Anxiety at work: how to be a better manager to my anxious team members?
March 18, 2017 5:41 PM   Subscribe

This discussion on the blue has got me thinking about how much anxiety seems to be a factor in the behaviour and performance of many of the people I work with these days.

If you are a person who suffers from anxiety, what has helped you cope better at work? What concrete things has your manager/team leader done, or not done, that makes things better or worse for you? And, if you are a manager, how do you deal with direct reports who seem to struggle with this? How do you balance compassion and the need for productivity? How do you mitigate against "anxiety contagion" for yourself and the rest of your work unit?
posted by rpfields to Work & Money (30 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Let me work from home.
posted by AFABulous at 5:44 PM on March 18 [21 favorites]


Pay people more money. I have seven staff and have realised that for many people (especially <25s) who live with parents or relatives, they are holding out to build up a down payment. It may be different where you are but raising wages has kept my permanent team in place and lowered the cost of recruitment. Regardless, a lack of ability to save is parcel to anxiety inducing precariousness. Lower wages induce stress. If you're not paying people a living wage, no amount of mindfulness workshops will stop anxiety being a drain on your business.
posted by parmanparman at 5:49 PM on March 18 [14 favorites]


Communicate regularly. If time allows, schedule recurring one on ones with your team so people can talk about how things are going and what they need. Give regular feedback so people know you think they are doing a good job, or know specific areas where they are lacking and what to do to improve. This will help eliminate "Am I working on the right things" and "Am I doing a good enough job: from sources of anxiety. It will also give people a chance to tell you if they are running into problems that are enough to cause stress, but not bad enough that they feel they should interrupt you to bring up.
posted by nalyd at 6:17 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]


As a manager, I saw my role as primarily removing barriers to my subordinates' success. But I couldn't always perceive those barriers, so my weekly supervision meetings always include a "speedbump report." That is, you tell me what things are barriers to your success right now, and let's see if we can work on those. Sometimes I'd hear about interdepartmental crap, sometimes I'd hear they didn't have the training they needed to do some of their work, and sometimes I heard that they struggled to get everything done in time to catch the last express train and they were always stressed out at the end of the day as a result. It wasn't all selfless - they knew that the better they did their jobs, the better I looked - but with this set up as a win-win where I use my role as manager to help remove barriers to success, I think that went a long way toward less constitutionally anxious employees.
posted by juniperesque at 6:24 PM on March 18 [42 favorites]


As above - working from home, when I can, is a massive boon for me - in particular because it helps my productivity hugely, which in turn reduces my anxiety and helps me work better. Allow homeworking where you can, even if that's not all the time. Where you can't do it, think about office layouts. Open plan offices are terrible for workplace a happiness and productivity. Can you give people their own space?

In general, I think that anything you can do to give people more control over getting their work done well is particularly effective for anxious workers. The worst things for my anxiety are (a) interruptions to deal with unscheduled problems or questions and (b) crappy IT.

Dealing with (a) is often about training - not for the person being interrupted, but for the people doing the interrupting. If you have workers who lack the knowledge or confidence to deal with issues autonomously, then you're going to create a significant time and emotional burden on the members of the team whom they turn to. Do you have technical (in whatever sense - e.g. I have to give a lot of legal advice to others that I can't bill to my own cases) staff who receive a lot of requests for help? Where the need for that kind of outside input​ is essential (and it often is) make sure you have systems in place to compartmentalise that for effective time management. Recognise it as part of people's jobs.

Dealing with (b) is often about spending money. But possibly the most anxiety inducing thing about my day is watching seconds slip away waiting for computers to do what they should.

Also, consider your appraisal process. Do you run seasonal appraisals? Appraisal season is particularly horrible for anxious workers. Think about whether your appraisals actually achieve anything in terms of productivity and quality, or just generate a lot of data to give upper management a false sense of control. Does your business need them? If it does, how can you structure them to ensure that the burden of conducting them falls on people who are paid for that work, rather than forming an additional distraction from people's productivity. For preference, try to roll all your data gathering into standard management practice, using regular, short and structured supervision meetings.

