By Jim Davis
An email that should take 10 minutes takes half a day when the writer spends too much time concerned about how it might be perceived. The creator of a slide deck spends 45 minutes tinkering with fonts instead of inserting the months’ KPI results and sending it along. Work-related anxiety can extend beyond the “Sunday Scaries” – for some, it casts a pall of fear and hesitation over daily operations.
Work-related anxiety is not just a matter of inefficient operations. It is also a matter of employee health. Whether approached from an ethical perspective (it is right to take care of our people) or a performance perspective (taking care of employee health improves employee productivity), employee health is essential.
In the past few years, workplace anxiety has been on the rise. Fear and uncertainty have increased 21% since COVID first appeared. But let’s be honest, it was here well before the pandemic. How we engage with workplace concerns, how we communicate, and how take care of ourselves can be the determining factor between success (however one defines it) and an inordinate amount of challenge.
Anxiety is a prediction malfunction. The brain is a prediction machine; occasionally, it gets caught in a cycle of over-predicting – imagining possible outcomes, challenges, and reactions from peers. The anxious mind might continually rehearse arguments that never happen. It might invent monsters creeping in the darkness under a bed. It creates possible futures and finds it difficult not to linger in them.
The more those scary situations roll around between one’s ears, the more likely they are to be avoided. In the conversation of anxiety, avoidance is never the appropriate response. Thoughtful engagement is the only remedy. To better understand that relationship, it is helpful to consider the SAID principle.
The SAID Principle
S.A.I.D. is an acronym which stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand; it refers the body’s adaptive response to the challenges it encounters (Todd, Shurley, & Todd, 2012). One who runs many miles while training for a marathon will impose specific demands on the nervous, muscular, and cardio-respiratory systems. The body will adapt to meet those demands. A different workout (a different demand, like a powerlifter lifting heavy weights) will cause the body to adapt in a different way, in specific relationship to the imposed demand.
In either case, adaptation is impossible without demand. The S.A.I.D. principle applies to the mind as well.
In an informal poll of graduate students, 100% of a small sample size (18) said that their capacity to read, write, and stay with a complicated idea improved during their studies. Upon graduation, many did not believe themselves to be experts in their field, but all believed that they were more prepared for further study and work – their capacity had improved relative to the imposed demands of their graduate experience. These students were willing to do the work, however challenging it might have been –not only engagement with course material, but also the deadlines, group projects, and additional stressors of graduate life.
Meanwhile, a recent study by Lovitts and Nelson found that anywhere between 1/3-2/3 of graduate students never complete their degree (Lovitts & Nelson, 2000). There are countless confounding variable in graduate school attrition rates, but one idea is obvious: students who do not experience the same demands do not adapt in the same way. It is not only a degree that those students missed out on; they also missed an opportunity to adapt to a specific set of demands.
The marathoner who does not get off the couch to run will not adapt. The student who does not complete the reading and writing of their graduate program will not adapt. But even that picture is incomplete… Unstimulated muscles and nerves will begin to atrophy (Dallas, 2015). That is, avoidance does not just inhibit advancement, it also degrades the existing state.
Work-related anxiety can be similarly understood. Regular avoidance of challenging conversation will never result in improved ability to have challenging conversations. An unwillingness to engage with KPI gaps will not make them disappear, it will just become harder and harder to confront them.
Avoiding workplace challenge and hoping it will improve is like hoping to become more fit while sitting on the couch. It doesn’t work.
Challenge and Support
In the body, one must engage in challenge (impose demand) then rest accordingly in order to adapt. Skill and confidence are developed through engagement – those skills are only cemented with appropriate levels of support and recovery.
Once again, the same is true of the mind.
The body needs 1) a relative drop in challenge and 2) appropriate nourishment to grow. The mind needs a drop in challenge as well, which can mean less work, no work, or a different speed and quality of work. Mental nourishment is completely individualized, but might include going for a walk, getting a massage, or taking a nap. And it will regularly require support from others. The ideal workplace culture will include open dialogue that allows for an appropriate level of challenge and a balancing degree of support from peers and supervisors as needed.
Which highlights another risk of avoidance – indulging anxiety and avoiding challenge might limit your access to the very people who might be able to provide support. Connection is one of the great saviors for one struggling with workplace anxiety.
[A question worth asking: if connection a great savior of anxiety, how might we be impacted by remote work environments?]
So don’t avoid challenge, work to understand it, then embrace it. After embracing challenge, take time to decompress and recover. Seek support and connection. Ultimately, this will lead to growth… growth, after all, leading to empowerment, is the ultimate remedy for anxiety.