Anxiety. The Silent Crisis Of The Professional

It’s the conversation we need to have yet aren’t sure quite how to have it.

I believe anxiety amongst professionals is growing at an alarming rate. I seek to shine a spotlight on what I perceive to be a silent crisis with the intent of provoking positive change amongst leaders.

It’s one of those uncomfortable topics in the professional world and yet it’s everywhere I turn. Writing about anxiety has been in the pit of my stomach for months. I couldn’t sit with it alone any longer. I’m putting on the table the disturbing observation that I have made in the heart-warming work that I now do.  In the past eighteen months I have spent time with over one thousand curious beings across Australia and New Zealand teaching positive change. During this time I have become deeply saddened by the number of professionals I meet daily that are suffering from anxiety.

These are talented, bright, successful people, with good jobs and seemingly good lives. These are people I would have happily had on my team when I was in the corporate world. Interestingly it appears they’re ticking all the boxes by the societal definition of success, but none of their own boxes around personal happiness.

We cannot ignore the silent struggle of our peers any longer or the need to address a concerning problem.

What Is Anxiety?

According to beyondblue it is “when anxious feelings don’t go away – when they’re ongoing and happen without any particular reason or cause. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard to cope with daily life.”

What Does The Research Tell Us?

When I began to write, I sought to undertake some research to understand the statistics related to anxiety in the corporate world to validate my observations. Interestingly, the only reports I could find related to “workplace” anxiety included businesses of all sizes. There was nothing specific to the corporate world. Even more unsettling was reading the staggering numbers on anxiety and thinking to myself, I wonder what the true multiplier for these statistics is given many people do not openly disclose that they are suffering.

The truth, it appears, is we don’t even know how big the problem really is.

We do know however that untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year – State Of Workplace Mental Health In Australia.

Now let me be clear, I’m not blaming the corporate world for anxiety. There are many factors that contribute to its painful existence. Equally I have experienced and observed the introduction of brilliant workplace initiatives that support the wellbeing of employees over the years.

What I’m saying is it’s not enough and I challenge whether we are just scratching the surface of addressing the root causes.

What Can We Do?

As leaders we have an obligation to dig deeper and understand what’s feeding the anxiety crisis. Together we must find a way to significantly reduce the occurrence of anxiety because the true wellbeing and happiness of people matters.

I have learnt that rarely is there a perfect plan for positive change and that the best approach to solving complex problems lies in testing and piloting different strategies to see what works, what doesn’t and pivot accordingly.

So whilst I don’t profess to have the silver bullet I will always try to be a part of the solution. So I share with you below a couple of thought provokers with the intent of shifting your perspectives on how to approach battling this silent war.

1.   Leverage Your Greatest Asset

This is a people problem and who better to solve it than your people. I believe culture is where the heart of real change lies in an organisation so provide your people with the ability to create a culture that they believe will reduce the incidence of anxiety.

How? Consider what I call a Distributed Leadership Model and back it up with some rock solid executive sponsors who are not afraid to support disrupting the status quo.

What is a Distributed Leadership model? It’s a concept I led to positively influence organisational culture in Shell. We sought out individuals in the business who had leadership qualities and gravitas amongst their peers, but were not yet in a position of leadership. We invited them to form a working group to determine the type of culture they wanted to create and then we gave them the support to develop pilots to test new programs to make positive change.

Evolving culture from the bottom up takes time but can be hugely powerful in engaging and creating a place to work that makes people happier.

2. Make Happiness A Priority

Many professionals come to me and have no clarity on what makes them truly happy. It’s not that they don’t have the answers within, it’s that they have never created the space to step away from the noise and consider what truly matters in their lives.

Do you know what makes your people happy? Have you considered that if you knew it would be an amazing tool to create a workplace where people are happier?

Innovative companies like lululemon Athletica have taken this idea one step further. Across Australia and New Zealand they have been rolling out a new program called The Happiness Project. The primary objective of the program is to understand what makes their employees happy in life. From there they are able to brainstorm and implement creative ways to weave more of what makes individuals happy into their workplace.

 3. Celebrate Fear & Failure

One of the biggest gifts from the entrepreneurial world to the corporate world is the validation that openly being fearful, vulnerable and failing multiple times in business is where innovation is found.

I have no doubt that fear and failure play a huge part in the evolution of anxiety. We have created a cultural mindset that looks at these constructs as negatives and weaknesses. The fact is they can equally be positives that exponentially assist in growing resilience, learning and capability.

Leveraging a concept like F..k Up Nights from the entrepreneurial world is an excellent place to start. This is where they the biggest F..k Up’s made by entrepreneurial leaders are showcased. Failure is regarded as a badge of honor and sharing what you have learned is undeniably powerful in shifting mindsets and conversations.

Are you bold enough to run F..k Up Nights on a regular basis and perhaps get some of your most influential leaders to share their biggest disasters and what they learnt? What a great way to display true authenticity, normalise fear and make it ok to make mistakes.

4. Provide The Tools To Practice Resilience

An inspiring woman recently said to me you can’t teach resilience you have to learn it, by making mistakes, falling down and failing. It resonated but it equally made me think I may not be able to teach resilience, but I can teach practices and tools that have continually helped myself and others bounce back better in adversity.

Teaching people how to face fear head on, break it down into bite size pieces, consider the impacts and develop strategies together to minimize or mitigate has proven powerful. There is a nomalisation of fear that occurs when people work it together, the discovery that many fears are shared creates a platform for collaborative problem solving and support. Participants often walk away energized and ready to tackle a barrier that has held them back from change for some time.

Programs like the Resilience Roadmap or the Happiness Concierges Anti Burnout Workshop can provide a solid base for the introduction of resilience practice in your workplace.

5. Create Tech Free Days

There a numerous resesearch studies that link excessive screen time with increased anxiety levels. What would happen in your workplace if you created days throughout the year that were technology free? What if you used these days for creative thinking, problem solving and authentic human connection? What if you took the practice one step further and asked your customers and suppliers to join in?

6. Collaborate For Change

Collaboration is a powerful tool for real change. Can you leverage your extensive networks to create an “action tank’ for leaders across industry and anxiety experts to come together to brainstorm and collectively pilot disruptive concepts to address the anxiety crisis?

An Open Invitation

People have and always will be the most meaningful and fulfilling element of my work. I cannot sit back and ignore a crisis that impacts the people I surround myself with. This is a moment for us to rise to discomfort and disrupt an approach that is not working.

I provide an open invitation to collaborate with any business leader who seeks to acknowledge the extent of the professional anxiety crisis, look at it with a new lens and be part of the solution.

If you or anyone you know is feeling anxious and in need of support please contact beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.