Be good at avoiding micromanagement - know what the important standards and metrics are and don't impose your own preferences for how these are achieved. Be explicit and consistent about what is needed to do the job well - don't make already anxious workers feel like they are at risk of unexpected criticism for doing what they thought was right.

Mainly the answer boils down to "be a good manager". The chances are, given that you're asking this question, that you already are; anxiety is a really useful lens for viewing management as a whole, because, more than anything else, workplace anxiety derives from fear of the inability to perform to required standards. If you're facilitating productivity and setting clear and achievable goals, you'll reduce anxiety hugely, without having to do anything "special" for particularly anxious workers.
posted by howfar at 6:27 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]


Agree with the above. Chiming in to add that having generous sick leave and/or vacation leave policy would help too. I know one thing I get anxiety about is whether I'm wasting sick days or just aren't going to have enough of them because of my various illnesses or whether I'm spending enough time with my family, etc etc. Additionally, I'm not sure what kind of work you do, but if it's possible, allowing flexibility in general is always a good thing. Such as times to be in the office, or allowing people to run out to go to doctors appointments, or pick up kids, etc.
posted by FireFountain at 6:27 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]


Management often requires leadership; the soft skills. Along with leading staff members in how or when a task is done, be sure they understand 'why' a task has to be done. This should help alleviate some of everyone's stress and anxiety.
posted by mountainblue at 6:43 PM on March 18


I work in an office that has lots of fancy perks but it's also very very crowded. I would trade most of those perks for a 90s-style cubicle of my very own. In particular I don't know anyone who doesn't find it viscerally upsetting to constantly have foot traffic behind them while they're trying to concentrate on work. I'm about to move to a desk that backs to a hallway and I'm really worried I'll find it way too distracting.
posted by potrzebie at 6:49 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]


Communicate as openly and as often as possible. For example, knowing who will ultimately be looking at or using work I'm assigned helps me understand what I'm doing and helps me do a better job. Having a sense of how urgent a project or task is and when it's due helps me prioritize and spend less time in a "oh god what next" panicked freeze while I'm looking at my to-do list.
posted by MadamM at 6:57 PM on March 18


How my manager & their manager have helped me specifically:

#1 - ran interference with HR when they issued vaguely stated, over-reaching policy emails with short deadlines on important things like health benefits, or introduced new penalties for relatively minor infractions (someone with anxiety doesn't want to hear: "oh, they're just trying to crack down on 20 people in the company who are abusing policy x, they won't bother you").

#2 - taken my concerns seriously when I hear that task X which I worked on is being criticized, months after it went through all procedures and was approved. They gave me specific instructions on how any inquiries on X should be handled and who should be copied on the reply.

#3 - came to me in advance of things they knew might concern me (granted, this has the down side of making me feel like I need to be handled with kid gloves, but on the other hand it shows genuine concern and keeps the lines of communication open).
posted by forthright at 7:05 PM on March 18


Don't make me ask if I'm doing a good job. It's all well and good to say "if you don't hear anything it's all going well" but how do I know what your line for "I should talk to kaos" is? I don't want to hear "you're not doing so great" just before you fire me, and I want to get feedback on whether I'm doing "fine" or "fucking amazing".
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:09 PM on March 18 [11 favorites]


As an employee, I urge really really clear expectations. I am so much more comfortable when I know what kinds of things I'm supposed to decide or resolve myself and which I need to bring someone else in for, and have a clear idea of what's a "good" decision for the things I'm supposed to resolve myself. Some of this has come through learning procedures, some from consulting with my boss enough that I can predict what they would decide + feedback that they trust my judgement, and some from getting good direction on a project (ex: is time or budget more important comes up a lot in what I do). Predictability, really - if I can predict something I can worry about it less.

It also helped that my office has had a culture of expecting mistakes and being more concerned that you learn from them and apply them then trying for unobtainable perfection. They also started us off with smaller projects and a lot of oversight.
posted by sepviva at 7:29 PM on March 18 [5 favorites]


The key is not one thing or eight things - good managers have to figure out what works specifically for their team members.

I managed a team of six guys. Two didn't like me very much, but grew to respect me. So they didn't really want me around. And they were really good at their jobs, so I stayed pretty hands off. That way when I asked for something, it had some weight. We had good communication because we all respected each other. But they never liked me (not all my fault, restructuring!) - and I had to be OK with that.

