CXO

How to help employees with anxiety issues

Addressing mental health concerns is important in any sector. For managers in the tech industry, it involves ensuring employees' access to resources, and monitoring company culture.

Stress, uncertainty, long hours, and isolation are some of the reasons why workers in the tech sector are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression than persons in other industries. Add to this causes like feeling that your work is not being recognized (tech managers tend to be task rather than people oriented), or the feeling of not being listened to or being passed over for promotions.

"This anxiety is a chemical reaction that takes place when too much cortisol gets released into an individual's system," explained Chris Adams, CEO of Glauser Life Sciences, which provides next-generation treatments for alcoholism, chemical dependency, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Psychology Today describes cortisol release as a "response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism" and says that elevated cortisol levels can interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, and increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease.

"Anxiety is more prominent in tech because there is the pressure to succeed but also because of all of the efficiency devices and tools that surround tech workers like smartphones, instant messaging, artificial intelligence, automation and social media," said Adams. "Younger tech workers have grown up with these products, which collectively can induce anxiety with their emphasis on relentless communications, and also with the fear of being monitored in every single work activity."

Adams also said that anxiety disorder sufferers in tech can be stigmatized.

"You are surrounded by highly intelligent people who expect you to be at the top of your game at all times," he said. "If you are suffering from anxiety and are perceived as being incapable of making a decision or of working efficiently, this can be a terrifying experience."

He added that the fact that tech is a male-dominated profession exacerbates the problem.

"In a male-dominated culture, there is a tendency for employees and managers to be less empathetic to anxiety sufferers," he said. "Many men don't always recognize the symptoms of anxiety, so they see workers suffering from anxiety as being weak and ineffective. These workers might be subject to harassment....The net result is that these people might have great ideas to contribute, but they are not listened to."

Here are a few ways managers can take action to help employees who show symptoms of anxiety:

Advocate for health and wellness programs

"Wellness programs help a lot," said Adams. "As more tech companies add programs like yoga and meditation, this helps combat anxiety." One way to get your company to consider these programs is to suggest them to HR or to the CEO. If you can do a little research on your own and present it to decision makers, this can also be helpful in getting a wellness program started.

Encourage employees to use available resources

There are meditation and anxiety-related apps that tech workers can use on their own that can help to relieve feelings of anxiety. These apps will actually take you step by step through a mediation or yoga regime—but they still don't get tech workers away from stress overload-inducing technology. Consequently, the best approach is to use these apps as supplements to stress reducers like physical exercise, meditation, vacations, and hobbies.

For persons suffering from traumatic memories that contribute to anxiety or panic attacks, Adams recommends a treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, to reduce anxiety, because the therapy helps employees recognize and release painful memories that could be at the root of their anxiety.

"Finally, I always encourage anxiety sufferers who also have depression to seek the help of a doctor," said Adams. "Especially if you are a panic attack sufferer, the most important thing that you should do first is to stabilize the condition. Then, you can begin to treat it."

Be aware of company culture factors that can exacerbate anxiety

In addition to helping employees deal existing anxiety symptoms, managers should be aware of business factors that can unnerve employees. Some of these factors involve corporate uncertainty, such as rumors that a company is going to be sold; or the sudden appearance of an organizational consultant who is going to help reorganize and potentially eliminate some jobs; or the introduction of artificial intelligence and other forms of automation the can lead to job elimination. All are situations that managers tend to say very little about—but these situations can eat away at employees who are afraid to ask about them.

SEE: How to handle employee abuse and bullying (Tech Pro Research)

Keep expectations of high-performance employees in check

There is a tendency to always expect that a top DBA or systems programmer will be on top of their game at all times—but what if they're not? Even professional athletes go into slumps. No one can perform at the same level day-in and day-out. Managers can help employees manage work overloads by giving their high performers an occasional day off to recoup.

The takeaway for managers is that anxiety in employees, when you spot it, should immediately and proactively be addressed so stigmatization and other negative reactions that affect team performance and employee well-being can be avoided.

Stress and anxiety levels in tech employees can be extraordinarily high, and tech companies and managers need to be on top of these as much as they are on top of projects.

Also see:

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Image: iStock/kieferpix

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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