The entrepreneurial journey has often been likened to building a plane while flying it. And as exhilarating as that may be, it can also be terrifying.
As a founder, whether you’re pitching your new idea to potential investors, making expansion plans, or contemplating layoffs, you’re probably familiar with that feeling of having a pit in your stomach.
You carry an immense amount of responsibility. You don’t want to let your team — as well as your customers, investors, or yourself — down. The crippling fear of failure can be justified. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that roughly 75% of ventures fail within 10 years.
While some anxiety can supercharge your productivity and drive you to succeed, too much of it can cause a host of psychological and physical issues.
But with the right tools, you can go from a nervous wreck to a resilient rock star.
What is anxiety at work?
Anxiety at work is when you suffer from emotional distress due to real or anticipated pressure related to your job. You may feel stressed, nervous, or tense about work.
Feelings of anxiety at work can be triggered by the financial performance of your company, interactions with co-workers or investors, public speaking, or being overwhelmed by too many tasks.
In the book, Anxiety at Work, the authors present two ways to refer to anxiety. “The first is as a symptom of stress and worry. The second is as a classifiable disorder.”
If you think you have clinical anxiety, it’s critical that you seek help from a mental health professional.
Recognizing that you have feelings of anxiety at work is the first step in getting them under control.
Signs that you’re anxious at work
“Those with anxiety at work may find it challenging to cope with their everyday goals. Getting stressed at work is normal, especially when running against deadlines, but too much of it may lead to issues,” shares Brian David Crane, founder of digital marketing fund Spread Great Ideas.
Symptoms may include:
Feeling tired and irritable all the time
Having trouble sleeping
An inability to concentrate and maintain focus
Decreased productivity at work
Health issues (e.g., poor digestion, chest tightness, shortness of breath, chronic headaches)
“Left unchecked, anxiety can lead to more crippling, severe, and persistent levels of worry, apprehension, and fear at work,” says Crane.
What causes anxiety at work?
There are many causes of workplace anxiety, and the reasons differ from person to person.
“For some, the long hours, erratic time management, and competitive and results-based environment can push people into a working model where they’re constantly striving and straining,” shares Crane. “For others, specific situations — like when you have to deliver presentations, speak up during meetings, or lead a large project can cause cold feet.”
Identifying what’s behind your anxiety can help you come up with the best solution to overcome it.
Types of anxiety
There are many types of anxiety that can affect you at your job, but three common ones are performance anxiety, social anxiety, and impostor syndrome.
Performance anxiety at work
This type of anxiety can take hold when you have a high-stakes project or presentation. Performance anxiety is typically short-lived and will go away either after you complete the task or after you get over the initial hump of getting started.
Preparation can go a long way toward combating performance anxiety at work.
“If I am anxious about something — interviews, speaking engagements, challenging conversations — I script and practice. That makes me feel prepared, which calms my anxiety,” says Eileen Schlesier, senior brand strategist at business consulting practice The Julie Bee.
Christy Pyrz, chief marketing officer of supplement manufacturer Paradigm Peptides, recommends soliciting help from your team. For example, if you have trouble with public speaking, you can practice your speech first with a co-worker.
Social anxiety at work
Do you show up to the office early just to avoid running into your colleagues on the elevator? Have you stayed silent during a meeting even when you’ve had a question or something important to contribute?
Many entrepreneurs are introverts whose energy is depleted from social situations. But if you find yourself going out of your way to avoid interacting with your team, you may be experiencing social anxiety.
Data indicates that at least 12% of Americans are likely to deal with symptoms of social anxiety at some point in their lives. And it’s not unusual for it to show up at work in the form of being overly critical of your thoughts and behaviors, worrying too much about what others think of you, and feeling self-conscious.
If you struggle with social situations or constant self-doubt, a therapist or coach can help you find coping strategies that will work for you.
Picture this: Your company just achieved unicorn status. You’ve reached the pinnacle of success, and yet you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t deserve it. You’re not smart enough, you haven’t been in business long enough.
For whatever reason, you’re just not able to accept that you rightfully earned the success you’ve achieved. That’s imposter syndrome. And there are many ways to override these thoughts.
“I do a lot of deep breathing, I talk to myself to pump myself up, and remind myself that I’ve earned that spot,” shares Schlesier.
She also keeps folders on her desktop labeled ‘I’m a Badass’ and ‘I’m Resilient.’ These files record real-life business scenarios where she’s had huge wins and shown exemplary resilience in the face of challenges. “I also listen to my badass playlist (heavy on Queen) and rock out. That ALWAYS makes me feel better,” Schlesier says.
How to deal with anxiety at work
In her book, Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki outlines tips to channel your anxious energy in more positive ways:
Take a deep breath - This helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system — the opposite of your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your fight, flight, or freeze response.
Move your body - Movement stimulates the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline in your brain. A brisk walk can do wonders to alleviate your anxiety at work.
Adopt an activist mindset - When faced with an anxiety-inducing problem at work, ask yourself, "What are some different ways I can approach this?" Knowing that you have at least one way out of a stressful situation will help you become more resilient.
Seek social support - Caring relationships can help buffer the impact of stress at work. Whether it’s a co-founder, a mentor, or a support group, find people that you can talk to about your challenges.
Find the humor - Even though you take your goals seriously, it’s important not to take life too seriously. Sometimes, laughter can be the best medicine.
Practice mindfulness - Mindful activities like meditation and yoga have been shown to reduce avoidant coping behaviors, like relying on alcohol or junk food to help you through times of anxiety.
How to support your employees experiencing anxiety at work
“As a leader, it’s your responsibility to set the tone and manage expectations,” shares Teresha Aird, chief marketing officer at office space site Offices.net.
When team members are anxious, it can lead to decreased productivity and poor decision-making. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the signs of anxiety and take steps to address it. For example, you might need to provide more structure or support or give employees more autonomy. You may also need to adjust your own behavior or communication style.
Aird suggests creating an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their concerns. This could involve setting up regular check-ins, starting a mental health task force, or simply encouraging employees to speak up if they feel overwhelmed.
It can also help your team feel comfortable sharing if you first discuss your issues. Normalize anxiety by sharing tools you’re using and encouraging your team to take care of their mental health.
According to performance coach Shauna Moran, employees feel less anxious about whether they’re doing enough when everyone understands their responsibilities, are clear on expected output, and measures their work consistently.
Anxiety at work: When to quit
Is your job negatively impacting your mental health? If all your strategies to overcome anxiety and efforts to improve your company’s culture have failed, it may be time to walk away.
But you’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears for your company, so you wouldn’t want to throw it all away without some serious consideration.
Talk to a therapist that can help you navigate your anxiety and figure out if quitting is really the right move for you. And if you determine that it is, know that there’s no shame in putting your mental health first.