The antidote for anxiety in the workplace

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Workplace anxiety has increased dramatically under a pandemic. Photo: iStock
Workplace anxiety has increased dramatically under a pandemic. Photo: iStock

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The workforce fallout may have only just begun, even as some industries are showing signs of rebounding, coping and recovering better than others from the Covid-19 lockdown knock. Gross domestic product is limping back to pre-pandemic levels and jobs are slowly stabilising, all suggesting a longer period of adaptation for companies and businesses than previously expected. 

Over the past year, many workers said they’d benefitted from the flexibility of working from home, companies reported improved productivity, but it turns out that some of that flexibility was consumed by a substantial increase in unpaid overtime.

Higher productivity, it seems, may be something of an illusion, not the outcome of better work-life balance. In other words, it may have been more about value donated by workers who were worried about staying employed. 

This is the surplus society in action right here, where there’s a surplus of similar companies employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.

Globally, workers reporting unpaid hours rose about 25% from 7.2 to 9.3 hours per week, according to a survey by payroll processor ADP.

More than three-quarters of workers globally said job insecurity had prompted them to work more during the week or on their off days and take on new tasks, including ones they were not comfortable performing.

Two scenarios with vastly different outcomes

Two scenarios are playing themselves out in tandem. The one is the era of worker post-traumatic growth – people emerging from trauma or adversity with positive personal growth.

The process of positive disintegration is a falling away of any personal narrative no longer applicable, meaningful or in any way helpful. The other scenario is employees finding themselves bang in the middle of high anxiety, which is when a projected reality does not meet expectations. There is a thought pattern repeat and paralysis. It is destabilising and frightening.

READ: Dion Chang | Your robot therapist will see you now

What is undoubtedly clear is that everyone is undergoing some form of transformation, experiencing some sort of challenge to their core beliefs that will trigger them to become different to who they were before. It’s how this is dealt with that differs.

All challenges in life are relative

Everyone will experience the pandemic differently, depending on their unique circumstances, and it’s completely normal for someone to struggle at times and flourish at others.

Rabbi Harold Kushner put it well when he reflected on the death of his son: “I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counsellor because of Aaron’s life and death than I would ever have been without it. 

And I would give up all those gains in a second if I could have my son back. If I could choose I would forgo all of the spiritual growth and depth which has come my way and because of our experiences … but I cannot choose.”

Healthy personality development often requires the disintegration of the personality structure, which can temporarily lead to psychological tension, self-doubt, anxiety and depression. 

However Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski believed that this process can lead to a deeper examination of what one could be and ultimately higher levels of personality development.

READ: Business leaders need to provide refuge and a psychological safety net for their employees

This study adds to the growing literature showing that people with low levels of anxiety, coupled with low levels of experiential avoidance – that is, high levels of psychological flexibility – report enhanced quality of life.But this study also suggests there is increased meaning in life too.

Post-traumatic growth and its benefits

The term “post-traumatic growth” means finding meaning and creativity in adversity. It is the positive psychological change that’s experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life experiences. 

There are seven areas of growth that spring from the adversity that could be of comfort to you right now:

  • Greater appreciation for life;
  • Greater appreciation and strengthening for close relationships;
  • Increased compassion and altruism;
  • The identification of new possibilities or purpose in life;
  • Greater awareness and utilisation of personal strengths;
  • Enhanced spiritual development; and
  • Creative growth.

Resilience and post-traumatic growth are not the same thing

Some people need time to recover from trauma before returning to normal functioning. A portion of people experience negative mental health impacts that become chronic, but the majority of people bounce back from a trauma pretty quickly.

READ: ‘Covid-19 impact on mental health cannot be overstated'

In fact, people who bounce back quickly from a setback aren’t the ones likely to experience positive growth. Rather, people who experience post-traumatic growth are those who endure some cognitive and emotional struggle and then emerge changed on the other side.

How to deal with anxiety

Most treatments of trauma often revert to a traditional approach, such as cognitive behavioural therapy to alleviate symptoms, because of existential questions the trauma generally triggers about what’s important in life.

Here are some non-traditional ways to deal with the stress and anxiety associated with post-traumatic growth:

  • Align yourself with an “expert” trauma companion during your struggle. This is someone who listens to your story. You have an opportunity to learn from their story and how they dealt with trauma. It will help you look at the possibilities in your life more carefully.
  • Simplify life. By removing clutter in throat, word and deed, you might open the space for you to understand things more clearly.
  • Make time to do more meaningful things. This means connecting with something that brings you joy, release or freedom.
  • Develop more meaningful relationships with people around you, people who add value to your life.
  • Slow down. All too quickly, many of us are on the treadmill again to make up for lost time, but when trauma is still unhealed, it can just compact the growing ball of anxiety and stress which will become the wrecking ball in your life.

A further antidote to experiencing overwhelming anxiety is to learn something new. Consume your mind and your time with something outside of your usual framework. Reframing your life in a way that releases the groundhog thoughts without effect and replaces them with new activities will generate an anxiety outlet that can in time only become post-traumatic growth.

Sanei is a futures strategist


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