Workplace anxiety can be good if you harness it to remain motivated and stay on task

April 17, 2018 by Don Campbell, University of Toronto
Credit: rawpixel.com on Unsplash

New research on anxiety in the workplace finds that too much worrying about work can hinder an employee's performance, but a moderate dose can help drive improvement.

"There are a lot of theories and models of that exist, but this is the first model situated in the focusing on employees," says Julie McCarthy, professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management.

McCarthy, who co-authored the study with her former grad student, Bonnie Hayden Cheng, looked at both the triggers of workplace anxiety and also its relationship to performance.

"If you have too much anxiety, and you're completely consumed by it, then it's going to derail your performance," says McCarthy. "On the other hand, moderate levels of anxiety can facilitate and drive performance."

Cheng, who is now an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, compares it to athletes who are trained to harness anxiety in order to remain motivated and stay on . If employees are constantly distracted or thinking about things that are causing them anxiety, it will prevent them from completing tasks at work, she adds, leading to exhaustion and burnout.

But, she says, work-anxious employees who are motivated can harness anxiety in order to stay focused on tasks: Those who are emotionally intelligent can recognize their anxiety and use it to regulate their behaviour like monitor progress on a task and focus efforts on performing that task.

"After all, if we have no anxiety, and we just don't care about performance, then we are not going to be motivated to do the job," says Cheng. She adds that those who are experienced and skilled at their job are also less likely to have anxiety affect their performance.

The model of workplace anxiety Cheng and McCarthy developed is broken down into two categories.

One covers "dispositional" aspects, such as those that align with individual character traits. If someone already experiences high levels of general anxiety for example, their experiences with workplace anxiety will be different from those who don't.

The other covers "situational" aspects, such as those that arise in specific job tasks. Some employees may be more affected by job appraisals, public speaking or other tasks that can distract them and lead to poor performance.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, also outlines many of the triggers for workplace anxiety. The most prominent include that require constant expression or suppression of emotion – think "service with a smile" – as well as jobs with constant looming deadlines or frequent organizational change.

Office politics and control over work are other important factors. Employee characteristics including age, gender and job tenure can also affect the experience of workplace anxiety.

The authors note that anxiety is a growing issue for workplaces. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 72 per cent of Americans experience daily anxiety, saying it interferes with their work and personal lives.

While the authors do not condone inducing anxiety in employees to foster high performance, the good news for employees who chronically experience anxiety at work, or who experience it from time to time, is that it can help performance if they can self-regulate their behaviour.

"Managing anxiety can be done by recognizing and addressing triggers of workplace anxiety, but also being aware of how to leverage it in order to drive ," says Cheng.

She says there are many strategies organizations can use to help employees. Some of these include training to help boost self-confidence, offering tools and resources to perform tasks at work, and equipping employees with strategies to recognize, use, and manage feelings of anxiety through emotional intelligence development.

Explore further: Managing anxiety

More information: Bonnie Hayden Cheng et al. Understanding the Dark and Bright Sides of Anxiety: A Theory of Workplace Anxiety., Journal of Applied Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.1037/apl0000266

Related Stories

Managing anxiety

November 2, 2017
(HealthDay)—A little bit of stress can motivate you, but too much might cause an anxiety disorder that can prevent you from living your life to the fullest.

Dermatologists often undervalue depression, anxiety in patients

December 28, 2017
(HealthDay)—Dermatologists across Europe tend to underestimate mood disorders in their patients, according to a study published online Dec. 16 in the British Journal of Dermatology.

Anxiety can help your memory

February 26, 2018
Anxiety can help people to remember things, a study from the University of Waterloo has found.

Anxiety and depression are common in people with epilepsy

May 4, 2017
An analysis of published studies found that in individuals with epilepsy, there is a 20.2 percent prevalence of anxiety disorders and a 22.9 percent prevalence of depression. Investigators also found no differences in the ...

Workplace sexual harassment ongoing in women, up for men

November 22, 2017
(HealthDay)—Sexual harassment (SH) is a continuing occupational health problem, according to a report published recently in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Recommended for you

Greening vacant lots reduces feelings of depression in city dwellers, study finds

July 20, 2018
Greening vacant urban land significantly reduces feelings of depression and improves overall mental health for the surrounding residents, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts & Sciences ...

People love to hate on do-gooders, especially at work

July 20, 2018
Sometimes, it doesn't pay to be a do-gooder, according to a new University of Guelph study.

New study questions use of talking therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia

July 20, 2018
The findings of the first meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for psychosis (CBTp) on improving the quality of life and functioning and reducing distress of people diagnosed with schizophrenia ...

Perfectionism in young children may indicate OCD risk

July 19, 2018
Studying young children, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that kids who possess tendencies toward perfectionism and excessive self-control are twice as likely as other children to ...

Finding well-being through an aerial, as opposed to ground-level, view of time

July 19, 2018
Do today and yesterday and tomorrow loom large in your thinking, with the more distant past and future barely visible on the horizon? That's not unusual in today's time-pressed world—and it seems a recipe for angst.

Younger children tend to make more informed decisions

July 19, 2018
A new study from the University of Waterloo has found that in some ways, the older you get the worse your decision making becomes.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.