A The­ory of Work­place Anx­i­ety

Anx­i­ety at work is fu­elled by both in­di­vid­ual and job char­ac­ter­is­tics. On the bright side, the ef­fects are not all neg­a­tive.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Bon­nie Cheng and Julie Mccarthy

Anx­i­ety at work is fu­eled by both in­di­vid­ual and job char­ac­ter­is­tics. On the bright side, the ef­fects are not all neg­a­tive.

WAY BACK IN 1948, W.H. Au­den won the Pulitzer Prize for a book­length poem ti­tled ‘The Age of Anx­i­ety’. Lit­tle did he know how per­va­sive anx­i­ety would be­come in the next cen­tury. This topic has never res­onated more strongly with re­spect to the work­force. Work­place anx­i­ety — de­fined as ‘feel­ings of ner­vous­ness, un­easi­ness and ten­sion about job-re­lated per­for­mance’ — is in­flu­enced by both in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences and con­tex­tual fac­tors, and there­fore it ap­pears at both dis­po­si­tional and sit­u­a­tional lev­els.

Re­search in­di­cates that 40 per cent of Amer­i­cans re­port feel­ing anx­ious dur­ing the work day, and 72 per cent of peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­ence daily anx­i­ety re­port that it in­ter­feres with their work and per­sonal lives. These sta­tis­tics raise se­ri­ous con­cerns, as gen­eral lev­els of work­place anx­i­ety have sub­stan­tial im­pli­ca­tions for em­ploy­ees and or­ga­ni­za­tions in terms of lower lev­els of job per­for­mance, risk-tak­ing and un­eth­i­cal be­hav­iour. Daily fluc­tu­a­tions in anx­i­ety are also a con­cern, as they can lead to higher lev­els of coun­ter­pro­duc­tive be­hav­iour and turnover.

To date, the lit­er­a­ture on anx­i­ety has fo­cused on its dark side, show­ing that anx­ious in­di­vid­u­als pos­sess ‘cog­ni­tive schemas’ or ways of think­ing that de­fine cer­tain sit­u­a­tions as threat­en­ing. These in­di­vid­u­als con­stantly scan the en­vi­ron­ment for signs of threat, mak­ing them prone to height­ened dis­tractibil­ity.

How­ever, the re­search also presents an in­ter­est­ing puzzle: On the one hand, it shows that anx­i­ety can con­jure up distress­ing thoughts and have detri­men­tal ef­fects on per­for­mance. On the other, it shows that anx­i­ety can also drive ac­tions and have pos­i­tive ef­fects on per­for­mance. We re­cently set out to rec­on­cile these find­ings and de­velop a com­pre­hen­sive model that in­cludes both the dark and bright sides of anx­i­ety at work.

The Roots of Our The­ory

Two key types of anx­i­ety are of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in a work­place set­ting: ‘dis­po­si­tional anx­i­ety’ and ‘sit­u­a­tional anx­i­ety.’ Dis­po­si­tional work­place anx­i­ety man­i­fests it­self in gen­eral feel­ings of ner­vous­ness, un­easi­ness and ten­sion about one’s job per­for­mance, and lev­els of such anx­i­ety vary be­tween in­di­vid­u­als. Em­ploy­ees who ex­pe­ri­ence anx­i­ety across sit­u­a­tions are more likely to view sit­u­a­tions as threat­en­ing and, as such, dis­po­si­tional anx­i­ety is more likely to play a piv­otal role with re­spect to long-term out­comes such as health and well-be­ing, job per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Sit­u­a­tional work­place anx­i­ety, on the other hand, is a tem­po­rary state of ner­vous­ness, un­easi­ness and ten­sion about a par­tic­u­lar task or ac­tiv­ity. There can be sev­eral such episodes within a given work day, such as when meet­ing an im­por­tant dead­line or re­ceiv­ing an un­ex­pected meet­ing re­quest from a su­per­vi­sor. As with dis­po­si­tional anx­i­ety, these sit­u­a­tional episodes can af­fect task per­for­mance sig­nif­i­cantly.

Given the per­for­mance im­pli­ca­tions of both types of anx­i­ety, our The­ory of Work­place Anx­i­ety is di­vided into two lev­els of anal­y­sis: Re­la­tions be­tween work­place anx­i­ety and job per­for­mance at a dis­po­si­tional level; and re­la­tions be­tween work­place anx­i­ety and job per­for­mance at a sit­u­a­tional level.

