Anxiety is the second most reported work-related health problem in the UK, beaten only by back pain. But once we understand the signs of someone struggling with anxiety, we can work to create a positive and compassionate environment for all
Generalised Anxiety Disorder comes in many forms. While some people may be deterred from engaging with the world, those living with high-functioning anxiety could feel compelled to do more: to overwork, overthink and over-perform. High-functioning anxiety can be hard to identify as those experiencing it are often able to carry out their days as normal, all while experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety below the surface.
With one in 10 people experiencing a “disabling anxiety disorder” at some point in their lives, and 80% of people reporting high levels of stress in their jobs, the workplace can become a breeding ground for festering anxiety. But all of this can be avoided simply by checking in with colleagues, and consciously working towards a more understanding, sensitive working environment.
Here are seven signs to watch for:
Anxiety often leads people to overthink situations. Constantly revisiting problems and obsessing over the tiniest of details will inevitably cause a lot of stress, but can also present itself as perfectionism. On the surface this may look like consistently flawless work, but the process behind this has been full of anxious, meticulous thought, often with high levels of self-criticism.
We, the British, love to apologise. But those with high-functioning anxiety often find themselves caught fixating over the details of each interaction, leading them to feel the need to apologise for things they perceive to be wrong. This could be anything from “asking too many questions”, to simply “being annoying”. Whether or not these things have any truth to them, high levels of anxiety can lead to finding fault with things others don’t see.
It’s good work practice to be able to take constructive criticism. But if your colleague unquestioningly accepts any criticism of their work, and is overly-critical themselves, it may be a sign that they’re suffering with high-functioning anxiety. Having already agonised over the particulars of a project, being over-critical is part of the perfectionism and unattainably high standards that high-functioning anxiety brings.
It can be natural to want to take the lead on a project that means a lot to you, but those with high-functioning anxiety disorder may come across as overly controlling. Rather than seeing this as an unattractive personality trait, it may be worth considering the reasons behind your co-worker’s need to control the situation, and allow them the space to progress in a way that makes them feel most secure.
Imagining every situation as a worst-case scenario doesn’t necessarily mean your colleague has a negative outlook on life. Rather, it could be a product of over-thinking, which may manifest itself in negative thoughts and fearing the worst in every possible outcome.
Part of high-functioning anxiety can be a fear of letting others down. Your co-worker may say yes to every project, no matter how much pressure that may put them under. This could be indicative of over-thinking again, or can be part of perfectionism that means that they’re unable to lose control, and so take responsibility for whole projects when the responsibility could be shared.
Sometimes, people with high-functioning anxiety disorder develop ticks, which are physical manifestations of their internal stress and anxiety. This comes out in a number of ways, from biting nails to constantly tapping feet. While these ticks may just look like habits, they represent a lot of internal stress and restlessness, common in those suffering with anxiety disorders.
For many, being able to open up about their stress, and have someone acknowledge that it’s valid, can mean a lot. Listen to them, be understanding, and above all, don’t judge them. Sharing what’s stressing them will hopefully mean it feels less of a burden than facing it on their own.