Your Work Anxiety May Be Helping You Perform Better
A positive spin on a common mental struggle.
New research on work anxiety suggests the nail-biting may not be all bad. The stress and anxiety at work might be fueling better performance.
In the first study of workplace anxiety among employees, researchers looked at both the triggers of workplace anxiety and also its relationship to employee performance.
“If you have too much anxiety, and you’re completely consumed by it, then it’s going to derail your performance,” says co-author Julie McCarthy, an expert on organizational behavior at the University of Texas, Scarborough, and the Rotman School of Management. “On the other hand, moderate levels of anxiety can facilitate and drive performance.”
Lead author Bonnie Hayden Cheng, now an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, explains further: If employees are constantly distracted or thinking about things that are causing them anxiety, it will prevent them from completing tasks at work and that can eventually lead to exhaustion and burnout. But in certain situations, work-related anxiety can boost performance by helping employees focus and self-regulate their behavior. She compares it to athletes who are trained to harness anxiety in order to remain motivated and stay on task. Likewise, if work is causing you anxiety, engaging in something called self-regulatory processing, that is monitoring your progress on a task and focusing your efforts toward performing that task, can help boost your performance.
“After all, if we have no anxiety and we just don’t care about performance, then we are not going to be motivated to do the job,” Cheng says.
People who experience anxiety due to work, who are also motivated, are more likely to harness their anxiety in order to help them focus on their tasks. People who are emotionally intelligent, who are also experienced and skilled at their job, have an easier time recognizing their feelings of anxiety and channeling them to regulate their performance.
During the course of their research, Cheng and McCarthy broke down workplace anxiety into two types: dispositional — because if someone already experiences high levels of general anxiety, their experiences with workplace anxiety will be different from those who don’t; and situational, which arises in specific moments around tasks like reviews, public speaking, or other tasks that can distract and lead to poor performance.
The study, which is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, also outlines many of the triggers for workplace anxiety. The most prominent include jobs that require constant expression or suppression of emotion — think “service with a smile” — as well as jobs with constant looming deadlines or frequent organizational change. Office politics and control over work are other important factors that affect workplace anxiety, as well as employee age, gender and job tenure.
The authors note that anxiety due to work is a growing issue for employers. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health struggles, affecting 3.6% of the global population, according to the World Health Organization. While Indian data is sparse, the most recent (and first-ever) National Mental Health Survey by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) suggests anxiety in India is roughly on par, affecting 3.1% of the population.
But it’s possibly more concentrated among a certain group of people; a report by the Health Collective quotes a survey that found 1 in 2 corporate employees in India suffer from work-related anxiety.
The authors aren’t suggesting employers create environments that induce anxiety in their employees in order to foster high performance. Rather, this research is intended as good news for people who experience stress and anxiety at work — whether from time to time, or long-term. Seeing their work anxiety as an asset may help them self-regulate their behaviour and boost their performance.
“Managing anxiety can be done by recognizing and addressing triggers of workplace anxiety, but also being aware of how to leverage it in order to drive performance,” says Cheng.