Im­por­tantly, we make a dis­tinc­tion be­tween typ­i­cal and episodic per­for­mance. ‘Typ­i­cal per­for­mance’ refers to rou­tine tasks on a day-in, day-out ba­sis and en­tails car­ry­ing out mul­ti­ple tasks over an ex­tended period of time. These tasks of­ten be­come ha­bit­ual and re­quire em­ploy­ees to draw on var­i­ous cog­ni­tive and per­sonal re­sources such as at­ten­tion, ef­fort and per­sis­tence. In con­trast, ‘episodic per­for­mance’ rep­re­sents task per­for­mance over short pe­ri­ods of time and de­mands an in­di­vid­ual’s un­di­vided at­ten­tion for a rel­a­tively short du­ra­tion. Ex­am­ples might in­clude fa­cil­i­tat­ing a meet­ing, giv­ing an im­por­tant pre­sen­ta­tion or solv­ing a tech­ni­cal prob­lem.

We will now take a deeper dive into dis­po­si­tional and sit­u­a­tional anx­i­ety and their pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ef­fects.

Dis­po­si­tional Anx­i­ety

Re­search in­di­cates that there are three key de­ter­mi­nants of dis­po­si­tional work­place anx­i­ety.

The core de­mo­graph­ics re­lated to work­place anxDEMOGRAPHICS. iety are gen­der, age and job ten­ure. In terms of gen­der, re­search con­sis­tently re­ports higher lev­els of anx­i­ety among women than men. Women also have re­ported higher lev­els of anx­i­ety in par­tic­u­lar work con­texts, such as prior to con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions and dur­ing job in­ter­views.

There are a num­ber of rea­sons why women ex­pe­ri­ence higher lev­els of anx­i­ety. First, bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tors such as ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tions, phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­ac­tiv­ity and hor­monal in­flu­ences may pre­dis­pose women to ex­pe­ri­ence higher lev­els of anx­i­ety across dif­fer­ent con­texts. Sec­ond, evo­lu­tion­ary fac­tors such as the need for women to nur­ture their fam­ily may also con­trib­ute to in­creased lev­els of anx­i­ety in the face of threat. Fi­nally, his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural con­di­tions faced by women may lead to height- ened work­place anx­i­ety. In fact, the in­crease of women in the work­place since the 1960s has been iden­ti­fied as one of the most im­por­tant so­ci­etal trends af­fect­ing stress re­search.

Women have faced dis­crim­i­na­tion at work since their en­try into the work­force, which has led to wage dis­par­ity, low-level jobs, glass ceil­ings and higher lev­els of anx­i­ety. Women also face in­equitable fam­ily de­mands, as they are of­ten ex­pected to meet the ma­jor­ity of fam­ily obli­ga­tions while bal­anc­ing their ca­reers. In turn, the strug­gle to bal­ance work and fam­ily roles has been con­sis­tently as­so­ci­ated with height­ened anx­i­ety.

An em­ployee’s age and job ten­ure also play im­por­tant roles in work­place anx­i­ety: Older and more ex­pe­ri­enced workers are likely to ex­hibit lower lev­els of anx­i­ety. Em­ploy­ees be­come adap­tive and pro­fi­cient in their work as their ten­ure and ex­pe­ri­ence in­creases. Also, re­search has demon­strated a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship be­tween or­ga­ni­za­tional ten­ure and per­for­mance. Over time, chal­leng­ing tasks be­come rou­tinized and em­ployee-based un­cer­tainty is re­duced, low­er­ing anx­i­ety.

The ap­praisal of one’s own worth is an­other SELF-EVAL­U­A­TIONS. core de­ter­mi­nant of work­place anx­i­ety. Core self-eval­u­a­tions in­clude self-es­teem, self-ef­fi­cacy, emo­tional sta­bil­ity and sense of con­trol. Em­ploy­ees with high core self eval­u­a­tions tend to per­ceive them­selves in a pos­i­tive man­ner and as­sess them­selves as ‘ca­pa­ble’, ‘wor­thy’ and ‘in con­trol’. This pro­vides the strength and sta­bil­ity to feel less over­whelmed and to meet cor­po­rate chal­lenges.

