed income.

Whether or not you tell your employer about your anxiety at work is completely up to you. Maybe you need accommodations or want to educate people about what you’re going through.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with a physical or mental disability who are qualified for the job. This can protect you from job discrimination. An employer can’t refuse to hire you because of a disability that prevents you from doing things that aren’t essential to your role at work.

If you’re an employer, making sure that your employees have access to mental health services and support is important, Gruttadaro says.

She also suggests a few other things employers can do to support their employees:

  • Educate the workforce and managers. “The more visible you make information about mental health conditions like anxiety, the more likely employees will feel psychologically safe in seeking treatment,” Gruttadaro says.
  • Encourage employees to use the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Reminding employees about the mental health benefits available can help. Normalizing anxiety as common, and encouraging your workforce to get help when needed is also a good idea, Gruttadaro says.
  • Support managers in supporting employees with anxiety. “This includes working with managers on strategies to manage with empathy and compassion. This may not come naturally to all managers,” Gruttadaro says. “Remind managers that a supportive workplace helps build employee loyalty, dedication, and engagement to perform well for the organization, which ultimately benefits everyone.”

Kissen says that coming up with an accommodation that meets both the employee’s and the employer’s needs is a win-win scenario. For example, if your supervisor verbally assigns you multiple tasks and you find it overwhelming, you could ask that supervisor if it would be possible to email you the tasks as well.

“If you can have someone who’s less burned out and less stressed, the employee wins and the employer wins,” she says. “Maybe there’s a little bit of a tweak in a role. Maybe you’re doing something that you’re OK at, but you really have another strength ... you could find a way to tap into.”

Anxiety and stress shouldn’t be ignored. Professionals like counselors and therapists can help you feel better. They might recommend regular therapy sessions, medication, or other treatment.