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Can Workplace Anxiety Be a Good Thing?

Generally, we think of anxiety — our body’s fight, flight or freeze function — as a negative thing, and that makes sense. It’s the mode we shift into when we think something is a danger, threat or cause for concern. And for a lot of people, their job is a major source of anxiety. But a new study suggests that workplace anxiety might not be the worst thing ever and may actually improve our performance.

Now, before we go any further, we’re not talking about situations when a person is being abused, bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work — that’s an entirely different situation. This research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychologyspecifically considers just your average, run-of-the-mill anxiety about making sure you get everything done on time and to an acceptable standard.

The key is finding the perfect balance of being aware and concerned about your job performance, but not to an extent that it’s in any way damaging or harmful to you.

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“If you have too much anxiety, and you’re completely consumed by it, then it’s going to derail your performance,” coauthor Julie McCarthy from the Department of Management at U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, who is an expert on organizational behavior, says in a statement. “On the other hand, moderate levels of anxiety can facilitate and drive performance.”

What employers don’t want, however, is employees that are so distracted by their anxiety that it prevents them from completing tasks and eventually leads to burnout, coauthor Bonnie Hayden Cheng, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says in a statement. The ideal level of anxiety — if such a thing exists — boosts performance by helping employees focus on their job and self-regulate their behavior, which Cheng compares to athletes who utilize their anxiety to remain motivated during their training.

“After all, if we have no anxiety and we just don’t care about performance, then we are not going to be motivated to do the job,” Cheng continued.

The study does differentiate between people who experience generalize anxiety outside the workplace, indicating they will have different experiences with anxiety at work than those whose anxiety is strictly job-related. It also looks at situational anxiety at work — for example, when people become anxious about specific tasks, like public speaking or performance reviews.

To be clear: The authors do not condone employers inducing anxiety at work, but rather hope their research helps those who regularly experience anxiety in and out of work to help them realize they can self-regulate their behavior and possibly even use their anxiety to their advantage.

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“Managing anxiety can be done by recognizing and addressing triggers of workplace anxiety, but also being aware of how to leverage it in order to drive performance,” according to Cheng.

So, what do the researchers recommend for employers? Cheng recommends they implement training to help boost self-confidence, making resources to help them perform tasks more available and helping employees develop strategies for recognizing, using and managing anxiety. And always remember that anxiety is a perfectly normal human response to stress — both in and out of work — but if it gets to the point that it’s interfering with your life, it may be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional.

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