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High Anxiety, Low Productivity: Is There a Connection?

Reviewed Jun 23, 2012


Warning signs of stress and anxiety in employees include health and job complaints, increased absenteeism, tardiness, low morale and turnover.

Is there a link between high anxiety and low productivity at work? Experts and statistics say “yes.” While managers can’t solve all their employees’ problems, you can help turn those statistics around at your workplace. Start by learning more about how to foster an atmosphere of decreased anxiety and increased productivity in the office.

The cost of anxiety

You’ve probably heard about the effects of chronic anxiety and stress on the body, including insomnia, irritability and increased risks of certain health conditions such as high blood pressure. Severe anxiety disorders can be debilitating. However, you may not know that anxiety also can affect your company’s bottom line. Anxiety disorders cost the United States more than $42 billion a year, or almost one-third of the country’s total mental health bill, according to "The Economic Burden of Anxiety Disorders," a study commissioned by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. While not all work worriers have an anxiety disorder, when you look at business-specific factors related to stress—including absenteeism, turnover, low morale, lost productivity and medical, legal and insurance fees—the cost to U.S. industry can multiply as high as $300 billion, according to The American Institute of Stress.

The truth is, anxiety affects productivity in many ways.

The anxiety-productivity link

Some employers assume that job stress is a necessary evil. But research shows that anxiety can cause professionals to feel exhausted, frustrated or even angry—which leads to poor performance and other negative outcomes that zap productivity, not to mention employee satisfaction.

Consider the direct effects of anxiety and stress on productivity:

  • Seventy percent of workers say workplace stress had caused difficulties, according to the results of a 20011 survey published by the American Psychological Association.
  •  Almost 1 in 5 respondents in a survey conducted by the American Institute of Stress had quit a job because of workplace stress.
  •  Twelve percent of respondents in the American Institute of Stress survey had called in sick because of job stress.
  •  On average, workers who must take time off because of stress stay home for more than 20 days, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Convinced that anxiety affects productivity? The first step in improving those statistics is to look for signs of anxiety in your employees and try to identify the causes.

Signs and causes of anxiety at work

Warning signs of stress and anxiety in employees can include health and job complaints, increased absenteeism, tardiness, low morale and turnover.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other organizations have identified conditions that can lead to job stress:

  • Tasking and workflow—heavy workload, infrequent breaks, long hours, multitasking, hectic and routine tasks and unrealistic deadlines.
  • Management style—lack of employee participation in decision making, poor communication and lack of family-friendly policies.
  • Work relationships—a poor social environment and lack of support from colleagues.
  • Career concerns—job insecurity, lack of room for growth or rapid changes.
  • Environmental conditions—unpleasant or dangerous workspaces.
  • Work roles—uncertain expectations and employees with too many hats to wear.
  • Reducing anxiety at work

Employees’ personalities and differences in coping mechanisms undeniably play a role in the link between anxiety and productivity. But since you can’t change individuals, direct your efforts to examining how working conditions can be modified to decrease anxiety and increase productivity.

Almost half of workers say they need help learning to manage stress. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so think about the best strategies for reducing stress.

Your plans should:

  • Secure commitment from upper-level management
  • Build a committee of employees and managers to examine anxiety-related problems at work.
    Help increase general awareness about stress and anxiety on the job. Make sure people know about company programs that can help.
  • Foster employee participation and incorporate employee input, such as requests for flextime, telecommuting or compressed work weeks.
  •  Create an environment that provides growth opportunities and recognizes good performance.
  •  Involve specialists and any technical support necessary for implementation.
    If you have the resources, you might want to consider making therapeutic relaxation sessions available daily or weekly. Sessions including massage or social activities, for example, can help decrease anxiety and improve productivity. It’s more cost effective to keep people happy than to recruit and train new employees. The bottom line is that policies benefiting employees’ health also benefit companies.
By Kristen Knight
Source: The American Institute of Stress,; Anxiety Disorders Association of America,; U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics,; Career Journal from The Wall Street Journal,; Healthwell,; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,; SmartMoney,; Working World,; Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. Viking, 2001.

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