5 practical actions to tackle anxiety in the workplace

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It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, so the timing feels right to share the results of Nuffield Health’s 2023 Healthier Nation Index. This highlights an encouraging increase in mental health transparency in the workplace.

The survey of 8,000 UK adults revealed that over 1 in 4 people (29%) now feel comfortable enough to disclose to their employer if they need time off due to poor mental health*.

The latest findings from Nuffield Health’s 2023, ‘Healthier Nation Index’, suggest a positive shift in how employees are communicating with their workplaces about their emotional wellbeing. 

Whilst it’s still clear that stigma remains a barrier for people talking about their Mental Health at work, it’s a promising sign that colleagues are beginning to speak out when they need more rest, emotional support, and time away from their desks.

This year less UK employees said they called in sick due to poor mental health but gave another reason*: 35 percent versus 39 percent in Nuffield Health’s 2022 report. Whilst this is a reduction, it is still clear that a significant percentage are not comfortable enough to disclose to their employer if they need time off due to poor mental health and more work needs to be done.

The link to anxiety – theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week

These findings are especially pertinent during this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which focuses on anxiety. 

Anxiety is a natural response particularly in these current times of uncertainty. It’s important to become aware of when we may need additional support with emotions such as anxiety so that it does not negatively impact on our lives.   

Lisa Gunn, Mental Health Prevention Lead at Nuffield Health commented: 

“We are passionate about building a healthier nation and know that challenging work environments and stress can have a huge knock-on effect on both our physical and mental wellbeing. 

“As well as the day-to-day worries that come with our personal and working lives, employees have also had to deal with the impact of a global pandemic and now the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. All these stressors combined can significantly affect the mental health of employees, so it’s more important than ever that businesses find ways to create open, transparent, and connected workplace environments. 

“When people feel supported and able to reach out to their employer, this can have a positive impact on their mental health alone and help them better address feelings of worry and anxiety.

“That’s why we are calling on other UK workplaces to #Find5 minutes to look after their bodies and minds.  Just by spending five extra minutes on personal wellbeing a day can significantly boost mental and physical health.” 

5 practical actions for employers

Lisa offers advice on how employers can play their part in creating a connected and transparent workplace, which prioritises both physical and mental wellbeing:

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1.     Notice when anxiety takes over

In the past year, 48 percent said their work had negatively impacted** their physical/mental health, so it’s imperative companies are equipped to recognise signs of mental distress, like anxiety, in others. 

The symptoms of anxiety can be seen in various ways. Physical signs include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, tiredness, and dizziness. You might notice heightened emotions in the workplace such as irritability or tearfulness.   

Employees experiencing anxiety may find it hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance. They may cancel annual leave last-minute – claiming they have too much on, to take holiday – work from home late at night or insist on coming into work when unwell. 

However, spending too much time at work is counter-productive, as it can result in us overlooking our physical and mental health. According to this year’s findings, 59 percent of Nuffield Health respondents said they were also less productive at work* when their mental health was poor. 

Just five minutes of conversation from employers reaching out to employees presenting with signs of anxiety or distress can have a positive impact.  This could be as simple as asking ‘Are you OK?’ or offering more regular meetings to catch up on how they’re feeling about their workloads. 

2.     Keep talking

It’s encouraging that more employees feel comfortable sharing with their employers when they are having problems with their mental health.

However, 18 percent of us will still go to work one or two times a year when our mental health is poor, and 19 percent will go to work more than ten times a year when experiencing poor mental health. 

It’s good for managers to try and understand why individuals come to work despite experiencing reduced mental wellbeing.  The more we know about the actions of our teams, the more support we can put in place to help them and reduce behaviours like presenteeism.  

Aim to spend at least five minutes with employees each week, practising ‘active listening’ – a skill that requires a genuine understanding and reflection of what’s being said and providing a considered response, especially for those experiencing symptoms of stress and anxiety. 

Active listening means listening attentively to what’s being said and showing understanding by paraphrasing and asking open questions to demonstrate your understanding. 

Employers may also consider offering Emotional Literacy Training to staff – equipping them with the skills needed to recognise signs of distress in others and themselves and the confidence to approach them.

This way they can nurture a workforce capable of recognising and tackling signs of anxiety in both themselves and others. 

3.     #Find5

Our 2023 study revealed 38 percent of people in the last 12 months have dedicated no time to supporting their own mental health, which includes everyday self-care, activities like meditation or speaking to a medical professional. 

This Mental Health Awareness Week, Nuffield Health is extending its ‘Find 5’ campaign to encourage individuals to ‘find 5 with 5’ – spending five extra minutes a day focusing on their physical and mental wellbeing for body and mind. 

In the same way, employers can play a huge role in creating an environment where employees feel a sense of connection and belonging by promoting campaigns which foster connectivity, team building and reduce stress. 

Our study shows individuals are becoming more aware of the benefits of exercise on overall wellbeing, with 27 percent saying that exercise lifts their mood and helps them feel less anxious or depressed.

Encouraging employees to #find5 throughout the working day could also be as simple as promoting regular exercise in morning meetings or creating ideas to be distributed around the office or over email.  

In just five minutes, managers can also arrange, or raise awareness of, physical health screenings available in the office to uncover any underlying issues among employees. 

4.     Be open about formal support

While meaningful social interaction plays a key role in reducing feelings of anxiety, professional support can also be invaluable. This may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) that offer direct and confidential access to a mental health expert. 

Offering these services can help employees to understand and address feelings of anxiety using techniques such as challenging negative thoughts. 

It only takes five minutes to signpost employees towards the support on offer, along with guidance and encouragement on how to access the help available. This may be via email to employees, an office huddle or a virtual ‘wellbeing hub’. 

We want mental health transparency to keep increasing beyond the 4 percent we have seen within the past year and openly communicating the options available shows employees that conversations about mental health are both welcomed and expected. 

5.     Allow individuals to pick what’s best for them

Finally, it’s important to remember that no single intervention works for everyone. The key to supporting the workforce is flexibility. 

Employers should be flexible with letting staff choose five minutes of self-care each day, whether it’s simply stretching at their desk, going for a brisk five-minute walk between meetings or finding five minutes to do a short, guided meditation or breathing exercises. 

Similarly, employers need to be flexible in how their teams choose to communicate with them. Encourage individuals to use a communication style that works best for them – whether it’s an in-person meeting or a phone call – this will make it easier for people to come forward and share their experiences.  

More flexibility means workplaces can cater to the individual and allow everyone to thrive and overcome feelings of anxiety.

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