The designer was a primadonna who had to be coddled constantly. Otherwise no work came out of him.

One of the guys was my buddy, another only responded when I was mad and barking. Another - mild flirting.

None of them was going to tell me any of this.

A good manager has to read the room. And - like with the two who didn't like me - not let feelings get in the way. If there was a problem within the team, I took the heat. I'd rather them be mad at me than each other.

If there's a short answer, it's trust. Your team will have less anxiety if they trust your lead. But there's not a shortcut for gaining trust.

Every single person is different. Pay attention, learn quickly. It gets easier over time. But management is a skill and an art - not just a promotion.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 8:08 PM on March 18 [5 favorites]


Communication - if there are planned changes, inform your team. Working from home. Believe people when they say they are overwhelmed or have too much work.
posted by ellieBOA at 12:10 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


This really depends on the person and their circumstances. For me, anxiety manifests as procrastination, and being too gentle/flexible with me will just give me room to procrastinate more, which in turn makes me more anxious. I do best with a manger who holds me firmly to (reasonable, collaboratively agreed) deadlines, because those are what motivate me. But I can see how others would find firm deadlines extremely anxiety-inducing and would much prefer more flexible timelines.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 12:15 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


One thing that I haven't seen mentioned here is hand in hand with communication, but worth mentioning separately. When you're contacting people to set up something for the future, tell them why. The difference for me psychologically between "Meeting at two on Friday" and "Meeting at two on Friday to talk about time line for project X", or "to plan next year's conferences", is huge. Even if it's a disciplinary meeting, I'd rather know up front--"meeting to talk about your tardiness lately" is still preferably to "meeting". Any data you can give people is probably welcome here--if you tell me up front that we're going to meet because the timeline has changed or a client has new requests or whatever, that means that I can think about that, and not go in panicked that this is a meeting because I, personally, am a terrible person and a failure and am probably going to be fired.

Kinda related: a lot of people with anxiety panic when they're put on the spot, so we forget to ask questions we wanted to ask, or we stumble on our answers and then feel stupid, or we realize later that we basically missed the first half of the conversation because we were busy freaking out. Sending follow-up emails can help mitigate this--a brief email that (very roughly) recaps the things that were discussed, and explicitly invites questions or follow-up.

Allowing people space to deal with things themselves is often useful, too. I had a job for a while that was, in many ways, a really terrible job with abusive bosses, unreasonable expectations, and low pay. One of their saving graces, though, was that I had an office, with a door, and if my door was closed, no one would bother me. So some days, it was open all day, and some days, it was closed all day, and some days, it was open and then closed for a while because I was hiding under my desk and crying for a little while, and then it was open again. And as long as I was getting my work done, that was all fine by them. I would also knit at my desk during conference calls or in (company, not with clients) meetings--having something to do with my hands makes me calmer, and everyone understood that I was capable of knitting while also actively participating in a discussion. I stayed there a lot longer than I might have otherwise because of that kind of thing.
posted by mishafletch at 12:38 AM on March 19 [13 favorites]


Seconding mischafletch on being really clear what a meeting is about upfront, especially if it's an impromptu one. "Can I talk to you in a room about (project blah/that thing Linda wanted)" rather than "can I talk to you in a room for a sec" is the difference between a few minutes of sick panic that I'm about to be fired or disciplined (even though there's no rational reason to think either is likely in my current role setup) and being able to get my head in the space you actually need it in for me to help with whatever the thing actually is.

Also seconding structure and checking in on project status (if that seems to be what your people want), especially if the work is long-term slow projects with no obvious immediate resolution. I've been having a bad time in terms of anxiety and depression for the last six months or so and some of that was contributed to by a change of manager and role structure which suddenly meant I was a lot less accountable on a daily/weekly basis. My own brain nonsense convinced me for several months that mentioning that I was drifting to my manager would mean losing trust or getting fired; I knew it was a problem but I just didn't feel like I could ask for help. We got there eventually, though, and adding in a bit more structure and more check ins has helped a lot.
posted by terretu at 2:25 AM on March 19 [5 favorites]


