Own your anxiety: How to make workplace anxiety work for You

By Bonnie Hayden Cheng | Friday, 28 Sep 2018

Workplace anxiety is pervasive. It affects all employees, regardless of age, tenure or industry. As the modern workplace continues to undergo changes pertaining to decentralisation, downsizing and restructuring, workplace anxiety will continue to escalate. What’s more, the culture of overtime in Asia has made stress more common than not, further enhancing feelings of anxiety at work.

Despite the prevalence of workplace anxiety, there is virtually no research on how workplace anxiety affects employees in the workplace. The little research that exists suggests that anxiety is an experience employees should avoid, as it leads to counterproductive behaviour at work, increased risk-taking behaviour, even of the unethical sort. This research also suggests that workplace anxiety leads to poor employee performance and, furthermore, that organisations are not gaining value from employees, as feelings of anxiety will automatically trigger poor performance. Yet, we all know of anxious employees who are high performers, perhaps ourselves included.

With that in mind, I recently developed a model of how workplace anxiety can both debilitate and facilitate employee performance. Workplace anxiety, on a short-term basis, is likely to distract employees, which leaves fewer cognitive resources to concentrate on the task at hand. This ultimately hurts performance. Experiencing workplace anxiety over time is likely to lead to emotional exhaustion, a component of burnout, which also ultimately hurts performance. How, then, can workplace anxiety enhance employee performance? To the extent that work-anxious employees engage in self-regulatory behaviour that allows anxiety to facilitate performance. This requires active behaviour such as minimising distractions, monitoring progress, setting targets and making goals.

What factors help work-anxious employees engage in this self-regulatory behaviour? My research has found that motivation, ability and emotional intelligence help workplace anxiety facilitate performance. First, having a real motivation and drive for your work will help to engage you in your tasks. Second, having the ability, resources, and tools to carry out your job well, is also important. Third, being emotionally intelligent is also critical. This means being able to recognise when you are feeling anxious, and being able to manage your feelings of work anxiety so they do not take over - for example, taking a few deep, slow, breaths when you feel you are tensing up. It also means using these feelings of work anxiety to your benefit – harnessing the energy and arousal from the experience of anxiety and channelling it into facilitative behaviour that will benefit performance on the task. Fortunately, emotional intelligence is a skill that can be learned, and companies such as Google are investing in emotional intelligence training for managers and employees to enhance their career success.

The fact is, we all experience workplace anxiety. For some, it is a chronic battle. For others, while it may be less frequently experienced, anxiety will still arise in certain situations, such as job interviews. However, the next time you experience anxiety at work, remember to make it work for you, not against you – engage in self-regulatory behaviour that will redirect your focus on the task, and performance need not suffer.

Bonnie Hayden Cheng

Associate Professor, Department of Management and Marketing, Faculty of Business, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

employee performance Talent Management Modern Workplace People Strategy

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