Work-related anxiety can lead to a host of problems, including decreased productivity, lowered, job satisfaction, job loss, and health problems. Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed, a new book released today, aims to eliminate anxiety in the workplace. I interviewed authors Jonathan Berent and Amy Lemley about the causes of workplace anxiety and strategies that workers can use to decrease anxiety at work.
In the book you address avoidant personality disorder, which seems to be fairly common but is rarely discussed. How does technology enable our avoidance and what are some tips for those prone to avoidant behaviors?
Avoidance is easier than ever with so much technology to hide behind. Screening calls and caller ID, email, IM, text—workplace anxiety sufferers use all of these to avoid the situations that concern them the most. Tools such as email are obviously extraordinarily useful, but a lot of times, it’s more appropriate to have a quick face to face conversation.
Our advice to people who are prone to this type of avoidant behavior? Pick up the phone! Stop by and check in with your colleague. This is hard advice to take—even for me. But I push through my initial feeling of, “Oh, no! What do they want?” and then give myself some nurturing credit for having actually picked up the phone or followed up in person.
To avoid feeling blindsided, rehearse some phrases that will help keep you from feeling put on the spot. “I’ll have to get back to you on that. How soon do you need the information?” “I’d like to help. Let me check my schedule.” Important: Follow through on these promises! Without follow-up, you’re just perpetuating the avoidance.
Technology enables avoidance. It lets people detach from their uncomfortable anxiety symptoms. To overcome anxiety, they need to attach to triggers such as phone calls or face-to-face meetings and learn to ride the wave of adrenaline that occurs.
What is the difference between normal anxiety and an unhealthy level of anxiety?
Anxiety is unhealthy when it causes you to feel emotional pain. And it is unhealthy when causes you to avoid anxiety triggers. At work, that could mean interacting with colleagues or superiors, performing job functions such as handling phone conversations, conference calls, meetings, or presentations.
Stress is a part of life. We all experience it: Something occurs, adrenaline starts to flow, and our body and mind prepare to take action. It’s fight or flight. Anxiety is essentially an overreaction to stress. Symptoms like obsessive worry, a fear of being noticeably nervous, racing heart, shallow breathing, and so on spin out of control. The fear of those sensations becomes so great that people become obsessed with avoiding their stress triggers.
What workplace characteristics are most likely to lead to anxiety?
Performance pressure is a major anxiety trigger. That can mean pressure on the job such as commissioned sales, tight deadlines, or a demanding boss or participating in the job search process. A job requiring lots of face-to-face interactions can lead to anxiety. And these days, working in a climate in which layoffs seem imminent is a huge stressor.
Many people fear public speaking more than death. Why are so many of us afraid of public speaking?
Hundreds of millions of people are afraid of public speaking—which we define as not only speaking to a formal audience but also anytime all eyes and ears are on us. We feel we simply have to be perfect, and we know we are not. We are sure we’re noticeably nervous—that everyone hears us stammering, sees us blushing or sweating. “They’ll see who I really am.” “They’ll see I’m a fraud.”
People put their identity and self-esteem on the line when it comes to public speaking. They are not differentiating between performance and personhood.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when you define success as being in a good mood. Can you offer some advice for maintaining a positive, balanced mood?
We define success as being in a good mood. Being in a good mood requires that you know what you want and be in sustained action to attain it. Anxiety is a roadblock—it causes avoidance, which blocks motion. Identify the truth of your desire—getting or keeping a job, receiving a promotion, making money, building relationships.
Learn to balance your mind states by increasing the nurturing, objective, and creative inner voices. When you do that, your critical inner voice will recede to an appropriate level.
If, for example, you’re having trouble learning new software, tell yourself (1) you’ve learned other technology, you can learn this too (2) Learning new software improves your effectiveness and makes you a more valuable employee (2) Learning new software will make some objects of your job easier and might even make them more fun or interesting.
And finally, give up believing you must be perfect. Nobody’s perfect!