What’s Making You Anxious at Work?

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The workday has just started, and already you feel on edge.

Maybe it’s a feeling of incessant worry, or even an ever-present lurch in your stomach. You might even find yourself repeating questions to yourself like a mantra of negativity: “Am I good enough? Am I doing enough?” However it manifests, anxiety is something that plagues millions of adults both in and out of the workplace. So what are some of the factors contributing to these feelings of unrest at the office?

Constant Connection

The modern world is one where you’re always available. If you’ve got a phone in your pocket, there are a myriad number of ways for people to reach you: e-mail, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and any work related G-Mail chat groups you may have open. In short, owning a smartphone means that you are constantly connected to your office.

One major consequence of this hyper-connectivity is what researchers have deemed the “Fear of Missing Out”. FoMO refers to the worry that others are out having amazing and rewarding experiences, and that there’s a limited time to do all the things that will make you successful. Out of this office, this typically manifests as a feeling of restlessness, knowing that someone somewhere is at a party, or on vacation, or hosting an event that YOU could be attending! In the office, it manifests as a need to know what others are working on, which assignments require your immediate attention, and whether you should be attending every meeting in existence. No matter how you slice it, the perpetual pinging of notifications on your phone leads you to believe something is happening without you, and that can lead to a degradation of psychological well-being (Przybylski, Murayama, DeHaan, & Gladwell, 2013).

In fact, recent research from California State University suggests that even having your mobile device out of reach causes a spike in anxiety (Cheever, Rosen, Carrier, & Chavez, 2014). Who’s trying to reach you? How many e-mails are piling up? Was there an important phone call you forgot about?

These concerns are now a part of our everyday work life.

Helpful Tip: Don’t forget to disconnect. TIME magazine ran a poll, and found that 84% of respondents couldn’t last a day without their mobile device in hand (Duerson, 2012). That’s a full blown addiction!

In order to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety caused by your eternal availability, individuals need to leave work at work. When you get home, don’t be tempted to check work e-mails or G-Chat, or however you keep up to date in the office; this is your off-the-clock YOU time.

Stressful Associations

Have you ever felt a wave of stress and discomfort right when you’ve sat down at your work desk? Even when no work has passed your hands yet? You might have already subconsciously associated that space with being anxious.

Michael Eysenck (2009), author of the Fundamentals of Psychology, illustrated this concept by describing a patient named Sarah. Sarah was a highly anxious individual. While out shopping one day, she experienced debilitating high levels of anxiety, and decided the best thing to do was to drop everything and go home. The next day, the same thing happened at the same store. “Maybe”, thought Sarah, “I should try going somewhere else!” However, the same thing happened in similar stores each time she went out. Unbeknownst to her, she was associating anxiety with every location that resembled that first shop.

Helpful Tip: Have a dedicated “you” space. This could be a spot at the office away from your desk, or a room at home; the key is not to engage in any stress-related activities in these spaces. That way, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’ve got a spot you can visit to recharge. This dovetails well with the previous section on disconnecting – if work stresses you out, or if not being constantly connected stresses you out, keep the phone out of your stress-free space.

Alternatively, you can take a walk out in nature

Work to Live, or Live to Work?

There seems to be a mass movement, both in North America and overseas, toward a “Live to Work” method of running organizations. In the USA, for example, employers are not required to give their employees ANY paid vacation time, unlike many of their European counterparts (Mohn, 2013). It’s a perpetual race to the top in business, and employers are looking for any competitive advantage they can harness.

The Japanese workforce is a prime example of this mindset. In fact, due to the number of employee deaths caused by severe overworking (leading to heart attacks and strokes), the term “Karōshi” was coined (Karōshi, 2013).

But what leads to this insatiable desire to work as hard as humanly possible?

