The Elephant in the Room

As a new school year gets under way, some of us may also be making the move back to the office on some level. Unfortunately, our opportunity for a fresh start seems to be filled with fits and starts. We’ve got some areas reducing restrictions and others tightening down after a summer that offered glimpses of normalcy. It seems like we’re driving with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake. Our ride is anything but smooth. We continue to try to dodge and weave our way through COVID with our vision impaired. Perhaps, the start of a new school year is a good time to give some thought to the angst that lingers and how we can try to improve our ability to manage it in the workplace? An article from this past March in the Financial Post noted that the mental health of staff is now a major risk factor for Corporate Board of directors to consider. The article quotes Richard Leblanc, a corporate governance expert that wrote The Handbook of Board Governance. In the Post article, LeBlanc is quoted, “Boards should always be asking about mental well-being. Good ones and good chairs tell me that is one of their top concerns. The mental health of employees has really been impacted, not just working from home, but abuse, depression, alcohol, lack of human contact—both colleagues and friends. Good companies will reach out to all employees almost weekly, and give tips to stay motivated, happy, content.”

Authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton in the past year released a timely book titled Anxiety at Work.  In it they detail the prevalence of anxiety in the workplace and offer some suggestions for leaders to implement in order to assuage anxiety in their organizations. Gostick and Elton note that where we find ourselves is not purely pandemic related. Anxiety has been a festering issue which has accumulated over the past ten to fifteen years. Some demographics feel it more than others. Gostick and Elton introduce a study that found 50% of millennials and 75% of Gen Z have left a job because of mental health issues. Anxiety at work may be the elephant in the room? We know it is there, it’s a big issue, yet we don’t want to talk about it. Not only do we not want to talk about it, the default is to sweep it under the rug.

Worse yet, we’re encouraged to get comfortable with uncertainty. Or that the only certainty in today’s business environment is uncertainty. Or, we’re told things aren’t so bad, just calm down. Gostick and Elton observe with some humor that “In the history of humanity, no one has ever calmed down when being told to calm down.” None of this is particularly helpful. The stigma and perceived lack of support is evidenced with surveys detailing that only 10% of us feel comfortable talking to our boss about anxiety and mental health issues. All this results in our offices being filled with workers showcasing the Duck Syndrome where we’re trying to make things look calm and graceful above the water while just below the surface we’re a mess floundering wildly to get through our days.

Gostick and Elton write, “The profound realization from the pandemic is that our world is subject to destabilizing, long-lasting threats, which may arise seemingly out of nowhere and disrupt not only companies but the whole economy. That is affecting anxiety levels like nothing we’ve seen before. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by May of 2020 more than 30 percent of all Americans of all ages were reporting symptoms of an anxiety disorder, including a remarkable 42 percent of people in their twenties.” This anxiety causes further problems than just negative emotion. “Anxiety is leading to increased employee errors, growing burnout, workplace rage, more sick days, and poor employee health.” Gostick and Elton suggest that these pain points translate into lost productivity to the tune of $40 Billion annually in the US. In short, it’s a problem that’s prevalent, affects workers of all kinds, and is something that has real human and economic costs.

Gostick and Elton acknowledge that anxiety is a topic that has surged in coverage in media and books as the pandemic spread. However, most of this advice relates to how we can better manage personally. Yes, we should try to take care of our brains in similar fashion to taking care of our bodies. In fact, the things we do to take care of our bodies do help our brain. Exercise, sleep, nutrition, hydration, and relaxing all serve both physical and psychological purposes. Nonetheless, Anxiety at Work offers suggestions for what leaders can to do provide more support for staff. As we begin our migration back into our offices in some shape or form, the new school year may serve as a good occasion to take a few of Gostick and Elton’s lessons to heart.

They present three broad goals for leaders: normalize, destigmatize, and empathize. Address the elephant in the room. Anxiety exists, it is not something with which others are afflicted. It’s right here in our offices as it is all over the place. It’s perfectly normal to feel out of sorts. By normalizing we’re taking a step towards destigmatizing the ailment. Too often anxiety is seen as a weakness of character which we should just get over. For too long the approach to mental health issues is like the direction offered the injured athlete on the soccer field of “walk it off.” If we have a serious problem, walking isn’t helping, it’s hurting. Ignoring our mental pain isn’t the answer. Neither is discounting it as an affliction of those with weak mental fortitude. Leaders need to accept and appreciate that anxiety is like other physical ailments. It is real. It impacts work. It is not a sign of weakness. Once we’re able to accept the reality of anxiety in our workplaces we can work to move beyond destigmatizing evolving to empathizing. Progress will only happen when leaders not just accept anxiety as real but are able to identify its impact on individuals. I see you. I feel you.

Leaders can learn to look for signs that anxiety is present in their staff. Anxiety can show itself through changes in behavior, energy levels, and work habits. Staff that become more defensive, irritable, or volatile may be reflecting anxiety. Those that show either decreases or increases in energy can be doing so as a result of feeling anxious. Work habits such as decreasing productivity, increased absences, or withdrawal from participating in meetings may all be indicative of growing anxiety levels. Increasing sensitivity to spotting these kinds of changes in staff can only be managed where regular contact occurs. We have to be around each other in order to spot these kinds of changes.

