How HR can help manage workplace anxiety

Uncertainty and anxiousness are two things we’ve all had to face up to during the COVID pandemic. But, just when it looked like things were about to return to a state of relative normality and calm, the terrible war in Ukraine has led to many people feeling distressed and worried about events taking place thousands of miles away.

While it’s natural to feel worried or concerned about what’s going on in the world right now, when feelings of anxiety become the norm, it can become a serious problem. In the worst cases, constant anxiety can start negatively affecting people’s lives. In more extreme cases, it may lead to serious mental health issues.

It’s imperative then, that we all place an emphasis on maintaining positive mental wellbeing and look to manage feelings of anxiety during more trying times. In the world of work, HR and managers can play a prominent role in doing exactly that.

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Facing fears together

According to the HSE, more than 800,000 people in the UK have experienced work-related stress, anxiety or depression over the past year. If employees were already feeling under pressure or anxious about their jobs over the past 24 months, the spectre of potentially world-changing events certainly won’t make life much easier for them.

If you’re an HR practitioner or a manager responsible for leading teams, you can do a great deal to help employees manage their anxiety and support that all-important positive mental wellbeing everyone needs during times of uncertainty.

Here are six positive actions you can take:

Keep open lines of communication

Sometimes all anyone needs to feel less anxious is a good chat with a friend or colleague. That means it’s essential to encourage your managers to have regular face-to-face catch ups with their teammates, and not to confine them to just virtual or remote meetings.

That’s even more important if you’re one of the businesses that now has a remote or flexibly-working workforce where your staff don’t meet up as often, or at all. They’ll be missing out on those ‘water-cooler’ moments that help ensure people feel supported and connected. Aim to at least chat online monthly or weekly, or even just use the good old-fashioned telephone!

You shouldn’t forget the importance of regular internal comms, either. Sending out regular email updates about what’s going on within the business can help your remote workers build a better connection with your organisation, and speaking of which…

Share good news

In challenging times, it is all too easy to be overwhelmed by negativity. With news and current events available at our fingertips 24/7, becoming wrapped up in only the bad things going on the world can add to feelings of anxiety or hopelessness.

Managers and HR can help combat this by sharing positive or uplifting stories, be it from within the business, personal successes or simply stories that keep people’s spirits up! Tie this into an effective communication strategy that aims to spread positivity and help people take their minds off events beyond their control. However, remember not to overdo it. Too much positivity can be toxic.

Promote an active lifestyle

Regular exercise isn’t just great for your physical wellbeing: it’s been proven to help reduce tension, stress and anxiety, too.

And by ‘regular exercise’, we don’t mean a marathon gym session, anything that gets you moving can do the trick! From taking a 5-minute break away from your computer screen to stretch, to taking some time out to do some gardening or wash the car, encourage your people to keep active and take a break from their work during the day if needed.

Provide reassurance and helpful resources

There’s still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental health, a real lack of understanding of what it is, and how it should be managed in the workplace. People are often reluctant to open up to their managers or colleagues for fear it could affect their job or invite ridicule.

It’s important for both HR and managers to improve their knowledge on mental wellbeing so they can take a positive approach to supporting more personal issues, such as anxiety. It’s about listening non-judgementally and reassuring people that you will be supportive.

Utilise your HR software portal to provide information (not advice) and encourage anyone finding things tough to seek help via your EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) if you have one, or by signposting them to other sources of mental health support.

Remember that employers have a legal ‘duty of care’ to their employees, so it is important you have appropriate processes and policies in place. If any employees feel they need time away from work due to anxiety or stress, make sure they’re clear about the procedures for reporting sickness absence. You could also look to help them with the practicalities if needed so that it doesn’t become an added strain. It goes without saying that you need to respect and maintain confidentiality.

Watch for warning signs

Most managers are probably aware of some of the key signs of anxiety or stress, but it’s important to recognise that not everyone presents the same symptoms in the same way – and that mental health concerns extend beyond just anxiety.

The key is to look out for changes in behaviour that may indicate all is not well. Someone who is usually sociable may become withdrawn, for example, or a colleague who is always punctual and well-presented may start frequently being late and appear to have lost interest in their appearance.

Another previously confident and independent employee may appear to have difficulty making decisions or may start constantly seeking approval and reassurance about their work. The earlier you spot the signs, the sooner you can offer support and encourage the person to get help.

Don’t dodge the issue

Lastly, there’s an understandable tendency for people to tiptoe around a work colleague who may be showing signs of anxiety or mental ill-health. People are worried that raising the issue could make things worse – or that their colleague might break down in tears and they won’t know how to handle it.

There’s nothing wrong in expressing concern and asking someone if they are okay. A sympathetic enquiry can sometimes ‘open the door’ and give people an opportunity to talk about any problems they may be experiencing.

It is, of course, not for the manager to try and ‘diagnose’ the problem. However, once an issue is out in the open, it makes it much easier for management to work in partnership with HR to support an employee in getting the right help and advice.

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