Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/11/2021
As children, we’re told to find a job doing what we love. The exact saying is, “Find a job doing what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Little did we know at the time — and much to our chagrin — but “Chili Dog Taste Tester” and “Professional Sleep in Late on a Sunday Guy” aren’t exactly jobs anyone is hiring for. Bummer.
So, instead, most of us settle for jobs that keep us interested enough to pursue and pay us well enough to live our dreams outside the office.
But believe it or not, that job we all come home from and complain about every Friday afternoon may actually be bad for your mental health — and it may be causing you to experience anxiety.
Work anxiety is something we all talk about casually, but few anxious people take action to actually do something about the problem. Whether your boss or your workload is to blame (or Janice in accounting — we’ll blame the hell out of her), there are ways to address work-related anxiety.
But before you address it, you should understand some basics about anxiety and work anxiety, specifically.
Work or job anxiety isn’t an officially recognized version of anxiety disorder, but anxiety due to the office may fit one of the existing forms neatly.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders are a collection of conditions that are defined by intense feelings of anxiety, unease or panic.
Anxiety disorder takes several forms, which means the symptoms of anxiety can often overlap. Milder forms may occasionally include more severe senses of panic, and panic disorder sufferers may experience milder anxiety, too.
The physiological symptoms of the different forms of anxiety are many, and they include difficulty sleeping, feeling on edge or wound-up, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, muscle tension, fatigue, irritability and uncontrollable worry.
One bad day at the office does not cause a disorder, though. Those anxiety symptoms should be felt most days for at least six months to qualify as the most common anxiety form: generalized anxiety disorder.
More than 30 percent of American adults experience a form of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives (and we’re guessing, at some point, in their careers).
Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, can represent your whole tenure at a job, as it’s defined as an extended period of excessive anxiety or worry that can span months, years or more.
We don’t understand everything about anxiety, but we know that at its root, it’s caused by imbalances of brain chemicals, much like depression and other mood disorders and mental disorders.
Workplace anxiety, generally, is anxiety caused by — or specific to — the workplace, which means your job, your responsibilities, your relationships with other employees, your relationship with your boss and the culture of the company itself.
Causes of workplace anxiety can come from everywhere, and what triggers one person may not trigger another.
Commonly, though, anxiety in the workplace is related to things like office politics, deadlines, meetings and public speaking, work-life balance, the expectations of your employer or sometimes just the work itself.
Maybe we don’t need to tell you this, but quality of life is an important part of balance.
It’s a common cause of workplace problems. One study found that 72 percent of employees say daily stress and anxiety at work interferes with their lives, and 83 percent of men say they carry stress from work into their personal lives.
That’s a huge problem when other data shows that work stress has a strong association with another mood disorder: depression.
So what do you do about anxiety at work? Well, there’s always anxiety treatment, which we’ll get to in a moment.
But there are some practical steps that you can also take to deal with the effects of job anxiety.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness outlines several ways to cope with and address stress and anxiety and work.
The first and most basic of these is simply to practice self-awareness. Knowing what causes your anxiety can give you a sense of control, and can help you manage, plan for and expect those sources of anxiety, which can minimize its stranglehold on your mental health.
Another simple thing you can do is talk to someone. Whether it’s talking to a coworker, friend, family member or mental health professional, the simple act of speaking about the things that are making you anxious is a helpful coping mechanism to reduce the fear factor of what’s going on.
If you feel comfortable doing so, it might be a good idea to talk with your boss or employer. They may offer accommodations, and sharing your concerns may help you and future employees with anxiety by creating a space for education within the company.
Don’t feel like you have someone to talk to? Writing down your thoughts can have a similar effect, allowing your brain to more effectively process your thoughts.
It might even lead to some solutions that have been right under your nose all along.
It may also help to take some professional steps to make your own daily life easier.
These may include better time management skills, like creating effective to-do lists and scheduling realistic amounts of time for tasks and meetings.
Procrastination can worsen anxiety, so getting started on projects and assignments early will help reduce your anxiety issues closer to deadlines.
Another easy fix: ask for help. Asking for help may alert others to the fact that you’re struggling, but the act of inviting someone else’s input may also lead to the underlying problems being addressed and solutions found.
The last thing the NAMI suggests may be the most difficult, but it’s also the most important for healthy and anxious individuals alike in any job. That thing is to take your damn vacation.
Maybe it’s just a few days, but there’s abundant research to suggest that time away to refresh can help contextualize stress and allow you to decompress from a distance.
There are many treatments for anxiety other than quitting your job, and the best place to start maybe with medications. Besides, job security is important.
The go-to solution these days are antidepressant medications, which can help regulate those brain chemical imbalances.
The most common form of antidepressant is the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, which helps your brain regulate serotonin levels.
But there are others that might be recommended if these don’t work, including selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
They have a similar effect to SSRIs, but work on norepinephrine (another brain chemical) and are often effective when SSRIs fail.
There are other ways out of an anxiety hole besides prescriptions. Our coping with anxiety guide shares more details about these, but one we should highlight is therapy.
Therapy creates an effective foundation for talking through the struggles and symptoms associated with anxiety and other mood disorders, and it helps with the creation of a plan to deal with anxiety symptoms day to day.
Anxiety disorders generally respond well to therapy, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps people with anxiety disorders to recognize disordered thinking patterns, and prevent them (and the anxiety behind them) from taking control.
We explore more CBT details in our guide, What Is Psychotherapy & How Does It Work?.
A therapy professional or healthcare professional might also suggest lifestyle, relationship and other factors that may be contributing to issues — and obviously your career will be on that list, as well.
A word of caution: self medication may be part of the problem, so if you’re drowning your sorrows after work with happy hour, a healthcare professional may want to address substance abuse problems that could be making certain anxiety symptoms worse.
The harsh reality is that, as much as we’d like to tell you otherwise, sometimes anxiety in the workplace is here to stay.
Maybe it’s a particular supervisor, policy or the company’s culture as a whole that is to blame. The point is, sometimes, there’s no avoiding those external factors.
Looking for a new job might be a great solution, but it’s not always a practical one.
So, in situations like this, where you might not be in control of all of the external factors, it’s of crucial importance that you address the internal ones.
Whether it’s medication, therapy, lifestyle changes or just breathing exercises every time Karen from sales pops up in your Slack messages, there are things you can do to address problems in the moment and more generally.
But what all solutions really have in common is the first step, which is consulting a mental health professional.
Finding the right person to support your quest to address your mental health issues is important, and if you’re ready to take that step, consider further reading in our guide to therapy for treating anxiety, or taking a look at our mental health resources guide for more information.