In con­trast, em­ploy­ees with low core self-eval­u­a­tions are more likely to in­ter­nal­ize their ex­pe­ri­ences and at­tribute fail­ure to their in­abil­i­ties, thus elevating anx­i­ety. Em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence sup­ports these propo­si­tions, such that low self-es­teem has been found to re­late to high anx­i­ety lev­els. Sim­i­larly, self-ef­fi­cacy has been found to be neg­a­tively re­lated to gen­eral anx­i­ety lev­els and when low, to pre­dict the on­set of anx­i­ety dis­or­ders. Con­sid­er­able ev­i­dence also sug­gests that the ex­ter­nal lo­cus of con­trol — the be­lief that im­por­tant out­comes are un­con­trol­lable — of­ten pro­ceeds dis­po­si­tional anx­i­ety.

72 per cent of peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­ence daily anx­i­ety re­port that it in­ter­feres with their work and per­sonal lives.

Workers with high lev­els of phys­i­cal well-be­ing PHYS­I­CAL HEALTH. are likely to ex­hibit lower lev­els of work­place anx­i­ety. In­deed, phys­i­cal fit­ness and ex­er­cise have been found to im­prove self­con­cept and mood, stim­u­late pos­i­tive af­fect and pro­tect against ma­jor ill­nesses. Re­lat­edly, re­search has found that poor phys­i­cal health is re­lated to higher lev­els of anx­i­ety and that ex­er­cise is an ef­fec­tive method for re­duc­ing anx­i­ety.

As in­di­cated, dis­po­si­tional work­place anx­i­ety rep­re­sents a chronic ex­pe­ri­ence of work­place anx­i­ety. Given the longer term na­ture of this form of anx­i­ety, it is likely to have a stronger im­pact on typ­i­cal job per­for­mance than sit­u­a­tional anx­i­ety.

Given that ‘typ­i­cal’ job per­for­mance en­tails the sus­tained ex­e­cu­tion of daily tasks and re­quires ef­fort, the long-term na­ture of dis­po­si­tional work­place anx­i­ety re­duces em­ployee mo­ti­va­tion to per­form ef­fec­tively, dis­tances em­ploy­ees from their work and sub­se­quently low­ers per­for­mance.

The Up­side of Dis­po­si­tional Anx­i­ety:

On the bright side, anx­i­ety can sig­nal to an in­di­vid­ual when a dis­crep­ancy ex­ists be­tween de­sired and ac­tual progress to­wards task com­ple­tion — and this can lead to greater ef­fort and an in­crease in task en­gage­ment. In gen­eral, dis­po­si­tional anx­i­ety is likely to fa­cil­i­tate typ­i­cal per­for­mance by en­cour­ag­ing a slower, more re­flec­tive and un­emo­tional self-reg­u­la­tory sys­tem that searches care­fully for in­for­ma­tion, de­lib­er­ates on de­ci­sions and an­tic­i­pates con­se­quences of ac­tions be­fore act­ing. This al­lows em­ploy­ees who ex­pe­ri­ence chronic lev­els of work­place anx­i­ety to plan for and strate­gize goal-ori­ented be­hav­iours and ac­tions.

As a re­sult, em­ploy­ees with dis­po­si­tional anx­i­ety are more likely to com­mit to goal achieve­ment and del­e­gate be­hav­iours and ac­tions to meet de­sired out­comes. Mod­er­ate lev­els of anx­i­ety should lead to the high­est lev­els of re­flec­tive pro­cess­ing be­cause in­di­vid­u­als at this level have the op­ti­mal amount of arousal to mon­i­tor their progress to­wards com­ple­tion of the task. At low lev­els of anx­i­ety, in­di­vid­u­als lack the arousal nec­es­sary to do this; while at high lev­els of anx­i­ety, ex­treme lev­els of arousal make it im­pos­si­ble to mon­i­tor task progress.

Sit­u­a­tional Anx­i­ety

Four sit­u­a­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics are key de­ter­mi­nants of this form of work­place anx­i­ety:

The ‘emo­tional labour’ re­quired for EMO­TIONAL LABOUR DE­MANDS. a task is a direct de­ter­mi­nant of sit­u­a­tional anx­i­ety. For ex­am­ple, the de­mand for ‘ser­vice with a smile’ may be par­tic­u­larly ex­haust­ing in hec­tic jobs with a high turnover of cus­tomers, which would lead to higher lev­els of ex­pe­ri­enced anx­i­ety.

