Women's Agenda: Anxiety took me off guard – it’s time we get better about talking about it - Michelle Gibbings

Thanks to Women’s Agenda, in this article Michelle explains how anxiety can take you by surprise and shares tips to help you cope with it. 

Anxiety. It grips you in the chest. It can make you feel like you can’t breathe. Sits in the pit of your stomach. Well, that’s what it feels like for me. Looking at me as I went about my day, you wouldn’t know it was there. If you asked me if I was OK, I’d say “Of course”.

When anxiety first paid me a visit, I only told two people – my husband and my dry cleaner (yes, we have fascinating conversations). His comment, “You don’t look like the type of person who’d have anxiety”. It was a stark reminder that we are often good at masking what’s happening underneath. For me, up until earlier this year, I’d never experienced it. Life circumstances led me to it. Which brings me to ‘R U Ok? day’.

Encouraging open conversations about mental health is to be applauded, and so is raising awareness of the rising issues across workplaces and society. However, a one-day focus won’t shift the dial. The root cause of mental health issues varies, so the strategies needed to address it must also vary. Central to this are serious conversations about the nature of the workplaces we have created and continue to build. Workplace culture contributes to and can exacerbate mental health issues.

Data tells the story 

Economist John Pencavel from Stanford University found that productivity declines when people work more than 50 hours each week. Even worse, working 70 hours or more a week causes the person to get the same amount of work done as people who work 55 hours. His research highlights the impact of employee fatigue and stress on productivity and the probability of errors, accidents, and sickness.

The BBC reported analysis showing that long working hours increased the risk of heart disease by 40% (almost the same as smoking) and strokes. People who worked more than 11 hours a day were nearly 2.4 times more likely to have a major depressive episode. International studies reveal the increase in mental health issues, with experts warning the ramifications will extend far into the future. This impact has financial consequences, with the World Health Organization estimating that depression and anxiety cost the global economy over $1 trillion in lost productivity.

Despite the evidence mounting as to why it matters at a societal, organisational and personal level, many workplace practices work against creating a healthy workplace. For example, there are workplaces where excessive overtime and unrealistic workloads are a cultural norm. Organisations institute online surveillance despite research showing employees feel worse when monitored. There’s also a growing push for office-based workers to go back to the office in a full-time capacity, while research demonstrates that workers with flexibility enjoy a better quality of life. And let’s not forget ongoing data that continually reinforces that leadership is getting worse, not better.

Issues of burnout, stress and fatigue are systemic and cultural. So, tackling it hinges on seamlessly integrating strategies into a broad framework that addresses the root causes.

Start noticing

Leaders must balance the pressure in the working day and be ready to spot the warning signs for their team members and support them. This requires open communication channels, destigmatising mental health struggles, and proactively identifying and addressing burnout.

These signs may include feeling ineffective and cynical, being withdrawn, having reduced energy, motivation, and efficiency, and being more frustrated and irritable. You want to notice if your team members and colleagues are working excessively hard or doing lots of overtime, yet their productivity is waning. Noticing is only possible when you spend quality time with people.

Listen deeply

Create opportunities for open dialogue. Have a program of regular check-ins at a group and individual level. When talking with team members, remember you may be unable to fix the issue. What you can do, which has a valuable impact, is make them feel seen and heard. By doing that, you demonstrate they matter. Many times, just by hearing what they say, listening with compassion and showing a genuine interest in what’s concerning them, you’ll have given them exactly what they need.

Create connection

Relationships and connections are at the root of all human existence. As this HBR article reminds us, burnout isn’t just about exhaustion; it’s also about feeling disconnected and lonely. When you have strong relationships at work, it provides a support network for you to talk through challenges and get advice. As the team’s leader, building supportive and trusting relationships with all team members is crucial. People want to know they belong.

Be systematic

Addressing issues necessitates a comprehensive review of workplace policies and expectations. Are employees routinely expected to work long hours, neglecting personal time and self-care? Are unrealistic targets the norm? Is the culture exacerbating issues? Creating a thriving workplace isn’t about the one thing you do. It requires awareness, patience and persistence, with consciously and consistently applied efforts. It’s also recognising and accepting that what each person needs may differ.

Thankfully, I’ve worked through my anxiety. On the days when it when it occasionally turns up, I say, “Hello, old friend, nice to see you again”. I then move through my day knowing it’s telling me something, and I need to give it (and myself) space to breathe.

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