Turns out, competition is a major contributing factor. Researchers at the University of Derby set out to establish the relationship between stress, anxiety, and striving to avoid inferiority (which many of us do each day in the workplace), and found exactly that. The more insecure people felt in their workplace environments, the more likely they were to view others on a social hierarchy, making them especially vulnerable to rejection and anxiety (Gilbert, McEwan, Bellew, Mills, & Gale, 2009)

Everyone has a strong need to feel competent and capable at work, but this can be undermined by anxiety caused by feeling inferior to your fellow employees. The end result is often overcompensation; you’ll put in more hours, more often, if you think it will help you climb the corporate ladder, no matter the cost.

Helpful Tip: Don’t forget about work-life balance. Studies have shown that establishing comfortable levels of work-time and you-time leads to a reduction in absenteeism, increased workplace satisfaction, and greater productivity. Being at your best means your work is at its best, and may help reduce any feelings of inferiority associated with your creative output. This may, in turn, lessen anxiety.

The Upshot

Fear of Missing Out, coupled with unconscious stress cues and worries about others getting ahead (or just being better than you), can create an unhealthy obsession with work, in which the only way to ‘relieve’ stress is to keep working. The key to dealing with each of these things is breaking the unhealthy habits you have around work; if you burn out, you won’t be succeeding at anything – personal or professional. Making sure you disconnect for some time (e.g., for an entire vacation) can do amazing things for you. The automatic and obsessive phone checking will fade, the automatic stress response to your email sound effect (or your alarm sound, for that matter) will fade, and you’ll find yourself refreshed and (hopefully) ready to approach work with a different set of behaviours and attitudes.

And above all, don’t forget – becoming overly focused on what other people are doing doesn’t do you any favours. Look at your own plate, don’t worry about what others have on theirs.


[/vc_column_text][social_buttons facebook="true" twitter="true" google_plus="true" linkedin="true"][toggles][toggle title="References" color="Default"][vc_column_text]References:

Cheever, N., Rosen, L., Carrier, L. M., Chavez, A. (2014). Out of sight is not out of mind: The impact of restricting wireless mobile device use on anxiety levels among low, moderate and high users. Computers in Human Behaviour, 37, 290-297.

Duerson, M. (2012, August 16). We’re Addicted to Our Phones. Retrieved July 20, 2015, from http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/addicted-phones-84-worldwide-couldn-single-day-mobile-device-hand-article-1.1137811

Eysenck, Michael. "Abnormal Psychology." Fundamentals of Psychology. New York: Psychology, 2009. 517-18. Print.

Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Bellew R., Mills, A., & Gale, C. (2009). The dark side of competition: How competitive behaviour and striving to avoid inferiority are linked to depression, anxiety, stress and self-harm. The British Psychological Society, 82, 123-136. Doi: 10.1348/147608308X379806

Karōshi: Death from Overwork. (2013, April 23). Retrieved July 20, 2015, from http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/publications/WCMS_211571/lang--en/index.htm

Mohn, T. (2013, August 13). U.S. The Only Advanced Economy That Does Not Require Employers To Provide Paid Vacation Time, Report Says. Retrieved July 20, 2015, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2013/08/13/paid-time-off-forget-about-it-a-report-looks-at-how-the-u-s-compares-to-other-countries/

Przybylski, A., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C., Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29, 1841-1848. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2013.02.014[/vc_column_text][/toggle][/toggles][vc_column_text]Post By: Victoria Parker

Victoria HeadshotVictoria Parker is an Honours Psychology Graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University. Though venturing out into the world of marketing for a time, the allure of the human mind dragged her right back to research! Her research is primarily focused on gratitude, happiness, and mindfulness in and out of the workplace. Working as a research assistant has provided her with exposure to many fascinating and forward-thinking projects and ideas. Additionally, her previous experience in the corporate jungle left her with not only a refined work ethic, but a keen interest in the experience and satisfaction of her fellow employees. A minor in Philosophy, delving largely into Theories of Mind and Reality, further fuelled her interest in social psychological concepts such as the self, identity, and motivation.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Jennifer Moss

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