Workplace anxiety: Navigating the future of work in an anxious world

May 20, 2024

5 mins

Workplace anxiety: Navigating the future of work in an anxious world
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Will anxiety determine the fate of this year’s presidential election? Anxiety is often accused of fueling populism, which thrives off our concerns for economic instability, cultural change, and perceived threats to national identity.

Many of us live with a constant feeling of fear, worry, or unease about the future. Will AI threaten my livelihood? Will climate change bring about more disasters than I can handle? Does the geopolitical situation mean more chaos and suffering in the future? Will my family be alright? Anxiety is such a defining feature of our current mood and culture that it already has a large influence on political outcomes all over the world. But it also has a huge impact on work and productivity.

Today’s consultants are getting increasingly fond of the acronym BANI—brittle, anxious, non-linear, incomprehensible—to describe the economy and the mood of the workplace, replacing yesterday’s favorite acronym, VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. Anxiety is described as a defining feature of our modern work culture, with feelings of helplessness and overwhelm impeding our ability to make the right decisions. It exacerbates tensions and destroys work relationships. It prevents concentration and harms mental health. And all of this hurts productivity, wellbeing, and retention.

How is this omnipresent anxiety shaping the future of work? What are its main foundations? And most of all, what can we do about it?

A vibecession at work?

After the pandemic, even though most economic indicators were improving—GDP and employment, in particular—most people remained desperately worried about the economy. This led blogger Kyla Scanlon to coin the phrase vibecession in 2022 to refer to the disconnect between the positive economic data and its negative public perception. It all boils down to anxious vibes, hence the vibecession.

A lot of analysts blamed this disconnect on inflation and the uncertainty of future purchasing power. Now that inflation is ebbing down, the vibecession may be losing some steam. But the trend still remains. “Vibe-wise, we have a lot of work to do. It’s hard to ignore how much sentiment and actual data can diverge these days. Sentiment is only picking up from [a] semi-depressed state,” Scanlon explained in the FT.

Regardless of inflation rates, the vibecession may be quite strong today in the world of work. Indeed, work has become more and more precarious over the years (it doesn’t come with as much economic stability as it did in the Fordist age). Even with decent pay, more workers struggle to get access to housing and childcare, two very basic work enablers. The digital transition of work has left more people lonely and exposed to negativity bias. Despite the positive influences of better pay, fairer hours, and more flexibility, workers still feel insecure, isolated, and resentful.

The result of that disconnect is disastrous for companies as it generates distrust, hurts their employer brands, and jeopardizes retention and wellbeing.

Anxiety’s consequential impact on the workplace

Mental health is the first victim. The Society for Human Resource Management has labeled anxiety as the “top mental health issue in the workplace.” A recent analysis from ComPsych, a company that provides employee assistance programs, found that in 2023, nearly a quarter of workers who reached out for mental health assistance did so due to anxiety, with a 33% increase in mental health-related leaves of absence from 2022 to 2023. This rise is notable, given that anxiety didn’t even rank in the top five mental health concerns in 2017.

Anxiety (and loneliness, its twin sibling) can severely impair concentration and productivity. It can also impact relationships with colleagues, supervisors, and clients. Anxious people are often less empathetic, more withdrawn, and more paranoid. Anxiety is simply bad for all relationships, including those formed at work. This makes collaboration and developing meaningful connections harder, which makes people more likely to leave their jobs.

Chronic anxiety and loneliness make it difficult to switch off work-related concerns when off the clock. Left unaddressed, they can lead to burnout. The interpersonal challenges that anxiety contributes to can leave us isolated and exacerbate feelings of exhaustion and depletion. Therefore, proactively addressing symptoms of anxiety is essential in mitigating the risk of burnout.

The three pillars of work anxiety

1. Too much loneliness.

The loneliness epidemic is also a work thing. Flexible work options, remote work, and digitalization may be convenient, but it’s not easy to develop interpersonal relationships from behind a screen. We have fewer work friends and less time for connections outside of work. 43% of people don’t feel a sense of connection with their colleagues, according to a recent BetterUp survey. And people who feel lonely struggle with mental health issues. They are 107% more anxious!

2. Too much (negative) information.

Anxiety is also a byproduct of information. Social media thrives on negative (and sometimes fake) information, their algorithms favoring content that elicits an emotional response, and thus greater engagement. And the more of that type of information we get, the more anxious we become. Bombarded with constant flows of anxiety-inducing information, we lack the time and space to pause and think, develop critical thinking skills, and put our brains to rest. Our information age has resulted in an intense negativity bias, priming us to prefer negative news, and the workplace isn’t immune. The overabundance of work information is hard to process, which generates more anxiety.

3. Too many crises.

Climate change, war, the spread of populism, terrorism, and tyranny…it’s unclear whether we’re seeing more crises than we did in the past, or if they’re just more interconnected (thus amplifying the other crises) so we’re more exposed to them. The word polycrisis is an interesting framework to ponder. Working in the midst of a crisis-ridden society raises existential questions, like “what’s the point?” and “how can I help?” or, even, “am I making it worse?” Yet another recipe for anxiety.

Here are some workplace changes you can talk to your employers about:

Understanding the detrimental role anxiety plays in the workplace should lead us all to actively combat it.

  • Combat loneliness with mentorship programs and collective onboarding schemes. The former fosters intergenerational relationships. The latter contributes to a sense of community among new hires. We need all kinds of work friends!
  • Support parents and caregivers. When you’re looking after loved ones, that stress can spill over into your professional life. We can help mitigate that anxiety with paid parental leaves, for example.
  • Develop better collective rituals to reinforce social bonds within a team. People who share the same breaks, for example, will find it easier to forge relationships. The ability to “waste” time on informal, unproductive exchanges is good for social bonding as well as team cohesion.
  • Limit work emails and communication overload. Of course we need relevant information, but there is only so much our human brains can process! Information overload obviously fuels anxiety. We can optimize professional communication by, for instance, replacing “urgent” instant messages with a recap email, blocking messages on the server after hours, granting disconnection times during which no communication will be expected, and defining “core working hours” outside of which there will be no teamwork.
  • Celebrate wins. Good news shouldn’t go without being shared. Our negativity bias leads us to give bad news more weight, so we need all the positive news we can get! Sharing good news could give rise to new rituals to strengthen the team and alleviate anxiety, such as quick win call-outs and best practice sharing.

Photo: Thomas Descamps for Welcome to the Jungle

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