Work-Related Anxiety Is Off the Charts. These Four Moves Will Help

Workplace Stress
After eight months of Zoom meetings and workdays without boundaries, everybody's feeling stressed out about work these days. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Recession, unprecedented unemployment, a pandemic—there's a lot to be anxious about these days. In fact, researchers who monitor public sentiment on Twitter have determined that 2020 is, by far, the worst year since they began monitoring things in 2008 (itself not the best of times).

Every week on LinkedIn Live as part of Newsweek's new video interview series, I interview authors, business leaders and other thinkers who can help us learn how to become just a little Better at what we do. Recently, New York Times bestselling author Chester Elton, co-author of All In, The Carrot Principle and Leading with Gratitude, joined me to share four tips about how we can get smarter about managing our anxiety—and others'—in the workplace.

Overcommunicate. "When there's a gap in communication, that gap gets filled," says Elton, "and it gets filled with rumor, innuendo and fear. One of the best things that leaders can do right now is constant communication."

You may think you're keeping your colleagues and employees informed, but with so much noise and uncertainty out there, the messages are probably not getting through in the way you imagine. Indeed, in the world of politics, there's a saying: Voters need to hear your name seven times before they'll even remember it. Similarly, whether you're announcing a new policy, initiative or just reassuring people, you absolutely need talk about it and explain it multiple times. Elton adds, "We coach a lot of executives and say, 'If you think you're over-communicating, it's probably about right.'"

Amp up your gratitude. It's easy to make fun of the mantra to "just be grateful" or to "count your blessings." But Elton recommends something far more subtle and powerful: Express your gratitude to your colleagues and employees in a personalized fashion, so they understand it's not just empty words.

Chester Elton head shots
Strategy consultant and executive coach Dorie Clark (left); executive coach Chester Elton.

"If family is high on their list of motivators," says Elton, "one way to express gratitude is to give people time off. If someone wants a lot of autonomy or wants to work on a new project, that's the way you express your recognition and gratitude. Get to know your people well enough so that it doesn't come across as being fake. And by the way, if you think people are getting too much [gratitude], trust me, they are not. You can't overdo it."

Assume positive intent. During chaotic times like these, when many people may be working from home and simultaneously managing virtual learning for kids or caring for sick relatives, sometimes balls can get dropped. Of course, we don't want to permanently lower our standards—but during special challenges, there's virtue in extending just a little more leeway to others.

"When people aren't getting back to you or the project is maybe running a little late," says Elton, "don't assume negative intent—that people are screwing up. Assume that people are doing the best they can, and things are popping up. You need to be a little more patient." That gracious attitude will be rewarded later in the form of employee loyalty and the recognition that as humans, we all have ups and downs.

Tell your own story. It can feel very vulnerable for employees to express the challenges they're facing. Elton says the antidote is for leaders to step up first. "The number one way we found to break down those barriers is when leaders share their own stories of anxiety," he says. "It gives everybody else on their team permission to express it, as well."

It's a powerful statement when you model for employees that they won't be punished for appearing imperfect, and creates a much greater sense of psychological safety. For instance, my colleague Christie Smith, the former head of diversity & inclusion at Apple, is a survivor of 9/11 and was inside the World Trade Center when it was attacked. As we wrote in this article about authenticity at work, Christie kept quiet about her experience for years, but ultimately realized that talking about the trauma of that day and her feelings of survivor's guilt helped empower others to open up about their own lives.

When things are moving fast and changing quickly at work, it's easy to forget about the niceties of interpersonal relationships. But, as Elton notes, "The thing that leaders need to remember is, you have to be very intentional about [your communication], and you have to be very disciplined." Ultimately, it's those positive connections that will enable you and your team to succeed in the long term.

Dorie Clark, author of Entrepreneurial You and Duke University Fuqua School of Business professor, hosts Newsweek's weekly interview series, Better, on Thursdays at 12 p.m. ET/9 a.m. PT. Learn more and download her free Stand Out self-assessment.

Chester Elton promo