Health & Safety

Dealing with the rise of performance anxiety at work

person wearing face mask in the office

According to recent research, performance anxiety at work is on the rise. And researchers believe that this can be largely attributed to the effects of being suddenly required to work from home – especially amongst employees who had little or no previous experience with remote working.

56% of employees say their mental health has deteriorated

Research carried out by RADA Business revealed many findings. For example, in their study of 1,000 UK workers, they found: 

  • 56% of UK workers say their mental health has deteriorated while working from home
  • 1 in 3 are less confident in their workability when they are feeling anxious
  • 44% of people say training would help them with their performance anxiety at work

RADA Business is the commercial arm of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And if you wonder why they are getting involved in issues like performance anxiety at work, then that’s because their organisation builds on the work of RADA, to help people at work to become brilliant communicators.

But what is ‘performance anxiety’, and why should HR care?

Performance anxiety extends beyond the stage

When we talk about performance anxiety, we are talking about the nerves, the fears and the uncertainties that we might feel, while performing. 

But while this may be a very common term in the world of acting and performing arts, performance anxiety also exists in the workplace. And it can lead to serious problems with the productivity and the quality of our work.

On the stage, performance anxiety occurs when the performer focuses too much on the judgement of the people watching, instead of focusing on their actual performance. In the workplace, performance anxiety occurs when employees are more concerned with the way their peers or superiors are judging them than they are with the actual job they are trying to complete.

It’s not because employees are not good enough

Some people think that the only reason you might be worried about your performance is that you’re not good enough at the job you’re trying to do. But actually, the study by RADA Business seems to suggest that performance anxiety is on the rise for workers who were previously confident – and who are still doing the same job as before. 

According to Psychology Today, performance anxiety is rare because a job is out of our skill range. In fact, they say that performance anxiety is more likely to occur during the moments that we are most supremely qualified to handle!

“It’s not the situation that’s the problem,” writes Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. “The task is easily in your range. The problem is your overzealous worry system.”

How remote working is affecting performance anxiety

RADA Business says that performance anxiety is rising in the workplace and that it seems to be directly affected by the intense periods of remote working during the lockdown. According to their research, 56% of UK workers have reported poorer mental health as a result of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s more, 86% of workers report that they feel they need to prove they are working hard to senior management. This is perhaps partly because remote working means they are not being ‘seen’ working like they normally would be. But it’s important to remember that many employees are desperate to keep their jobs during this economic downturn.

All of this, according to RADA Business, is contributing to the rise in performance anxiety at work.

Performance anxiety is not just ‘in your head'

A common misconception when talking about mental health issues like anxiety is the belief that it is ‘all in your head’. In other words, the symptoms must be imaginary if you have a psychological issue. 

This couldn’t be further from the truth. And while many symptoms could be described as psychological – affecting moods or feelings – any mental health practitioner will tell you that issues like anxiety can also cause very physical symptoms. Symptoms can be measured by traditional medical checks.

According to the RADA Business, performance anxiety can manifest itself with a mixture of psychological and physical symptoms. For example:

  • Increased heart rate (30%)
  • Sweaty palms (22%)
  • Nausea (15%)
  • Feeling irritable and bad-tempered (25%)
  • Lower productivity (20%)
  • Less confidence in skill or ability (33%)

Needless to say, whether physical or psychological, it’s less than ideal if employees are suffering from these symptoms. This is why many people are calling for employers to provide training for their workers, to help them overcome their performance anxiety during our gradual return to ‘the new normal’.

But how can we help employees overcome such anxieties?

Start by releasing the physical tension

According to Kate Walker Miles, who is a tutor at RADA Business, you can encourage employees to use similar techniques to those used by actors when dealing with performance anxiety. She says that a great place to start is by doing an exercise to release physical tension from the body.

“Start by squeezing your shoulders upwards, and then dropping them back down,” she tells me. “Next, tip your left ear towards your left shoulder, and then repeat on the other side. This helps to release neck tension. Give your arms and legs a good shake next, and then move on to your breathing. Breathe all the way out. Then slowly breathe back in, imagining that you are sending your breath all the way down to your pelvis.”

Kate says that this simple technique is a very effective way to prepare for any workplace scenario where you might struggle to manage your nerves. For example, right before an important meeting, or immediately before you need to deliver a presentation.

Take away the negativity

With reduced social contact, Kate says that it is really easy to wind up ruminating on your anxieties and irritants. She says that once you have released the physical tension in your body, you should spare some time to work on a positive mindset.

“Negative thoughts like ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m in way over my head’ can run rampant when you’re spending a long time on your own,” Kate says. “But the brain doesn’t tend to be creative and critical at the same time – so the more critical you are of yourself, the more you close down your creative thinking.”

Kate advises changing each negative thought for a more positive one. In doing so, you’re setting your brain up for success.

Practical steps to help you work from home more effectively

Kate adds that there are a number of things you can also work into your daily routine while working from home, to help you keep performance anxiety at bay.

“Try not to stack up long, back-to-back meetings” she advises. “And you should be taking 10 minutes away from your screen every hour, to help you clear your mind and better focus on your next task.”

Kate also advises that going for a walk at lunchtime is time well spent. 

“Not only can moving our bodies help to free the mind,” she tells me, “but a change of scenery is great stimulation for the brain during the lockdown.”

But if worst comes to worst, and your anxiety is becoming unmanageable, it’s important to take time away from screens with a mental health day, such as the new duvet day that some employers are offering.

Carry these techniques with you as you return to the workplace

These techniques can continue to help you with performance anxiety even as you leave your home office behind and return to the regular office. Taking a screen break every hour, for example – and the exercise to release tension can be a really good way to start the day with your team in the morning. Another solution can be introducing HR software, the software can identify HR team employees that need extra support.