My serious answer is that you shouldn't be asking us. You should be asking your team. Meet with each one and ask questions to find out how they want to be managed. Some people are fine with "if you don't hear anything, then everything's good"; others want constant feedback. Some people absolutely want to work from home; others want an office to go to so they can get out of the house. Ask each one how they like to do things, and what they expect from you. This is also a good time to learn about families, favorite pizza toppings, career goals, etc. Whoever does the articles about best places to work (Forbes?) just did this year's, and the #2 place on the list is a grocery store (Wegman's). The pay stinks and the work is hard, but management treats people with respect, as they'd like to be treated.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:37 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]


As a manager, I saw my role as primarily removing barriers to my subordinates' success.

I do this with my teaching assistants. We work together to figure out what types of projects they're interested in, what they want to learn more about, where they want to go professionally. I try to help them find classes, arrange speakers, further their educations, find scholarship/grant money, give them more responsibility, etc. My way of thinking is if they want to move up I should be doing everything in my power to help them.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:04 AM on March 19


Assume the best, not the worst, of people.

The most anxiety provoking manager seemed to start from the basis that if I did something she wouldn't have done, or not quite in the way she would have done it (which was quite often, as we had very different personalities and approaches) that I was wrong or had stuffed it up. It seemed like every single time I showed her anything, I would have to defend my work, even though 95% of the time after explaining and reasoning with her she would agree that my way was acceptable (and sometimes even better than hers!) Predictably, I became really reluctant to show her my work, because constantly being on the defence was wearing me down and I was dreading the whole thing. So I procrastinated on completing anything and now I was slow or late as well! which gave her a legitimate criticism.

Now obviously it was not a good fit and for my part, I could have adapted my approach to match hers rather than insisting on my way and debating every time. But my point in answer to your question, is that if your attitude is that anything different from how you would have done it or were expecting is "wrong" then your reports will pick up on this, and will crank any existing anxiety into overdrive as they attempt to read your mind in an effort not to be "wrong".
posted by pianissimo at 7:26 AM on March 19 [6 favorites]


Allow flextime, where if someone gets in late, they can just stay late and it's no big deal.
posted by corb at 7:57 AM on March 19 [7 favorites]


In my company, one of the things I tried to do was create benefits and perks that supported and encouraged outside activities, community engagement and curiousity. I wanted the folks to know that we understood and expected them to lead outside lives, which reduced a lot of anxiety about needing time for kids' activities, medical appointments, taking vacations, etc. and let people off the hook about 24/7 availability. So for example, we paid for gym memberships, matched charitable contributions, rewarded people who served on local boards, etc. Travel was a huge part of the job, so if anyone wanted to stay over the weekend to explore the city (localities were half the client base) we picked up the extra car/hotel days, which wasn't really a big deal because weekend discount rates generally made up the difference. And we picked up all the admissions fees for museums, theme parks etc. , including for their families, because attractions were the other half of the business and we wanted people to explore them.

We also let people have control over their personal and tech spaces; people were given annual budgets to spend as they wanted, including improving their home office setups (if they liked working at home) with better monitors or chairs or whatever. We had people buying couches for office naps or because they didn't like desks. No one was given a hard time regarding working at home and other flex time considerations so long as they hit their billable hours targets and made two sacred meetings a month.

Beyond that, it was all about establishing a culture where people were expected to ask for help and to articulate what kind of help they needed to be productive andmanage the emotional aspects of the work, which was highly stressful, as well as the practical stuff. We tried to model honesty about that from the top down although there was a fine line between doing that and adding to staff anxiety sometimes. But I was good at telling stories about harrowing client stuff in a way that made them funny and manageable, and that helped convey to the staff that whatever it is, you'll get through it. And I had the most cluttered office and struggled openly with perfection-induced procrastination, which also helped, I think.

