Stepping Up When Anxiety Shuts An Employee Down

By Michael Bushman

If you manage a large team or even a few people over a number of years, chances are you’ve encountered an employee struggling with an anxiety disorder. React well as a leader/manager and you’ll help the struggling employee recover and contribute to your organizational success. Pile onto their problem and you’ll help send that employee, and your results, into downward spiral.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of U.S. adults experience at least one type of anxiety disorder in a typical year.  While anxiety disorders are treatable, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has found that only one-third of those struggling seek help. 

As a leader/manager in any organizational setting, you don’t need to diagnose the disorder to recognize when an employee needs help. If you believe help is needed, consider the following:

Draw attention to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP).

Many organizations establish EAP outlets because they pay off financially. An employee struggling with an anxiety disorder is more valuable to the company after learning to manage their mental health. If you believe an employee who may need help would be uncomfortable directly discussing EAP programs with you, ask a human resources partner to talk to your full team about EAP offerings.

Consider your employee’s workload

An employee struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, may need you to hand out work assignments at a pace they can handle. If you overwhelm them with more work than they can conceivably accomplish – and don’t help set priorities – you may trigger a debilitating reaction.

Create an environment for success

Social Anxiety Disorder is among the most common anxiety challenges. From a leader/manager perspective, you may notice an employee blushing, shaking, tensing muscles or even displaying periods of unusual confusion that can accompany panic attacks. If this happens, create safer situations for the employee to build social success. An employee may be “afraid that he or she will make mistakes, look bad, and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others,” according to WebMD, with the fear potentially compounded by a lack of social skills or situational experience. You can create confidence that comes from experience by slowly building an employee’s comfort in social situations. Consider asking them to present a topic to you individually, inviting their active participation in small group discussions, and offering to be their practice audience if you know they are facing an uncomfortable speaking role. Even being the center of attention without needing to speak can make someone struggling with anxiety uncomfortable. Ensure that this attention doesn’t last long enough to trigger a tough reaction.

Provide advance warning

 Anxiety disorders can be triggered if an employee faces a situation without time to identify a success path. To the extent you can give an employee a heads up on a new work requirement and bolster their confidence, you might mitigate an episodic reaction. Some anxiety disorders prevent people from thinking through issues, getting ideas stuck in the “fight-or-flight” section of their brain. Time, problem resolution discussions and encouragement can help the brain find circuits past its instinctive amygdala to problem-solving regions of the mind.

Anxiety disorders are categorized as mental illnesses, but they are not mental capacity limits. Theories about the causes of anxiety disorders include components of brain chemistry, brain circuitry and genetic traits. High-stress life experiences can contribute to chemical imbalances and circuit stresses. Fortunately, treatments for anxiety disorders are available with proven success records. Some individuals can recover in as little as a few weeks, while treatments in tougher cases can take more than a year (usually simultaneous with work).

To treat a chemical imbalance, redirect thought patterns or alleviate anxiety symptoms, your employee may need to search for a therapist, find a support group, and/or get medical help in identifying an appropriate prescription. Managers don’t play a role in these actions (other than through recommending EAP connections). Managers, however, can play a role in helping an employee follow through on many coping strategies recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

ADAA suggestions for an anxiety disorder sufferer include:

  • Managing time with to-do lists and engaging managers in setting priorities.
  • Not procrastinating so that work is done well before an agreed deadline.
  • Not overcommitting.
  • Asking for help.
  • Avoiding toxic coworkers. (Managers can help here.)
  • Taking breaks. A walk around the block or a few minutes of deep breathing can help clear one’s head.
  • Setting boundaries.
  • Savoring success. Celebrate good work before moving on.
  • Be healthy. Eat healthy. Sleep. Exercise. Limit caffeine and alcohol.


eep these practices in mind. Consider adjusting your management style on everything from the food brought in as treats to the frequency at which you change priorities, the ways in which you communicate and the team members with whom the anxiety sufferer must interact.

A good employee may trigger into an anxiety disorder, even after years of great performance. The good employee is still there. As a leader/manager, you can help bring the best back out of them with a little care and concern. It’s in your interest to make the effort.

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