The ac­cep­tance of fa­cial dis­plays of anx­i­ety dif­fers ac­cord­ing to the task. For ex­am­ple, con­duct­ing an au­dit or work­ing in emer­gency med­i­cal sit­u­a­tions may en­tail ‘dis­play rules’ that sup­port anx­i­ety, be­cause in such cases, hy­per­vig­i­lance is re­warded. In con­trast, giv­ing a speech that re­quires con­fi­dence or serv­ing cus­tomers does not carry dis­play rules that sup­port anx­i­ety. In gen­eral, high sit­u­a­tional anx­i­ety is likely to man­i­fest in tasks re­quir­ing high emo­tional labour de­mands.

Stres­sors such as dead­lines, task dif­fi­culty and TASK DE­MANDS. task am­bi­gu­ity also con­trib­ute to work­place anx­i­ety. There is also ev­i­dence that em­ploy­ees tend to over­es­ti­mate the neg­a­tive im­pact of task de­mands to them­selves as com­pared with oth­ers. Given that sit­u­a­tional work­place anx­i­ety is a func­tion of in­di­vid­ual cog­ni­tion, high-task de­mands (i.e. a high work­load) will in­crease short-term feel­ings of anx­i­ety.

In par­tic­u­lar, job type, job de­mands and job JOB CHAR­AC­TER­IS­TICS. au­ton­omy are most di­rectly linked to sit­u­a­tional work­place anx­i­ety. The first job char­ac­ter­is­tic, job type, is likely to trig­ger high lev­els of work­place anx­i­ety, as fast-paced and com­pet­i­tive cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ments have been found to fos­ter high-stress cul­tures. Stress­ful work en­vi­ron­ments are char­ac­ter­ized by un­pre­dictabil­ity, am­bi­gu­ity and un­con­trol­la­bil­ity, all of which con­trib­ute to the ex­pe­ri­ence of anx­i­ety.

The sec­ond char­ac­ter­is­tic, job de­mands, is de­fined as psy­cho­log­i­cal, so­cial, phys­i­cal and/or or­ga­ni­za­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics that ex­ert fre­quent pres­sure on em­ploy­ees. Ex­am­ples in­clude

im­pend­ing dead­lines, high work­loads and role con­flict. Job de­mands have been found to be sig­nif­i­cantly re­lated to sit­u­a­tional anx­i­ety in a num­ber of field stud­ies, in­clud­ing daily di­ary stud­ies.

The third char­ac­ter­is­tic is per­ceived au­ton­omy, which re­flects the ex­tent to which em­ploy­ees feel they have con­trol over how to ac­com­plish their work as it re­lates to tasks, de­ci­sions and use of re­sources. A wide body of re­search in­di­cates that em­ploy­ees who feel they have low lev­els of con­trol have a ten­dency to ex­pe­ri­ence higher lev­els of anx­i­ety. For ex­am­ple, job au­ton­omy has been found to lead to job anx­i­ety in call cen­tre em­ploy­ees.

As in­di­cated, sit­u­a­tional work­place anx­i­ety rep­re­sents a tem­po­rary emo­tional state. When em­ploy­ees feel high lev­els of sit­u­a­tion-based anx­i­ety, it is dif­fi­cult for them to fo­cus on the task at hand, lead­ing to sub­se­quent per­for­mance is­sues. They may ex­pe­ri­ence thoughts that are self-dep­re­cat­ing, self pre­oc­cu­py­ing, or in­se­cure in na­ture. This in­tru­sive think­ing pre­vents full con­cen­tra­tion on work tasks and causes cog­ni­tive over­load and men­tal dis­trac­tion. In turn, this in­ter­feres with the men­tal pro­cesses re­quired of per­form­ing a task, lead­ing to fewer re­sources for task com­ple­tion, which de­creases per­for­mance.

The Up­side of Sit­u­a­tional Anx­i­ety:

As in­di­cated, el­e­vated lev­els of sit­u­a­tional work­place anx­i­ety are ac­com­pa­nied by a cor­re­spond­ing el­e­va­tion in arousal, which can pro­pel workers to fa­cil­i­tate task com­ple­tion by pro­mot­ing be­hav­iours that help them mon­i­tor their progress on the spe­cific task at hand. Specif­i­cally, em­ploy­ees direct more re­sources to su­per­vis­ing their progress dur­ing task per­for­mance, and this self-eval­u­a­tion serves as a ‘cross-check’, com­par­ing cur­rent states with ideal fu­ture goal states. Im­por­tantly, feel­ings of anx­i­ety dur­ing spe­cific per­for­mance episodes (e.g. mak­ing an im­por­tant pre­sen­ta­tion to a client) are likely to trig­ger the lower-or­der self-reg­u­la­tory sys­tem that is in­tu­itive and emo­tional, as this sys­tem re­sponds to emo­tions such as anx­i­ety that arise based on sit­u­a­tional cues.

