Living with an anxiety disorder can be hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it themselves. Things that seem inconsequential to most can spark an afternoon of worry and stress for others. With nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. experiencing an anxiety disorder every year, anxiety is the most common mental illness and one of the costliest workplace disorders employees face.
Now of course, if you have an anxiety disorder, it’s up to you to learn how to manage it. But here’s the thing: there are so many needless habits of managers that drive anxious people up the wall (speaking from experience).
There’s no ill intent, of course. It’s just that they don’t know. With some simple, reasonable accommodations, you can vastly improve the working environment for the 20% of your team battling an anxiety disorder.
What Types of Anxiety Disorders Might You Encounter in the Workplace?
Anxiety disorders can present themselves in a variety of ways, from object-specific phobias to panic attacks. But the two types you’re most likely to encounter in the workplace are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD).
“GAD is an anxiety disorder that’s marked by a lot of worrying related to everyday tasks,” says Dr. Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist and host of the YouTube channel The Psych Show. “The errands you have to run, the emails you have to send, the commute that you have to make, all of the day-to-day work.”
Generalized anxiety disorder can be tough to spot at work, says Dr. Mattu, because the illness can often drive over-preparation and obsession with job performance. Unfortunately, this comes at the risk of sleep, family life, and physical and mental health.
Another common anxiety disorder seen at work is social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by fear and elevated discomfort in social interactions, including in the workplace. “Social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders, and it’s something that make a lot of everyday situations difficult,” says Dr. Mattu. “There’s a wide variety of ways in which people can experience social anxiety. Sometimes it’s a performance review, or having their work evaluated can trigger some social anxiety for people.”
With a high likelihood that someone on your team lives with an anxiety disorder, the most important thing you can do as a leader is understand that these types of disorders are difficult to spot and avoid making assumptions about how, why, or over what a person is dealing with. “I have been treating anxiety for a very long time, and I am still surprised at how bad I am at reading whether or not someone is anxious, how much they might be anxious, and what they might be anxious about. (Anxiety) is a problem that’s about internal sensations, internal thoughts, and behaviors that are hard to spot.”
Being an accommodating boss isn’t about making excessive concessions to certain employees—there are simple fixes you can make that will benefit everyone on your team. Things like setting clear expectations, giving clear information, and being flexible with individual team members can go a long way in creating an environment where all employees, including those with anxiety disorders, can thrive.
DON’T: Call “Mystery Meetings”
Every boss I’ve ever had has at some point sent me the following message on Slack:
“Hey, can we chat around 4:30 this afternoon?”
From the time I receive that message to when the meeting actually happens, my mind is spiraling through worst case scenarios. It doesn’t matter how exemplary my work has been, when I hear those words, I get that nagging voice deep down telling me to be worried.
Even leaders in anxiety clinics aren’t immune to this mistake. “My boss at an anxiety disorder clinic once sent me an email that said, ‘Ali, please come to my office as soon as possible.’ I thought I was going to get fired! Turns out she was placing an order for lunch for a meeting we were about to have and needed to know what I wanted.”
What to do instead: From the beginning, come out and say what it is you want to discuss. “Are you free at 4:30? I wanted to hear how your project was going and see if I can help out in anyway.” It’s that simple!
“As much as you can help people know what to expect—during the day, in their roles, how they’re going to be evaluated, and how performance is going to be measured. Knowing what to expect does lessen some symptoms of anxiety,” suggests Dr. Mattu.
DON’T: Neglect alone/recharge time
If you have an open floor plan office or lots of meetings, some anxious people on your team may be dying for their hour-long lunch where they get to go read by themselves away from everyone else. The last thing they want is to be forced into small talk when a coworker sits by them, or worse yet asked to join a “lunch meeting.”
This is especially important on business trips, where coworkers spend even more time together.
Of course, communal meals are a great thing—so long as individuals have the option to opt-out if it’s not their thing.
What to do instead: Build in recharge time in the schedule on trips, and everyone will be happier for it. If you notice an employee seems to enjoy being by themselves at lunch, let them have that time. Allow employees to block off time in their calendars for alone time to work or take a walk without being interrupted.
Remember, recharge time looks different for different people. “Don’t try to impose any way of coping with stress,” says Dr. Mattu. “Support the people in whatever coping behavior benefits them.”
DON’T: Encourage unhealthy lifestyles
As a manager, you lead by example. And if you’re constantly skipping lunch, sending late night emails, or working weekends, you can expect that your team will see that as the expectation.
That’s a recipe for burnout.
“Some people (with anxiety) really need things like getting a good night’s sleep, getting a good meal, some fresh air, or having breaks during the day,” says Dr. Mattu.
What to do instead: Sleeping, eating healthy, and taking breaks is just good advice for any human. But as a leader, you set the example for others. Don’t skip lunch. Unplug. Get a full night of rest. And most importantly, make sure your team knows that taking care of themselves should be their top priority.
DON’T: Avoid involvement in employee benefits discussions
As a manager, you have a much stronger voice than your team members when it comes to advocating for robust employee health insurance benefits. If you really want to be a good boss, use your voice to push for an employee health plan that will allow them to easily access mental health treatment when needed.
What to do instead: Advocate to the top levels of leadership for robust health plans. The Affordable Care Act expanded mental health coverage on insurance plans, but finding treatment can still be a challenge. There’s a good chance someone on your team utilizes weekly therapy or medication to manage anxiety, and the last thing you want is your own company’s insurance plan standing in the way.