Anxiety at work

It was the feeling all the time like that feeling you have if you’re walking and you slip or trip and the ground is rushing up at you, but instead of lasting half a second, the way that does, it lasted for six months. It’s a sensation of being afraid all the time but not even knowing what it is that you’re afraid of.

(Solomon, 2013)

The above quote, from Andrew Solomon’s 2013 TED talk, expresses with great eloquence the experience of severe anxiety. It is probably the most common mental health problem you will encounter at work. Anxiety takes many different forms, from the panic described by Andrew Solomon to persistent and pervasive worry. It includes feelings of guilt and shame.

Anxiety in fiction

In 1925, Stefan Zweig published his novella Fear (Zweig, 2015). Fear is about anxiety in its many forms. It tells the story of Irene, a young married woman and successful lawyer. The novella begins with Irene leaving her lover’s apartment. As she descends the stairs to the street, she is suddenly overwhelmed by a vague fear:

All at once there was a shape like a black spinning top circling before her eyes, her knees froze in dreadful rigidity and she had to catch hold of the banister rail in haste to keep herself from falling abruptly forwards.

(Zweig, 2015)

Irene is then confronted by her lover’s former mistress, who blackmails her and threatens to reveal the affair to Irene’s kind and decent husband. As the story develops, Irene is paralysed with anxiety, shame and guilt, despite her husband giving her numerous opportunities to confess and be forgiven.

What is anxiety disorder?

Every day we hear people (or ourselves) say how ‘stressed’ they feel. However, when people talk about stress at work or feeling stressed, they are really talking about feeling anxious.

Stress and anxiety are different. Stress is something in the outside world that happens to you. Anxiety is your reaction to stress. It’s an important distinction to make. Stress will always be out there. It’s not going to go away, and there is a good chance it will get worse. Stress is hard to control, but how that stress affects us is under our control. That external stress can result in us feeling anxious, excited or not much at all. The important factor isn’t the stress but the meaning we attach to it - how we interpret it.


Recently, I took a taxi in central London. The traffic was awful because of a demonstration. However, my journey was very pleasant. My driver was called Vera and she was from Brazil. She told me about her life in London and how much she missed her family back home. Although she was chatting away, she was making good progress through the traffic. I arrived at my office relaxed and cheerful - despite the horrible London traffic.

Later that day, I took another taxi to the station. The driver was, to put it mildly, very agitated. As soon as I got in the car, we were off at speed. Foot down, accelerating fast into the traffic jam and then slamming the brakes on. He spent the whole journey commenting on other drivers, calling them names under his breath. When I arrived at the station, I was beginning to feel quite anxious myself.

These two taxi drivers showed how human beings can respond differently to environmental stress.

Vera accepted that she couldn’t do very much about the traffic; she could only do her best to get where she was going, while chatting away and making the best of the situation. She understood that the traffic was bad and that becoming cross and upset about it would not change anything. She was firmly in charge of her own emotional responses to that situation. Vera had the ability to take a step back, observe what was going on and decide how she would respond. In turn, her good-natured response affected me: because she was calm and relaxed, so was I.

On the other hand, the second cab driver just seemed to get caught up in the situation without pausing for a moment to think about what was happening and how best to respond. His emotional responses were being controlled by the external environment. His anxiety influenced his behaviour and driving style, which made him even more anxious. I dread to think how he felt at the end of the day, because I felt worn out at the end of the ten-minute cab ride.

In these two situations, the environment was a constant: both drivers were driving in heavy London traffic. Yet one was calm and the other agitated. The difference wasn’t the traffic (the outside presence of stress); it was the meaning each attached to the situation.

The psychology of anxiety

People who experience anxiety constantly worry about the future and the bad things that might happen (whereas depressed people constantly think about the past and how unfair their life has been).

Anxious people see threats everywhere. They approach life with the attitude that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong - and if it does go wrong, the consequences will be catastrophic for them.

This distorted way of perceiving the world can make it tricky to help the anxious person. Let’s imagine for a moment you are concerned about a member of staff, Sam, who seems on edge and flustered. You want to help, and so you approach Sam in your best affable manager manner.

“Hi, Sam,” you say. “Is everything okay?”

Even though you only have the best intentions, Sam hears, “I’ve noticed that you’re not coping. I’m not happy and I’ve got my eye on you, buddy.”

Sam perceived your innocent attempt to help as criticism because that’s what anxiety can do to our thinking: it distorts the way we perceive the world and other people. In other words, everything is a threat and must either be escaped from or fought against.

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