We gave everybody access to just about everything information-wise to reduce the rumor mill and nip anxiety about how the firm was doing in the bud. That helped in lean times when we had to economize or decide whether to fire a client. I am a great believer that most of the time any decision is better than none, and focused on that to alleviate staff anxiety about doing something "wrong." In that vein I also tried really hard not to second guess decisions I delegated, but instead to have pre-decision discussions and, later, post mortems instead. It was all very deliberate and when people moved on they were often surprised how different other work environments turned out to be.
posted by carmicha at 8:29 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


Have our backs when we're faced with unreasonable expectations from other groups or senior management. It doesn't always have to be a 100% win, it just has to be clear to the team that you tried to make things better. My current manager commiserates with us over the BS we get from upstream but doesn't seem to do much to get the BS fixed or at least adjusted, which increases everyone's frustration and stress.

It's meant a lot to me in the past and given me a sense of security when my boss saw something I was doing right and mentioned in the moment: "Hey bunderful, most people wouldn't have caught that teacup issue. Nice work." It doesn't have to be a big deal but it's great to be recognized for the specific merits of your work and not a generic "everything you do" in team emails and Christmas cards. And when you know your management sees what you bring to the table, it makes you a little less worried about being included in the next round of layoffs.
posted by bunderful at 8:42 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


Make sure your own anxiety is under control. A kind, generous supervisor once sent me to the doctor with a
stress induced stomach ailment because his own anxiety led him to hover constantly. He figured it out and
subsequently toned it down.
Also, we checked each other's work, every bit of it was required to be initialed by two people (in an accounting
office). This not only reduced errors to almost nothing but gave us confidence when we submitted reports.
posted by Botanizer at 9:00 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]


People have given you a lot of specific things and the overarching answer of "Ask your staff" is useful though not everyone wants to have a conversation about their anxiety or maybe even knows they have it. I worked for an anxious boss for YEARS who had untreated issues and it was hell for everyone in a few ways

- him having to be cornered into making a decision when only the boss could make it
- if we had to make a decision in his absence, changing that decision because of anxious conflict-avoidance, very destabilizing and bad for morale
- pushing out changes, updates and features late on Fridays or on weekends or when people weren't around and using the "I'm going to launch this in four hours unless someone says no" sorts of things, not getting feedback, everyone feeling they had to check their email every four hours always
- minimizing other people's feelings and their own sense of priorities and not pitching in to help out when that would have helped (I had to work during my dad's memorial service because he didn't get anyone to fill in for me, he thought I just should have blown off my work but that didn't work for me)
- minimizing issues like gender equity because of his own anxious concerns about not feeling like he could handle it so he ignored it (I worked somewhere were women got paid less than men because they negotiated differently and when that was pointed out to him he did nothing and I had to threaten to quit to get him to address it)

So the takeway from that, and what I work towards as a manager (and an anxious person myself but I'm DOING THE WORK to not make that other people's problems are)

- giving reasonable timelines for getting work done and checking in without micromanaging on how things are going, making sure people are consulted and given time to adapt before changing their workflows. Don't launch code on a Friday afternoon if probalmes with it mean people have to work over the weekends.
- being decisive but not impulsive so the stuff I say is trustworthy and not trying to make a lot of empty confident-sounding statements that are really just empty promises
- making racial and gender and GLBTQ equity my issue so that people in those groups don't feel like they have to both do their job and also work on workplace equity
- trying to adapt to people's workplace styles but also being firm about expectations so that we work together to help them be successful at work (sometimes people have behaviors that are maladaptive to working in teams or whatever, there are ways to be constructive about that without being judgemental. Often you can have more useful interactions with anxious people if they don't think you're judging them)
- and YES being the go-between with them and the rest of the organization. You can't always affect the rules that will change and affect them in larger orgs but you can absolutely help them manage or deal with them and not be all "Well, sorry this changed, nothing I can do, good luck"

And yeah really, letting people work from home with good communication (and YES to not sending weird terse "You free for a meeting tomorrow at 9?") and having communication with them be effective, necessary and not overbearing.
posted by jessamyn at 9:11 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]


Give me my own office (or a shared office). If I can't have my own office, a spot in the corner is the best, it feels a lot safer. Let me wear headphones when I work so I can block out the noise and distraction. I know cubicles are "uncool," but they're way better for productivity and my anxiety than an open office. And actually be empathetic about how your employees feel about their space. My last boss was kind enough to put me in the corner when we moved offices (she knew I hated open spaces), but she had already made it pretty clear that she thought my preference for an office was ridiculous (even though she had one!).