From here, the balance of Anxiety at Work presents eight strategies leaders can readily implement with their teams to alleviate angst in the workplace. Gostick and Elton note that anxiety is a by-product of uncertainty. If we feel we’re on unstable ground and the air around us is foggy, we’re filled with uncertainty. Our FUD, fear, uncertainty, and doubt flood in to fill the void which all compound into anxiety. The single best thing leaders can do to reduce anxiety is to communicate clearly as much as possible. Help your team manage their expectations related to both the prospects of the business and their position.

Where are we going as an organization? Are we on the right track? Do we have a strategy? Tell me what you know? These are things your team are desperate to understand. There’s often little internal communication about how a company is doing, yet staff like the rest of the world can easily access an abundance of information about how things are going online. Unfortunately, some of the online information can be negative. Client reviews, industry news, and more can create uncertainty and anxiety in the hearts and minds of staff that aren’t always accurate. Management can do a much better job facing this reality and proactively communicating news of how things are going to staff. A leader, Liz Wiseman, suggests the tone and type of message for leaders, “Come with me into the dark. Together, we are going to navigate our way through complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, and volatility to a better place.”

Leaders can boost their credibility with their team where their team sees their interests as mutually aligned. If things are difficult, is leadership struggling as well? Where sacrifices are being sought, is the pain being visibly spread equally amongst leadership as it is amongst the balance of the organization? Are staff cutbacks occurring or being discussed while executives receive bonuses? Is there an us versus them battle between management and staff or does everyone feel like they are on the same team?

In a world awash in negative news and uncertainty, a useful approach is to encourage a narrowing of focus. Reduce the range of inputs while also reducing the time horizon for consideration. Leaders strive to direct the attention of staff to the things over which they have some control. What can we do today, where we are, with what we have to make a positive contribution to our organization? There’s little use in worrying about next year or five years from now. Narrow focus to daily, weekly, and monthly objectives. Long range forecasts are futile. Management should feel comfortable acknowledging all the areas of operations that are outside of their control while directing attention to be placed on the few things that may be capable of being influenced. Having a daily conversation where managers ask (as opposed to direct) what are you working on today?  Leaders can then offer suggestions for their teams as to prioritizing. Expectations for both groups become clear and staff feel confident they are making progress where it needs to be made.

As important as communicating as much as possible about the general business environment and how the company is doing, the single most important area people want to know about is themselves. Gostick and Elton note a survey from July of 2020 suggesting that 60% of US workers were concerned about job security. We’re asking ourselves questions like: How am I doing? Am I adding value? Do I have a future here? Will my job last? Do I know where I stand? A separate study involving 30,000 adult workers found less than 30% are clear about the standard of their performance. Separately, Gostick and Elton note 65% of employees feel “shortchanged” on feedback from their boss. Leaders can’t hide behind excuses that it is too time consuming to provide constant direction and feedback. Feedback involves much more than an annual performance review. Successful managers are meeting weekly with employees to review project progress and personal goals. These frequent check-ins result in patient progress and mutually managed expectations between staff and leadership.

Additionally, absence of clarity in direction is also a source of anxiety. Ambiguous assignments induce anxiety. It fuels internal questioning. For example, for what is my boss really looking? Is there a workflow I should be following? The more clarity you can offer, the better others can properly perform. Wise leaders stay in close touch with staff. They are constantly communicating and asking about what hurdles are in the way of their staff. Strong leaders seek to serve their staff by clearing the path by asking questions like are there things we’re doing that you think we shouldn’t be doing? Gostick and Elton offer that “It is rare for us to find team members working from good, understandable roadmaps that can be referred to again and again, providing clarity on what needs to get done in what timeframe (week/month/year).”

From clarifying communications, leaders can reduce anxiety in staff by offering thanks. Each of us is desperate for validation. We want to know that we’re needed and doing a good job. They offer an observation made by Oprah during a speech at Harvard some years ago where Oprah offers: “I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in twenty-five years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience: We want to be validated. We want to be understood. I’ve done over thirty-five thousand interviews in my career. And as soon as that camera shuts off, everyone turns to me and inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: ‘Was that okay?’ I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives. I’ve heard it from victims and perpetrators of crimes. I even heard it from Beyoncé in all of her Beyoncéness. . . . [We] all want to know, ‘Did you hear me? Do you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?” It doesn’t matter if you’re a Nobel prize winner, a President, or an average Joe, we all want to know how we did. Was that ok? Am I ok? We want so badly to be seen and heard.

As Oprah’s experience attests, anxiety is an affliction even for (or especially for) high performers. A driver for many is personal insecurity. Constant doubt drives a tireless work ethic. Those with this tendency are desperate for validation. They are asking the question that Oprah experienced over and over. How do you think I’m doing? Gostick and Elton write, “In fact, the highest performing employees can often perceive a lack of attention from a manager as a sign that things are not good at all. Silence can cause worry to creep up on even the best of workers.” Giving gratitude costs nothing and gives comfort. Being specific and timely with praise provides comfort and motivation to staff. Giving gratitude benefits both the receiver and the giver. Stress levels in both are reduced. Gratitude is a gift that reduces anxiety and fuels engagement.

Anxiety at Work offers concrete guidance for leaders to help let the air of anxiety out of our workplaces. Err on the side of overcommunicating. Communicate clearly and frequently. Communicate about what you know and don’t know. Communicate as much as you can as often as you can. Help staff see how the business is doing, how they’re doing, how their efforts connect to making the business better, and how their efforts are appreciated. Accepting anxiety’s presence as natural and using some of Gostick and Elton’s suggestions may help kick off the balance of 2021 in a more constructive and collaborative fashion.