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What is work anxiety? 10 tips to overcome your work worries

Whitney Vige headshotWhitney Vige
January 10th, 2024
10 min read
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Work anxiety is anxiety that’s caused by work. Different work situations, from overlapping deadlines to unstable economic conditions, can create work anxiety. If you’re struggling with work-related stress, you’re not alone—and there’s hope. Learn how to take control of your work anxiety, and get your work life back on track. 

Think about the last time someone at work—maybe a colleague or your manager—asked you how you were doing. How did you respond? If you’re like a lot of us, you probably said something like, “I’m good, how are you?”—even if it wasn’t true. 

The truth might have sounded something more like this: I’m losing sleep over a big presentation. I struggle to stop thinking about work when I’m at home. I’m burned out, and I don’t know who to talk to for help. The state of the world feels scary, and I’m worried about my job security.

It can be hard to acknowledge the fear and anxiety we feel about work, especially in times of change or uncertainty. Often, our workplaces feel like the last environment where we can show up as our whole selves, fears and all. But if you struggle with work-related stress or work anxiety, you’re not alone; according to a 2021 study from Mental Health America, 83% of workers feel emotionally drained from their work, and 85% agreed that workplace stress affects their mental health. 

These feelings are valid, and acknowledging them matters. But your work worries don’t have to control you or interfere with your life outside of work. The first step in combating your work anxiety is learning more about what might be causing it. From there, you can learn how to address it and keep it from dominating your life. 

What is work anxiety?

Work anxiety, also known as work stress, is anxiety that’s caused by and revolves around work. The experience of work anxiety and what causes it is different for everyone. For some, impending deadlines or an upcoming presentation are enough to cause work anxiety. For others, social situations at work, such as a poor work culture or a lack of connection with coworkers, might cause work anxiety. Larger issues, such as concerns about job security, organizational change, or macroeconomic conditions, can also cause a flare in work anxiety. 

No matter the cause, work anxiety always revolves around work and the workplace. This type of anxiety can have short-term and long-term consequences, such as reduced productivity, missed deadlines, career stagnation, and even job loss. Prolonged work stress can be even more far-reaching, leading to burnout and more.

That all sounds pretty scary—and it can be. But work anxiety is also manageable with the right tools. The first step is acknowledging your anxiety so you can move through it.  

[inline illustration] Sunday scaries work worry (photography)
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What’s the difference between anxiety at work and work anxiety?

Anxiety is a common feeling. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million U.S. adults struggle with an anxiety disorder. If you’re feeling anxious at work, it can be hard to know if you’re experiencing generalized anxiety or work anxiety.

While anxiety at work and work anxiety might sound (and even feel) similar, they aren’t the same. The major difference is the cause—any number of outside factors can cause generalized anxiety, whereas work specifically causes work anxiety. Other tell-tale signs of work anxiety include:

  • Your anxiety is focused around—and limited to—work and the workplace and doesn’t extend to other parts of your life 

  • Your anxiety lessens when you’re not at work and during your days off 

  • Your anxiety developed in response to something that happened or is happening in the workplace

  • You struggle with social or physical symptoms of anxiety, but only at work or when thinking about work

What are the symptoms of work anxiety?

It’s difficult to overcome something you don’t know you have. If you’ve felt on edge in the workplace lately or are struggling with physical or psychological symptoms connected to your work, you might be experiencing work anxiety. 

We’ve rounded up the common symptoms of work anxiety. Take a look and see if any feel familiar. Once you’ve named what you’re experiencing, you’ll be on the path to finding a solution. 

  • Feeling irritable or frustrated when at work (or when thinking about work)

  • Struggling to start working and procrastinating on assignments or deadlines

  • Feeling overwhelmed or physically sick at the thought of checking work notifications

  • Missing deadlines or turning in substandard work without an outside cause 

  • Experiencing difficulty concentrating or feeling disconnected from your work

  • Worrying excessively about upcoming work to the point that worry interferes with your personal life

  • Feeling dread at the thought of going to work and/or consistently experiencing the Sunday scaries

  • Experiencing physical symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, fatigue, and uneasiness, as a direct result of work stress

  • Overreacting to feedback or other stressful work situations

  • Focusing intently on the negative aspects of your work or workplace 

What causes work anxiety?

The causes of work anxiety are wide-ranging and vary from person to person. Sometimes internal factors, like imposter syndrome or self-imposed pressure, can cause work anxiety. Other times, external factors like workplace conflicts, a heavy workload, or market trends can be the source. 

