If you’re feeling anxious and stressed at work, you’re not alone. No one is immune from the intense emotional and physical symptoms that come from worrying about things that may or may not happen. Our hearts race, we breathe rapidly, and we sweat our way through one of the most negative emotions ever to bubble up from the human brain.
But anxiety is manageable if you practice reframing it as excitement, says Maurice Schweitzer, a Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions.
“Anxiety is not a great place for us to live, yet that is where most of us reside a lot of the time,” Schweitzer said in an interview with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. “We feel anxious about all kinds of things. If we can take some of the acute moments and get excited, not only will we feel better, studies show that we actually perform better.”
Schweitzer, whose research focuses on organizational behavior, has written a Nano Tool for Leaders on taming anxiety in the workplace. He revisited the topic on the radio show because May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
The professor said it’s important to recognize that anxiety in the workplace is pervasive, even though nobody talks about it. The COVID-19 pandemic heightened anxiety over job security and the economy, and there are certainly lingering effects.
“I think we find people are feeling anxious almost all the time, almost every day, almost every hour,” he said. “Our performance at work is a constant source of anxiety. We need, as managers, to anticipate that our employees are often feeling anxious.”
How to Tame Anxiety
Schweitzer offered two simple steps for managing anxiety. First, reframe it as excitement. Taking a deep breath and counting to 10 doesn’t work. Instead, try to recast fear and dread about something as hope and excitement.
“Anxiety is not a great place for us to live, yet that is where most of us reside a lot of the time.” – Maurice Schweitzer
“When we’re feeling anxious, we’re worried about things going wrong. What I’m suggesting here is we can instead think about the ways in which things might go right,” he said. “Imagine this presentation went great, what would happen? Imagine this negotiation went great, what would happen? It’s high arousal, high activation with excitement, and our heart can still beat fast. We’re now just focused on opportunities versus threats.”
The second step to ease anxiety is performing a ritual. Rituals have been used for millennia for good reason. Schweitzer said they help us mark transitions and give us a greater sense of control. Weddings, funerals, and inaugurations are good examples.
“Rituals can be an important part of our toolkit to navigate anxious times,” he said. “They move us to a place that’s more serene than that anxiety.”
Schweitzer conducted a study in which participants were asked to sing karaoke — “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey — in exchange for a small payment. Their payment would be based on performance, which meant the less anxiety they felt about singing for strangers, the better they would do.
Schweitzer and his colleagues invented a ritual for participants: to draw how they felt on a piece of paper, sprinkle salt on the paper, then rip it to pieces. Participants who did the ritual performed karaoke better than those in the control group who did not. The experiment was repeated with different tasks including taking a math test — a classic anxiety trap. In each test, rituals helped the participants lower their heart rates, reduce anxiety, and perform better.
“Telling people to calm down doesn’t diminish their heart rate, but going through a ritual does,” Schweitzer said.
He urged managers to identify anxiety triggers in the workplace and figure out ways to “take the temperature down” in order to improve mental health, well-being, and performance for employees as well as themselves.
“As managers, what’s really important is to recognize our own anxiety and recognize how anxious the people are around us,” he said. “They’re so anxious that if we could diminish their anxiety, they might perform better.”