How to support and manage an employee with anxiety at work

6 min read  |   21 February, 2022   By Sarah Benstead


Mental health is an extremely common buzzword in today’s world.

And quite rightly so: research by the Black Dog Institute found that from 2008-2019, the number of claims for mental health conditions increased by an incredible 51%. In fact, by 2018 they accounted for 60% of all disease-related claims. And anxiety is one of the biggest culprits.

According to the Diversity Council Australia, at least 2 million Australians have anxiety in any given year. That’s around 8% of the population or 2 in 25 people. 

Newsflash: that includes your employees, too.

What is meant by ‘anxiety’?

The actual feeling of anxiety is a very human thing. It’s part of our biological make-up. We all experience it from time to time.

Anxiety is a natural response to stress or danger. It’s caused by a rush of adrenaline being pumped through your body to prepare you to deal with a potential threat. It’s what makes you feel fear and is what causes you to react with either ‘fight or flight’—a key part of basic human survival.

However, anxiety disorders can develop when this response is blown out of proportion. You can find yourself panicking when really there’s nothing to panic about. Sometimes, the feeling of anxiety can become so overwhelming that it can lead to what’s known as an anxiety attack.

Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking
  • Feeling sick
  • Dry mouth

What causes anxiety disorders?

As with most medical conditions, there isn’t one sole cause. There are a whole host of factors that can trigger it. Sometimes, anxiety disorders can develop for what seems like no reason at all.

The common everyday causes include trauma, stress, relationship or family problems and alcohol or drug abuse. Health problems such as thyroid problems, biochemical changes (e.g. serotonin) or genetic predispositions can also play a part.

A lot of these triggers are often beyond a person’s control, making it difficult to stop anxiety in its tracks. But, there are a number of work-related causes that you need to watch out for, too. 

That’s hardly surprising, as we typically spend 90,000 hours of our lifetime at work. Ouch.

How can work cause anxiety disorders? 

Work-related factors include:

  • High workloads
  • Performance worries
  • Workplace stress
  • Conflict with colleagues
  • Presenteeism

Now let’s look at how you can identify those in your workplace who might be suffering with anxiety.

Spotting the signs of an employee with an anxiety disorder

There are a number of behaviours that can indicate that an employee could be suffering from anxiety. Spotting the issue is the first step to getting your employee back to their usual self, re-integrated into their team and producing the work you know they’re capable of.  

Things to watch out for include:

  • Increased sick leave
  • Drop in performance
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Excessive smoking/drinking

5 tips to help manage employees with anxiety

As an employer, line manager or HR professional it’s crucial you know exactly how to support your people and deal with anxiety at work. But, unless you’ve experienced these issues first hand it can be incredibly difficult to understand the condition, let alone know how to give them the right support.

However, there are a few simple things you can do to effectively support a member of staff who may be suffering from anxiety.

Adopt an open-door policy

An open-door policy means that your door is quite literally open to every employee, any time. It helps to create a friendly, welcoming and communicative culture.

Many businesses adopt this as a way of encouraging open, flowing communication as well as building employee trust and promoting closer working relationships.

This policy is especially beneficial for an employee suffering with anxiety, as it will help put their mind at ease. They’ll know that support is there any time, whenever they may need it.

This can also act as a preventative for anxiety in the workplace as a whole. Think about it: if your employees are openly sharing their worries or stresses instead of keeping them bottled up, they’re much less likely to become overwhelmed.

Be flexible

If your employee’s anxiety is affecting their day-to-day work, as an employer you’re required by the Fair Work Act 2009 to make reasonable adjustments for them, as far as is deemed practical.

This means you need to be as flexible as possible to aid their recovery. Even the smallest adjustments can make a world of difference.

For example, you may think about changing their hours temporarily or letting them work from home for a while. You’d be surprised how effective a little headspace can be. You’ll also need to accommodate for any therapy or counselling sessions they may be attending.

Have a conversation 

If you’re to take away one thing from this article, make sure it’s this. Communicating is key if you’re wanting to help your employee get better.

When you become aware of the issue, put some time aside to have a chat with them in a private space to try and understand more. Try to get an idea of what triggers their anxiety and what kind of support they might need. Reassure them that you’re there to help and support them. It’s important you don’t make assumptions here and that you promise absolute confidentiality.

This initial conversation will give you the means to create an action plan together and decide what the best step forward might be. Going forward, book in regular 1-2-1s to catch up and check in on their progress.

Get trained up

Look into mental health training for you and your management team. This training, provided by mental health experts, will provide you with the tools you need to tackle stigma in the workplace and educate you about mental health – both incredibly important when it comes to supporting an employee with anxiety.

Heads Up and Beyond Blue offer a fully-comprehensive training programme designed for managers and employers. Trust us on this one: the knowledge and skills you will  come away with will be beyond invaluable.

Champion a mental health-friendly culture

Your company culture is at the core of everything you do. Including how you deal with mental health.

In order to be fully prepared to support your staff, first make sure you’ve established a positive, thriving culture that puts employee wellbeing first (and nothing less). A culture that supports mental health will not only determine how comfortable an employee feels about opening up with you about their struggles – but could prevent them from ever suffering in the first place if the cause is work-related.

Support your team, every step of the way

A happy, healthy team needs a good support system. Breathe’s carefully designed HR software helps you control all HR functions while re-centering your people at the heart of your business. It’s the perfect way to give you back time with your people so you can support them when they need you most.

Disclaimer: This document contains general information and is also not intended to constitute legal or taxation advice. If you need legal or taxation advice, we recommend you speak to a qualified adviser.

Maximise staff engagement

Disclaimer: This document contains general information and is also not intended to constitute legal or taxation advice. If you need legal or taxation advice, we recommend you speak to a qualified adviser.


Author: Sarah Benstead

Sarah is a Product Marketing Specialist here at Breathe. Always innovating, she loves writing about product releases in an engaging & informative way. When she's not coming up with new ideas, she enjoys long walks with her dog, Clifford.

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