In­duc­ing arousal in threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions has been found to lead to higher lev­els of task per­for­mance in spe­cific ac­tiv­i­ties

such as singing and pub­lic speak­ing. Re­cent re­search has also demon­strated that sit­u­a­tional anx­i­ety leads to in­creased ef­fort in self-reg­u­la­tion be­hav­iours such as self-con­trol ef­fort, en­abling em­ploy­ees who are anx­ious about their per­for­mance to over­come mo­ti­va­tional deficits and fa­cil­i­tate per­for­mance through ad­di­tional ef­fort.

Im­pli­ca­tions of Our The­ory

Our the­ory has notable im­pli­ca­tions for both em­ploy­ees and or­ga­ni­za­tions, par­tic­u­larly those as­so­ci­ated with stress­ful oc­cu­pa­tions such as po­lice of­fi­cers, se­nior ex­ec­u­tives, pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tives and air­line pi­lots.

The key lies in be­ing cog­nizant of how to lever­age one’s own anx­i­ety and know­ing how to guide em­ploy­ees’ anx­i­ety to­wards ef­fec­tive per­for­mance. From a man­age­rial per­spec­tive, lead­ers need to rec­og­nize that em­ploy­ees are mo­ti­vated by dif­fer­ent needs at dif­fer­ent times and are also likely to be at dif­fer­ent stages of self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion. It is thus es­sen­tial for man­agers to ac­knowl­edge the dif­fer­ent needs of their team mem­bers — par­tic­u­larly those who are prone to anx­i­ety and who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing height­ened sit­u­a­tional anx­i­ety.

Our the­ory also has im­por­tant prac­ti­cal rel­e­vance for per­son­nel se­lec­tion prac­tices, pro­mo­tions, goal-set­ting ini­tia­tives and work-life in­te­gra­tion pro­grams. For ex­am­ple, abil­ity is a crit­i­cal vari­able iden­ti­fied in our model that car­ries im­por­tant prac­ti­cal rel­e­vance for or­ga­ni­za­tions and em­ploy­ees. Both cog­ni­tive abil­ity and con­tin­u­ous train­ing can help to mit­i­gate the po­ten­tially detri­men­tal ef­fects of anx­i­ety, and thus, anx­ious em­ploy­ees are en­cour­aged to be proac­tive in their learn­ing and con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion. Learn­ing a new tech­nique for ac­com­plish­ing a task or tak­ing pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment cour­ses are in­vest­ments in one’s ca­reer that should help re­duce wor­ries and raise anx­ious in­di­vid­u­als’ con­fi­dence on the job.

Fi­nally, we found that emo­tional in­tel­li­gence (EI) can help to min­i­mize chron­i­cally anx­ious em­ploy­ees’ ex­pe­ri­ence of emo­tional ex­haus­tion, min­i­mize cog­ni­tive in­ter­fer­ence for sit­u­a­tion­based anx­ious em­ploy­ees, and max­i­mize self-reg­u­la­tory pro­cess­ing be­hav­iours for both chronic and sit­u­a­tion-based anx­ious em­ploy­ees. This is crit­i­cal, as emo­tional ex­haus­tion has been

The core de­mo­graph­ics re­lated to work­place anx­i­ety are gen­der, age and job ten­ure.

linked to many neg­a­tive out­comes in the work­place, in­clud­ing lower per­for­mance and cit­i­zen­ship be­hav­iours.

For­tu­nately, EI is an abil­ity that can be learned, and this type of train­ing has been ex­tremely pop­u­lar in com­pa­nies such as Google. Other or­ga­ni­za­tions should con­sider pro­vid­ing sim­i­lar train­ing to anx­ious em­ploy­ees, as they are likely to reap the ben­e­fits in re­cu­per­at­ing re­sources that are cur­rently be­ing spent wor­ry­ing about work.

In clos­ing

To­day, more than ever, the ex­pe­ri­ence of work­place anx­i­ety is preva­lent and car­ries sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences for em­ploy­ees and or­ga­ni­za­tions. We hope that our work can pro­vide the foun­da­tion for both un­der­stand­ing and fu­ture re­search on work­place anx­i­ety and its com­plex re­la­tion­ship with job per­for­mance.


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