Author: Dr. Melanie Badali

For many of us, the term “workplace wellness” sounds more like an oxymoron than a buzzword synonymous with today’s organizational culture. For over a decade I’ve been on a journey towards finding that “work/life balance,” so it’s encouraging to know that corporations are beginning to take the mental health of their employees more seriously. Kudo’s to Starbucks – the company just announced that it would give $5,000 a year to its employees to cover the cost of therapy –  a significant increase from the $400 that they currently offer their employees.

Mental Health is Impacting Corporations’ Bottom Line

Why are companies like Starbucks starting to take their employees’ mental health more seriously? A report by the Conference Board of Canada, conducted earlier this year, found that lost productivity caused by workers’ depression and anxiety costs the Canadian economy nearly $50 billion a year; depression costs the economy at least $32.3 billion annually, while anxiety costs another $17.3 billion a year. Mental illness also accounts for 30 percent of all short and long-term disability claims. The report concludes that employee productivity is impacted by the number of sick days as well as the reduced productivity when the employees are at work. Therefore, it’s no surprise that corporations are finding it attractive to invest in mental health, and by doing so, they can decrease disability claims, reduce absenteeism, and improve productivity –  helping their bottom line.

Stress in the Workplace

According to a report report by Ipsos Reid, nearly half (47%) of working Canadians agree that their place of work is the most stressful part of their day and life. Sixteen percent of working Canadians say their place of work is a source of feelings of depression, anxiety or other mental illness. So, why are we stressed? According to the American Institute of Stress, the leading causes of stress in the workplace are workload (46%), people issues (28%), juggling work/personal lives (20%) and lack of job security (6%).

My Perfect Storm

In my experience, it was a combination of several factors, including office layoffs, increased workload, job insecurity, as well as my high-performance standards that lead to my “workplace stress.” I was a recent college graduate working in the marketing department of a mobile carrier start-up. It was my dream job – I worked with great people and loved what I did. I was the right busy – busy, but not too busy – and then it all came to a screeching halt. One Tuesday, I came to work to find Kleenex boxes in the boardrooms – not a good sign of what was to come.  One by one, each co-worker was led into the boardroom, and one by one each one was escorted out of the building; making this my first experience with layoffs. The good news was that I didn’t have to go into the boardroom that Tuesday morning and my job was secure. But little did I know that this event would help trigger intense anxiety which would lead to my first panic attack.

My workload tripled, my regional manager was let go, and now I reported to someone two time zones away from me. Several of my colleagues lost their jobs; employee morale was dangerously low, and my dream job was a distant memory. This situation may sound trivial nowadays, but this proved quite difficult for me at the time. Why? Well, unbeknownst to me, I suffered from several symptoms of GAD – general anxiety disorder – perfectionism, excessive reassurance-seeking, refusal to delegate to others, avoidance, and procrastination. I tried to make everyone happy by striving to meet my unrealistic workload and eventually my entire existence was consumed by the hamster wheel that I was on.

The perfect storm finally imploded, and I found myself outside of my office building, unable to breathe, and unable to physically walk back into my office. I thought that I was dying but was relieved to find out that it was just a panic attack. Sadly, this should have been a warning sign that I needed to slow down, but unfortunately, I didn’t know how to stop and take back control of my life, and of course, this adversely impacted my personal relationships too. If you have experienced anxiety in the workplace, you know that the anxiety doesn’t end at work – no – it comes home with us at night, and we share it with our loved ones.

How can you reduce your anxiety at work?

If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self about anxiety, what would I say? Well, I would tell myself that anxiety is common and that my inability to meet such high expectations was not a failure on my part. For someone with GAD, telling them that anxiety is normal and that they aren’t a failure won’t help them control their anxiety. The key with anxiety is not to avoid anxiety at all costs, but rather learn how to manage it and “ride out” the feelings. Below are five steps that I still use to help manage workplace anxiety.

Five Steps to Managing Workplace Anxiety

Get a good night sleep

Sleep problems are relatively common. In fact, one in four people will experience sleep difficulties, which include trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, early morning waking, sleeping too much, or restless or unsatisfying sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep can improve your mental well-being and help you manage your anxiety.

Make realistic and attainable goals

Identify short, medium, and long-term goals that are realistic and attainable. If you set your goals too high, it will be too difficult to accomplish them, and your motivation will suffer. You are also far more likely to reach your goals if they are concrete and specific rather than vague. Also ensure that you break your goals up into smaller steps, schedule deadlines for your goals, and take the necessary actions to follow through with them.

Try to avoid perfectionism

There is nothing wrong with having high standards, but when these standards are too high, they can get in the way of your work/school, relationships and enjoyment of life. Perfectionism involves a tendency to set standards that are so high they either cannot be met or are only met with great difficulty. Try replacing self-critical or perfectionistic thoughts with more realistic and helpful statements.

Manage your time

Learning to manage your time more effectively can reduce stress. Use a day planner to schedule your activities. Using a planner will help you see if you’re taking on too much, and help you make time for the things you need to do. Remember to schedule some time for relaxation and fun activities each day.

Try calm breathing

Calm breathing is a technique that helps you slow down your breathing when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Our breathing changes when we feel anxious. We tend to take short, quick, shallow breaths or even hyperventilate; this is called “over breathing.” Calm breathing involves taking smooth, slow and regular breaths. Sitting upright is usually better than lying down or slouching, because it can increase the capacity of your lungs to fill with air. It is best to ‘take the weight’ off your shoulders by supporting your arms on the side-arms of a chair, or on your lap.

  1. Take a slow breath in through the nose, breathing into your lower belly (for about 4 seconds)
  2. Hold your breath for 1 or 2 seconds
  3. Exhale slowly through the mouth (for about 4 seconds)
  4. Wait a few seconds before taking another breath

About 6-8 breathing cycles per minute are often helpful to decrease anxiety but find your comfortable breathing rhythm. These cycles regulate the amount of oxygen you take in so that you do not experience the fainting, tingling and giddy sensations associated with over breathing.

It’s important to remember that anxiety is normal and everyone experiences anxiety at one time or another. Although anxiety may feel uncomfortable, it is not dangerous or harmful to you. Remember, all the sensations you feel when you are anxious are there to protect you from danger, not hurt you. And more importantly, when you are anxious, you may feel like the anxiety is going to last forever, but anxiety is temporary and will eventually decrease. Click here for more information on how to manage anxiety as well as information and management strategies specific to anxiety disorders.