Finding the root cause of your work anxiety can help you overcome it. Common situations that might lead to work anxiety include:

  • Unclear goals or expectations 

  • External factors like fearing for your job security

  • Lack of support and transparency from your manager

  • A poor work-life balance, resulting in overwork and long hours 

  • Workplace conflicts, such as bullying or harassment 

  • Disconnection or isolation from coworkers 

  • Struggling with general anxiety or a social anxiety disorder, which can make you more susceptible to workplace anxiety

  • Mounting workplace burnout

  • Unfulfillment in your role or feeling overlooked 

  • Unrealistic deadlines or an unmanageable workload 

  • Upcoming projects or work commitments you feel unprepared for 

  • Lacking a sense of purpose at work

Work anxiety can be short-term and long-term. Short-term work anxiety is often caused by situational factors, such as an upcoming presentation. Long-term work anxiety is more likely to be caused by large factors, such as organization change or macroeconomic conditions.

What are the effects of work anxiety? 

No matter the cause, work anxiety can have wide-ranging effects that impact your life, both in and out of the workplace. If you struggle with work anxiety, you may feel less confident in your role, preventing you from taking on additional responsibilities or volunteering for growth opportunities. Work anxiety can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you worry so much about missing deadlines you become unable to function at work, leading to missed deadlines.

Other consequences of work anxiety include: 

  • Reduced job performance

  • Isolation from coworkers

  • Loss of productivity

  • Lowered confidence and the development of imposter syndrome 

  • Career stagnation

  • Reduced job satisfaction 

  • Missed deadlines 

  • Hampered career development 

  • Impacted personal life and well-being

  • Turning down promotions due to work phobias, such as public speaking

The Impact Playbook: Motivating employees in a fast-changing world

Boost motivation by helping your employees understand why their work matters. In this free ebook, learn how to create a shared sense of purpose on your team.

Motivating employees in a fast-changing world ebook banner image

10 tips to cope with work anxiety

We all have work worries: from unread emails that keep us from focusing on our family dinners to the upcoming deadlines that pull our focus away from a night out with friends. When these work worries become too difficult to ignore, they can blossom into full-on work anxiety. 

If you’re struggling with work anxiety, the first thing to remember is that your anxiety is real—and part of dealing with it is simply acknowledging its existence and finding ways to cope with, and eventually overcome, what you’re feeling. 

1. Acknowledge your feelings

It’s not always easy to admit when you’re struggling. Often, we push aside our feelings or allow ourselves to invalidate them. We tell ourselves we’re doing what we need to push through or that it’s not that bad. These negative self statements might even feel necessary at work, where performance is important. In fact, 40% of workers think burnout is an inevitable part of success—an idea that could lead to pushing ourselves too hard at work. 

Instead of tamping down your feelings of anxiety, acknowledge what you’re experiencing as valid. Recognize that your anxious work thoughts are normal, and embrace them for what they are: thoughts. Then, you can begin to move toward a solution. 

2. Practice good time management

Feeling overwhelmed at work is a common cause of work anxiety. And in our always-on work culture, it’s no surprise—according to the 2022 Anatomy of Work Index, burnout and imposter syndrome are “key challenges” facing knowledge workers, with 42% suffering both at the same time. Workers are also dealing with the negative effects of technology; over a third feel overwhelmed by persistent pings and notifications.

The takeaway? Workers feel exhausted by the amount of work they’re assigned and insecure about their performance at work. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By speaking with your manager when you feel overwhelmed and learning how to prioritize your tasks to effectively manage your time, you can make sure you’re focusing on your most important work and delegating—or eliminating—non-essential work. 

There are so many time management techniques you can use to keep yourself on track and help calm your work anxiety—a few of our favorites include:

  • Using the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize your tasks 

  • Grouping similar tasks and saving small tasks for in between meetings

  • Using time blocking to schedule a more productive day

  • Tackling big tasks in the morning with the “eat the frog” time management strategy

  • Using the Pomodoro Technique to break work into manageable chunks 

3. Keep yourself organized

Similar to feeling overwhelmed, feeling (or being) disorganized can take a toll on your ability to perform at work. Unorganized workers can be more likely to miss deadlines or overlook important tasks, leading to stress and anxiety. What’s more, visual clutter can actually distract you—so in addition to an organized to-do list, keeping your workspace clean and organized is important too.

There are a lot of ways you can get organized at work and reduce work anxiety, including:

Often, work anxiety happens because you feel pressure to perform, but don’t know exactly what you need to get done (or when it’s due). A project management tool can help. By visualizing all of your tasks, deadlines, and next steps in one place, you can see that your workload is doable. Or, if it isn’t, you can re-prioritize and reschedule work as needed.

4. Set (and stick to) clear boundaries

Our modern work culture blurred the lines between work and home, and the shift to remote work caused by the COVID pandemic further loosened the boundaries between our home lives and work lives. In fact, according to the 2022 Anatomy of Work Index, 37% of workers said their days don’t have a clear start or finish time. More than a third of workers also said they spend more time checking emails and thinking about work outside of working hours compared to last year. The result: workers struggle to draw hard lines between when they’re on the clock and off of it, leading to overwork and a poor work-life balance. 

