The toll of workplace anxiety and what to do about it

Sara Gottlieb-Cohen, PhD
Senior Data Scientist

Employees are anxious. Widespread layoffs, budget freezes, and an uncertain economy are on most people’s minds. In our most recent proprietary survey, we found that one in three employees report feeling anxious at work most of the time. Let that sink in: a third of your entire workforce is overwhelmed. 

During periods of uncertainty, turning insights into action matters more than ever. The current economic climate is weighing heavily on people, and we see the consequences of this stress across our employee experience and performance data. Anxious employees are 56% more likely to tell us that their productivity declined over the past six months. Even more, they report feeling less ambitious and innovative in their day-to-day work.

Behavioral science proves that there are specific actions leaders can take to alleviate these concerns and reinvigorate their teams toward high performance. We dug into our proprietary data to identify the primary drivers of workplace anxiety, and surface insights on how to best combat it.

Focus on creating clear priorities and direction

We found that work anxiety is largely coming from three sources. The first is the media - people are hearing about layoffs through the news and social media and the anxiety feels contagious. People scrolling through LinkedIn, see posts from people looking for new jobs and, understandably, wonder if they are next on the chopping block.

The second source of anxiety is reorganizations within reporting structures, which tend to go hand in hand with layoffs. 

89% of HR leaders say employees have recently voiced concerns about job security, leadership changes, or reorgs. 

But the third source of anxiety turned out to be the most important. One in three employees say that the main cause of their stress is a lack of clear prioritization and direction. And people who feel directionless at work are three times more likely to say that they feel general anxiety at work most days - an enormous effect that we do not see when it comes to concerns about leadership changes, reorgs, or seeing colleagues getting laid off.

And feeling directionless isn’t just unpleasant, it also has a profound negative effect on workplace performance.

So what can you do based on these results? Train leaders and managers to have frequent check-ins and 1:1 meetings centered around short- and long-term goals. For example, encourage managers to clarify weekly and monthly priorities, and explain in individual meetings how each person's tasks support the larger company mission. 

Create stability to boost performance

Amidst concerns about direction and prioritization, employees are hungry for a stable work environment. The current economic climate might feel similar to the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic: organizations are going through layoffs and budget freezes, employees are adjusting to new norms and processes at work, and people feel a general sense of unease about the future. 

But our data shows that today’s stressors deviate in important ways from those experienced during the early days of the pandemic. In 2020, employees suffering from burnout were most concerned about things like work-life balance and family support. As the pandemic wore on, they became especially eager for growth opportunities - perhaps making up for lost opportunities when development was largely put on hold in early 2020. 

In contrast, employees now seem to be de-prioritizing growth and instead seeking stability. While a majority of people said that they would like their next job opportunity to provide career growth, just as many admitted that they would forego career growth for a job that afforded them more stability. 

Even more surprising, the majority of employees say that they would forgo a higher salary for greater stability. 

To retain and attract top talent, focus on transparency and stability and encourage managers to do the same. Communication channels tend to break down during layoffs and reorgs as social networks shift, making it harder than usual to create clarity. Leaders can also encourage managers to initiate conversations with teams that have been impacted by change. These conversations should reassure employees that they are valued and play key roles on the team. Further, encourage managers to assign “quick-win” projects to their direct reports to help them regain their confidence.

Encourage managers to take action on feedback

A manager is an employee’s central touchpoint in an organization, and their support can make all the difference. In our research, we see that managers are 2x more influential than individual contributors when it comes to company culture.

We also find that the best managers excel in two specific ways, both of which are especially pertinent during times of change and uncertainty. First, great managers take the time to connect with their teams on a human level - they make their employees feel valued, heard, and respected. We analyzed free-text responses from over 80,000 employees about what makes their manager unique and found that statements like, “Makes me feel valued” and, “Makes me feel comfortable” differentiated the most effective managers from average ones.

Second, we consistently see that effective managers exercise flexibility in their management strategies. They listen to their teams’ needs, respond to feedback, and are willing to try new approaches. 

In 2020, we saw that manager action-taking was especially important. People hired just after the onset of the pandemic were really struggling compared to their peers. They onboarded remotely and likely never met their manager in person until much later, if at all. We found that these people were less happy and engaged at work than people hired just a few months prior to them, but before the pandemic began. This is especially surprising because usually newest employees are faring the best, and that honeymoon effect of a new job declines with tenure.

But we uncovered an encouraging trend: when managers regularly responded to feedback and took noticeable action to change their approach to management, these post-pandemic hires were doing just as well as their peers. It was a time of great organizational change and managers really needed to pivot in terms of the processes and workflows that their teams needed to succeed. 

It is critical that managers at our organization take visible, regular action to respond to feedback and survey results.

Only 8% of employees agree that their organization makes positive changes on survey results. 

Want a better way to drive behavior change based on survey results? Humu pinpoints where organizations need to improve to accomplish their objectives, and then nudges every employee to build the behaviors necessary to generate meaningful change. Learn more about how we can reduce anxiety within your organization by requesting a demo today.