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.
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.
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.
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.
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.