Setting—and sticking to—clear boundaries is essential to creating a work-free space during off-hours, which can help reduce work anxiety. Setting clear boundaries might look like this:

  • Learning to say “no” to asks when you’re at capacity

  • Taking time off to disconnect and recharge

  • Communicating to your manager or your team when you’re feeling overwhelmed

  • Setting specific “on” and “off” hours and adhering to them 

  • Snoozing notifications when you’re offline 

  • Removing work applications from your phone or personal devices and only checking emails during work hours

[inline illustration] tame work worry (photography)

5. Communicate with your manager when you need help

Sometimes, practicing good time management strategies and implementing organizational techniques is enough to help you get back on track and reduce work anxiety. Other times, you’ll need to take additional steps, like bringing up your workload with your manager. 

Signs you might need to take another look at your workload include feeling overwhelmed by multiple deadlines or uncertain about what work to prioritize. In this case, it’s important to have a candid conversation with your manager about potentially lightening your load. 

Speaking to your manager about a heavy workload can be intimidating, especially when workplaces are trying to do more with less—it’s natural to worry that the conversation could reflect poorly on you or your work abilities. When you approach your manager, frame your conversation around the stress you’re feeling and your desire to find a solution. Effectively communicating your concerns by clearly stating where you’re struggling and offering solutions will help build empathy and a shared understanding that you’re not looking to do less work. 

6. Set realistic deadlines and goals 

Once you’ve discussed your workload concerns with your manager, work together to set realistic and achievable deadlines. Review previously set goals and due dates and adjust where possible. 

A few ways to set realistic goals and deadlines with the help of your manager include:

7. Take a mental health day if you can

A mental health day is exactly what it sounds like—a day to focus on your mental health. Just like you’d take a sick day if you were feeling under the weather, mental health days are helpful if you’re struggling with burnout or work anxiety symptoms. 

While some companies have built-in days for workers to use as mental health days, others encourage employees to use singular PTO or sick days for the purpose, so be sure to check your company’s policy before you take one. Then, spend your day relaxing and recharging, whatever that means for you. And remember: If you continue to feel distraught after your mental health day or dread the idea of returning to work, it might be an indication of deepening burnout or another mental health concern. 

8. Practice anti-anxiety techniques outside of work

While work anxiety and general anxiety are different, they often have similar symptoms, so practicing anti-anxiety techniques can often help calm your feelings of stress in the short term. These tactics aren’t a cure for work anxiety, but they can provide much-needed relief when you feel overwhelmed. 

Coping techniques that can help you combat a work anxiety attack include:

  • Practice deep breathing exercises

  • Go for a long walk

  • Repeat a calming mantra

  • Step away from your computer or work and take a break

  • Recognize, acknowledge, and validate your anxious thoughts

9. See if your company has any resources that might help

If you’re still struggling with work anxiety after talking to your manager, adjusting your workload, and getting organized, check to see if your company has any additional resources that might be able to help. Reach out to the benefits or HR team to see if there are any subsidies for professional help, like coaching, therapy, employee assistance programs, or professional development courses that could be of assistance. 

For some, feeling stagnant at work causes work anxiety, so setting professional goals or taking advantage of development benefits like sabbatical leave can reinvigorate your career passion and keep you from feeling disconnected. For others, finding a mentor or taking advantage of wellness programs can help. See what your company has to offer. 

10. Know when to ask for additional help

If you’ve tried our tips and still find yourself struggling with work anxiety (or find that your work anxiety is increasing), it might be time to ask for additional help. Unchecked, work anxiety can develop into more severe mental health concerns, such as generalized anxiety disorder or depression. 

Signs that your work anxiety might be evolving into a more serious health concern include:

  • Your anxiety begins to impact your life and relationships outside of work

  • Your coping mechanisms no longer provide relief from your anxiety

  • You feel you need to take more time off than usual but don’t feel refreshed or re-motivated when returning to work

  • Your work anxiety impacts your physical health

  • You become unable to perform at work, including consistently missing deadlines or failing to complete tasks

If these symptoms sound familiar, talk to your manager, mentor, or human resources department about next steps. 

Dealing with work anxiety can be difficult, but it’s not insurmountable. With the right tools and techniques, you’re on your way to facing—and, eventually, overcoming—your work worries for good. 

[inline illustration] tame your work worries banner (photography)

The Impact Playbook: Motivating employees in a fast-changing world

Boost motivation by helping your employees understand why their work matters. In this free ebook, learn how to create a shared sense of purpose on your team.

Motivating employees in a fast-changing world ebook banner image

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