On preview, definitely letting people know what a meeting is about. Also, if you're going to be making changes, be up-front about them instead of starting the changes and *then* explaining them (that interim period is awful).
posted by radioamy at 9:39 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]


One thing to keep in mind is to be aware of your own behavior around anxiety-provoked team members. If you're reacting in a way that is not useful in those off-the-cuff moments, any amount of planning or talking it about beforehand is going to get torpedoed by a weird response later when you've not had a chance to think before acting.

I once worked with someone who simply reacted badly whenever I expressed anxiety. To talk to her up front, she'd express a willingness work with me and not judge me. But in almost all cases I expressed anxiety, she'd quietly pack up her belongings and leave the office. This happened within a few seconds of the outburst or incident leaving little doubt that it was in response to my behavior. If I confronted her about it later, she'd say something like, "I was just giving you space." Well, that is not at all how it came across to me and, if I'm honest, still doesn't make a lot of sense as a response. I felt humiliated every time.

Think about your behavior. Commit to changing that. And for goodness sakes don't gaslight.
posted by tcv at 9:51 AM on March 19


Systems, processes, order and institutional knowledge/memory/cheat sheets are essential to me in managing my anxiety. So I absolutely write task lists and cross things off. I clear every surface of my desk of paper each afternoon. I ask "what are the priorities amongst these 13 tasks?" or "which is the next step you'd like to see accomplished?" or "Will next week be okay for the first draft of this report?" I write notes during every conversation and interrupt "Who at Other Organization is the person to talk to about this?" and write down First and Last name. I keep one of those stupid carbon while you were out books for transcribing my own voice mail so I know what it was.

My my managers can do is create and manage systems to create order in the work environment. Don't make me have to guess what the priorities are; don't make me have to burrow for simple information about our projects.

If I need information about Project X in order to do my job (say, I'm writing a policy paper on why Project X demonstrates that the appropriate policy is Y), then there must be a system for documenting the progress or outcomes of Projects X so that I can complete my task without trying to chase down crumbs of information. Or if I need to know how to order lunches for meetings because Joe who does it is out of the office this week, make sure there is a process in place that I can access.

Don't expect me to guess who is on the committee or just know who the point person on a grant is. Have information sheets, which are regularly updated, accessible to everyone in a centralized location (i.e. a network drive).

Keep the offices tidy. Don't store banker's boxes full of ancient documents in random stacks around the copy machine. Don't pile up the outdated computer equipment in the corner of someone's office.

And for the love of god, keep meetings to the agenda and at a reasonable length of time. And don't schedule them half an hour before someone leaves at the end of the day.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:07 PM on March 19


Regarding meeting agendas: I've had success with the PAL method, purpose (quick subject line), agenda (what we are covering and who is responsible for what) and limits (if any). It keeps things organized, on time, and reduces anxiety.

Another two specific things for feedback: once every week or two I make it a point to highlight in a post-it note something specific an employee did well at. It's encouraging and helps with later promotions/raises/reviews. For those who struggle knowing how good they are doing it really makes them brighten up. (If a little corny.)

And for the 1:1's: I explicitly state in the monthly agenda that they can bring ideas, questions on projects, career pathing questions, and any problems with work load, tasks, clients, or co-workers. Many of this never comes up, but having it clearly stated that I am here to help on all of it makes a big difference. Plus, it provides me insight on what they need - a work from home day, a kudos to upper management, additional training, etc. All of that it turn helps employees feel acknowledged and cared for. And if things are going off the rails we can discuss it and figure things out rather than let them fester, which in my anxiety condition is one of the hardest things.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 8:32 PM on March 19


If you want to meet with me, give me a brief summary of why. There is nothing that spikes my cortisol faster than "Please come see me in my office as soon as you're done with that."

Instead, say "Please come see me in my office when you're done with that so we can talk about who's doing what on the Smith project." Or "I'd like you to fill me in on whatever came up while I was out of the office last week, so stop by sometime in the next couple of hours."

WAAAAAAAY less stress inducing, plus I get a few minutes to refresh in my mind whatever (totally reasonable! totally innocent!) thing you want to talk about.
posted by telepanda at 8:45 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


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