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Even before the pandemic, anxiety at work had been rising alarmingly and has only been intensified by the Covid-19 outbreak.

The authors of a new book titled “Anxiety at Work,” Adrian Gostick, Chester Elton and Anthony Gostick, had been studying the subject when they saw that it would become urgently important in a period of unprecedented uncertainty.

In the U.S., workplace anxiety is estimated to cost about $40 billion a year in lost productivity, errors and health care expenses, while stress is estimated to cost more than $300 billion, according to the authors.

Younger generations of workers are particularly affected: half of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and 75 percent of Gen Z (born after 1996) report they have quit a job for mental-health reasons, the authors found.

Citing material from his book, which was published on May 4, Adrian Gostick tells Remote Report about how organizations can address anxiety, specifically in remote-working environments.

Empathy and transparency are key, he says.

Remote Report: Are there types of anxiety that are specifically related to remote work — either particular to remote working during the pandemic or just inherent in remote work itself?

Adrian Gostick: Remote work can certainly exacerbate anxiety symptoms if managers are not aware of what their people are feeling. Isolation and a lack of a support network at work can increase anxiety. The key is communication.

One leader we interviewed begins every morning with the question to each of his remote people, “How are you feeling today?” Because he knows today is probably different than yesterday.

These check-ins before diving in should not be rushed, and people should have time to tell their stories if they need to share. It’s up to a leader to dig below the “fine.”

We are finding the workplace of tomorrow will be much more human and less transactional. As we create deeper bonds, it’s ultimately going to benefit the company with more productivity, more collaboration, more innovation.

RR: How can managers create a healthy remote-work environment?

AG: The first step is help make remote people feel more secure in their role and with their future in their organization. One young worker we interviewed spoke for her generation when she said, “We no longer see companies as having our best interests in mind. We understand that shareholder value is king, and we can be replaced by cheaper labor.” Talk about anxiety.

This is why 87 percent of millennials are ranking job security as a top priority (more than likely to be even more important in the post-pandemic world).

Another important point is to allow remote workers time to shut off, time when they aren’t expected to answer emails, texts or calls. This means managers must change their behavior, holding missives for the workday instead of sending messages when they think about it.

The best leaders are beginning to understand that creating a healthy place to work embraces those with anxiety.

Adrian Gostick

RR: What is the role of managers in this, and what is the role of corporate policy and programs?

AG: Managers can often have a default to refer everyone in their care to an EAP [employee assistance plan], which often leaves employees with the wrong impression. While we are big fans of wellness corporate policies, managers must also be trained to help. Managers convey a counterproductive message when the only means of assistance they offer is sending their people away from the company.

Managers must take responsibility and do what they can to alleviate some of the strains work life is placing on so many of their people [by communicating] with empathy. … The role of corporate policy should be to help support managers in this process.

RR: Are there specific anxiety-inducing issues that have been triggered by the pandemic?

AG: The realization from the pandemic is that our world is subject to destabilizing, long-lasting threats, which can arise out of nowhere and disrupt not only companies but the entire economy. That is affecting anxiety levels like nothing we’ve seen before.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by May of 2020 more than 30 percent of all Americans of all ages were reporting symptoms of an anxiety disorder, including a whopping 42 percent of people in their twenties. Uncertainty, economic destabilization, political unrest, polarizing of political attitudes surrounding advice from scientific sources. The pandemic has triggered more anxiety than any event in our lifetimes.

RR: What can managers do to address these issues?

AG: With so many employees experiencing heightened degrees of anxiety at work, leaders simply can’t afford to aggravate things further, or worse yet to leave team members on their own to either “buck up” or “opt out.”

The best leaders are beginning to understand that creating a healthy place to work embraces those with anxiety — people who may be capable and intelligent — while creating an environment that is more positive for everyone. And that can be a powerful accelerator of team success.

If the global pandemic of 2020 had one heartening result, it was the realization to managers at all levels that anxiety is a real business issue.

Adrian Gostick

RR: Are there any issues that have improved because of remote work?

AG: Despite perceived negatives by some about working away from the office before the pandemic — the potential for distractions and loneliness, for instance — companies are discovering benefits as they’ve been forced into this way of working.

For instance, they are seeing an average of $11,000 a year in cost savings for each employee who works out of the office at least half the time, and the majority of managers say they have not seen a decrease in productivity of team members who are now working remotely. Remote work has also given companies access to a wider talent pool. All good things.

RR: As we ease into a post-pandemic period, are there lessons from the pandemic that can be carried forward?

AG: If the global pandemic of 2020 had one heartening result, it was the realization to managers at all levels that anxiety is a real business issue.

They were home with family, feeling the additional pressures and the challenge of staying connected with their teams. They experienced a realization that mental well-being is a real concern.

The lesson we must take forward is that managers must understand what their employees are facing day to day, whether work overload, work-life balance, stress, burnout, anxiety or reduced energy levels. We must make sure managers are equipped to recognize these situations, where they may be contributing to the problems and how best to address issues with empathy.

RR: What other things should managers keep in mind as the imminent threat of the pandemic dies down? Will things return to “normal”? Should they?

AG: A year into the pandemic now, I’ve heard from various managers who say the part of their leadership game they’ve had to improve is in their level of openness — and this should never return to “normal.”

They’ve learned to be more transparent with their teams about problems as they come up, how specifically their team needs to step up to address each issue and the perception of higher-ups about the future vision of the organization. These tactics have helped their workers not only feel they were “in the know,” but also valuable members of a collective effort. Perhaps most important, being more transparent has helped them bring down anxiety levels considerably.

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