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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is when we feel worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Many people will feel anxious, to varying degrees, at different points in their life. Sometimes these feelings of anxiety will increase, especially when stressful or traumatic events occur. This is a natural human response.

It is estimated that in any given week in England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem like anxiety or depression. When anxiety becomes persistent or impacts significantly on normal daily life this might be a sign that the person has an anxiety disorder. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to many more people feeling anxious or worried and an increase in clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders including mixed anxiety and depression, generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Remove the stigma

Employees are often scared to disclose a mental health problem to their employer due to the stigma attached to mental health conditions. Often employees feel worried about how they will be perceived by their work colleagues and managers. This can lead to problems spiralling and can exacerbate feelings of anxiety.

For employers who have not had experience of supporting an employee experiencing a mental health problem this can be daunting. The important thing to remember is that mental health should be treated in the same way as physical health. By having an open and supportive culture, staff will feel more confident sharing any issues early and if appropriate support is provided quickly, this can avoid problems becoming more serious.

Start the conversation

It may seem obvious, but it is vital for managers to routinely ask staff how they are and discuss their mental health. Doing nothing or ignoring the issue is likely to make things worse.

If someone is experiencing anxiety or has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, they can worry about how this will be managed. Start by having an open and supportive conversation with the employee, show empathy, listen carefully and non-judgmentally to how they are feeling and the way their anxiety is affecting them. Offer reassurance and keep things informal. Don’t make assumptions about how they are feeling or share your own personal experiences – remember everyone is individual and there is no “one size fits all” approach to mental health issues.

Offer meaningful support

There are various ways of offering support, none of which need to be costly or time consuming. As part of your conversation with the employee ask them what support they need. The employee is best placed to identify what would help them, whether that is counselling or other professional support, improving their work-life balance or finding ways of managing things that trigger their anxiety.

Discuss with the employee whether adjustments to their working arrangements would help, whether temporarily or permanently. This could include additional support from their manager (e.g. with certain tasks that trigger their anxiety), additional support from colleagues (e.g. a mentor or buddy), changes to working hours/patterns or extra training. Focus on the positives and what the employee can do and work with them to find solutions wherever possible. Avoid treating them differently from others or making them feel that they are being micromanaged as this can make them feel more anxious.

Ensure you offer regular praise and encouragement, this can have a hugely positive impact on anxious staff and help them feel valued and recognised. For those suffering from anxiety, acknowledgement and reassurance can help to alleviate worries that they are not doing a good job or have done something wrong. This can be as simple as an email praising them for a piece of work they have done well or some positive feedback.

Once support is in place, regularly review and monitor this to check it is working. Keep the conversation going and make changes as required. Managers should aim to help staff feel trusted and capable of carrying out their role in a supportive environment. This, in turn will improve the employee’s self-esteem and help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.

If you need further support, seek assistance from HR and/or your Occupational Health provider.

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Emma Long

Emma Long

Emma has a Degree in Law and is a qualified solicitor. She left private practice to become an Employment Law Consultant in the banking sector for a number of years before joining the Education HR team as an HR Consultant in October 2012. Her current role includes drafting and updating the HR model policies, procedures, guidance and toolkits to ensure they are fit for purpose and legally compliant. Emma supports the Education HR team to ensure they are up to date with Employment Law developments and ensures the Education HR website is regularly updated. She also assists her HR advice line colleagues to respond to complex queries as they arise. Emma is an experienced trainer and she delivers a variety of programmed and bespoke training to schools, together with planning our training offer and developing new training courses. She is also a school governor at a Junior School in Brentwood.