I love the company I work for. It’s fast-paced and exciting, filled with talented and friendly people. We share a common purpose, and a lot is invested into our development, learning and care. For my first three months, I felt like I was flying. After working in the public sector, the level to which employees were cared for was (and still is) astounding. I learnt fast, made connections and did my work well.
And then debilitating anxiety set in.
In a hyper-competitive environment full of talent, in which growth and achievement was (rightly) prized, I became obsessed with how well I was doing in comparison to others, measuring the time I had been at the company against others and trying to gauge my success, and what else I could do. In short, I was trying too hard.
Although the quality of my work didn’t suffer, I knew that this anxiety was holding me back – I was second guessing myself, and my confidence felt like a front. Ironically, I knew that if I could just relax, “be myself” (what does this actually mean, anyway?) and focus on my work instead of potential outcomes, that I would perform much better. But how to do this?
I felt ashamed of the anxiety I felt at my dream company, but as I emerged out of this fog, I realised that it wasn’t – it couldn’t – just be me. As a competitive, empathetic person who is pretty eager to please and really wants to do well, I was bound to pick up on all the energy in the office and internalise it. Workplace anxiety is something we don’t really talk about, perhaps because we think it reflects badly on ourselves. But although it may stem from ourselves and our own place in an organisation, it’s important for us – and our organisations – to start talking about it.
It may be a good place to note that workplace anxiety differs from generalised anxiety, or GAD – Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Although there may be an overlap, I’m specifically referring to the anxiety that stems from your work and that you experience in your workplace.
After about three more months, my workplace anxiety melted away – not quickly, but day by day, until nothing of it remained. As I relaxed I was able to make more meaningful connections of great personal and professional value, complete my work better and more quickly, engage in company initiatives and generally, have more fun. The more fun I had, the better I did (and was perceived to be). I stopped thinking about how well I was doing, and instead felt a deep sense of belonging in the organisation, which allowed me to celebrate the successes of others as wholeheartedly as I wanted to.
Looking back, I think that it abated largely due to the following:
1. Connecting with my mentor
It sounds obvious right? I already had an awesome mentor at work (Yo, C!) and we’ve become super good friends. But at the time I needed to have coffee and chat about work I was too in awe of his position, to deep in my anxiety and too scared of being a nuisance to reach out. I was being plain silly.
If you don’t have a mentor within your work, get one. Ask them if you can set up a regular coffee or lunch date and how often would work for them. If you don’t have a mentor at work, identify someone you admire (preferably in a very different department to yours), and ask them to be your workplace mentor. I would try to choose someone who is relatively senior, good at their job, who you can get on well with and who shares similar values to you.
Having a mentor has all sorts of benefits. Advice of course, and coaching, are some of the most common. But sometimes, it’s just really nice to know that someone’s got your back, and that they’re looking out for you, wanting you to do well.
2. Getting a new line manager
This was in no part due to me, obviously 🙂 But, as I heard on a podcast this week, “People don’t quit jobs, they quit people”. I was surprised as to how much of a difference this made.
They don’t have to be your friend, and they don’t have to be your mentor. But the primary function of line managers should be to enable their direct reports to work as well as they possibly can. If you are not receiving the coaching and support you should be, you have the option to a) broach it with them b) get the support you need from outside this relationship, or c) move to another team.
Consider whether you are supported to do your work to the best of your ability. Does your line manager want you to do well? Do you trust that they have your best interests at heart?
3. Intensive self-development
During this time I read a lot, and reflected on what I was reading. The management, business, personal productivity and self-development books that I read pretty much all pointed to the same things:
- Your best work is done at your most relaxed
- Relationships are better when you are relaxed
- No one else knows what the hell they’re doing either
- You are of no less (and no more) value than any other person.
In terms of workplace anxiety, the most helpful book I read was Olivia Fox Cabane’s The Charisma Myth – I can’t recommend it highly enough, for all sorts of reasons. Other favourites include Seth Godin’s Linchpin.
4. Being patient
During the first three months of my job, I bumped into a girl with whom I had studied, who was working at a premium advertising agency down the road from my office. She told me that it takes a full six months to start being comfortable in any job, and – generalisation though that was – it stuck with me.
After six months, a lot of things fell into place. Although this was probably as a result of the other things on this list, it takes time to truly belong to a place, and to feel like part of the furniture enough that you have the confidence to do and act, instead of cowering behind a hesitant internal monologue.
5. Falling ill
Another thing I didn’t plan, but it ultimately helped me nonetheless. Although I felt terrible when my illness affected my work and I needed to take time off, it meant that I went into work to get what I needed to get done, and that I didn’t have the health or time or energy to give a damn about what others thought. It meant that I did the 20% that would yield the 80% (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here). It allowed me to focus on essentials, and strengthened my friendships as my colleagues and managers showed their support.
Related: 7 steps to radically better mornings
6. Gaining some perspective
Even if you work at the best company in the world (and I come fairly close), or at your dream job, or if you’re a successful entrepreneur, work isn’t life. It’s work. Sure, it should preferably be a fulfilling part of your life, but focus on what you have outside of work. Ironically, a more balanced outlook and lifestyle enables you to be better at your job, and maintaining a healthy routine and great outside of work relationships allows you to see work for what it really is and in perspective to the rest of your life.
7. Forming closer relationships
In my job as a high school teacher before moving into the private, corporate world, I worked with my best friends. Although our job was challenging and frustrating in many ways (and that’s a whole ‘nother story altogether!) I knew that when I walked into work, I was walking to a place where I would see people who loved me unconditionally, who let me be myself, and who always had my back.
This isn’t a workplace requirement, of course, it was a particular stroke of incredible luck, but I missed it at my new job. I made connections and friends, but it takes time to form deep, foundational friendships and relationships. After about five or six months, my friendships cemented into a tight circle within our team and multiple other connections that spanned the breadth of the company, and I once again felt like I was going into work to see my friends every day, and that no matter what happened, that would be cool.
While not all jobs facilitate this, and relationships outside of work are very important, the formation of close friendships and connections can really increase the joy and fulfilment of work.
A year later, I can say that I love my company and my job, and don’t have any workplace anxiety. I feel authentic in my dealings and comfortable talking to anyone in the organisation.
Have you experienced or overcome workplace anxiety? I’d really like to know what helps or helped you.