Why put up with anxiety in the workplace? The plainest answer would seem to be: because we have to. Employment utopians like to imagine positions of perfect, stress-free contentment, but empirical evidence suggests that workplace anxiety has more in common with love than just sweaty palms and heart palpitations; anxiety, like love, always finds a way.
For a demonstration, trying searching the Internet for “workplace anxiety,” and you will find it discussed in all kinds of contrasting contexts. My favorite examples are the articles from around 2000 claiming that anxiety at work was rampant because of the booming economy, which demanded that employees show particular commitment by putting in long hours and taking on extra tasks, versus the articles from around 2009 claiming that anxiety at work was rampant because of the terrible economy, which demanded that employees show particular commitment by putting in long hours and taking on extra tasks.
I think that the reason anxiety and love are so similar is that they both just mean that you care. Of course, some kinds of concern about one’s job arise from undesirable or even unhealthy situations — such as poor training, economic desperation, or inhumane leadership — and in those cases it is best to change or leave the situation and source of anxiety. But even people who feel they are doing fulfilling, meaningful work under appropriate conditions may experience high levels of anxiety. Such anxiety may be the result of ambition, for example — accepting burdensome levels of responsibility out of an urge to excel. It may be intrinsic to the chosen career, as with emergency room doctors, soldiers, and accountants during tax season. Or it may be the result of chance and other external factors — the farmer contending with drought or the small business owner facing a new competitor in the marketplace. People who care about their work seem destined to encounter anxiety at some point. How can they — we — deal with it?
The answer does not lie in simply trying to eliminate all the stresses that lead to anxiety. That’s unrealistic — maybe even imprudent, since a reasonable level of stress can sometimes help drive performance. While reducing stress, and thus lessening the stimulation to that part of our minds that responds with feelings of anxiety, may be part of the solution, a more comprehensive approach would include increasing the stimulation to that part of our minds which generates feelings of calm and felicity. As Anne Kreamer points out in her book, It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace, “If we focus only on negative experiences . . . our emotional resiliency muscles atrophy.” By working on positive psychology and building up our abilities to relax, to be creative, to plan, and to gain a wider perspective, we can build strength in our “emotional resiliency muscles” so that the same levels of stress will no longer trigger such high levels of anxiety.
How do we build emotional resiliency? Kreamer makes several suggestions — meditation and exercise, for example, as well as a few mental habits like taking time to reflect on what is meaningful, imagining “worst case scenarios” (which are usually less anxiety-provoking than the broad but vague fears often generated by stress), and breaking apparently overwhelming assignments into smaller, more manageable tasks. I also suggest reaching out to connect with others — colleagues who might have some useful thoughts about the specific stressful work situation, and friends and family outside the office who can help you put things in a broader context. All of these methods may well produce solid practical benefits — a flash of insight, a splash of collaboration, a well-reasoned plan to reach your goal — but, just as importantly, they can all help you build facility and confidence in the emotional resiliency that can counterbalance the tendency towards anxiety.