Imagine that you are giving a presentation to the board of directors at your company. For most, this would be an anxiety-provoking situation, and that anxiety could affect your performance in different ways. On the one hand, you might get anxious and think about the serious consequences of a bad performance. If you persisted in these thoughts, your mind could go blank and you could stumble over your words. On the other hand, you might get anxious and decide to slow down, take a moment to gather your thoughts, and walk through your presentation step-by-step. In the first scenario, your performance suffered, but in the second it was unaffected – perhaps even improved, as your anxiety motivated you to communicate clearly.
This brief example shows that the relationship between workplace anxiety and job performance is complicated, with anxiety sometimes helping and sometimes hurting. Research on the topic has yielded a similar pattern of mixed results, and until recently, social scientists lacked a model to explain these mixed results. To address this gap, the authors (Cheng & McCarthy, 2018) offer a comprehensive model that explains the positive and negative effects of workplace anxiety.
WHAT IS WORKPLACE ANXIETY?
Workplace anxiety refers to the feelings of tension and nervousness that arise specifically around job performance. Like other types of anxiety, workplace anxiety has two dimensions – disposition and situation. Some individuals are more disposed than others to experience workplace anxiety. Similarly, some situations are more likely than others to elicit workplace anxiety.
When it comes to disposition, current research suggests we should consider several factors, including gender, age, length of time at one’s job, physical health, and core self-evaluation (which is a character trait referring to how people fundamentally evaluate themselves). In general, women tend to experience more workplace anxiety than men. Those who are younger and have spent less time in their job also tend to experience more workplace anxiety. Furthermore, those who report lower levels of physical health and negative self-evaluations tend to experience workplace anxiety.
When it comes to situation, research suggests that we should consider task and organizational demands. When a task requires one to carefully monitor and control emotional reactions, it tends to be more anxiety-provoking. Tasks that are difficult, ambiguous, and have impending deadlines also tend to be more anxiety provoking. When these tasks take place in an uncertain organizational environment (e.g. an organization with high job turnover), workplace anxiety is likely to arise. Organizations that are demanding, fast-paced, and competitive are likely to provoke anxiety, as are organizations that limit employee autonomy.
WHEN DOES ANXIETY HELP? WHEN DOES IT HURT?
In general, job performance tends to be highest when workplace anxiety is moderate. When anxiety is low, individuals are more likely to become distracted and they have less motivation to exert effort or engage in organized problem-solving. On the other hand, when workplace anxiety is high, individuals who are predisposed toward anxiety are more likely to become emotionally exhausted, which could negatively impact their work; however, even those who are not disposed toward workplace anxiety are likely to struggle in these situations. When anxiety is high, most individuals will begin to worry excessively about their job performance, which reduces their ability to focus on the task at hand.
When workplace anxiety is moderate, most individuals are able to focus and they are motivated to set goals, organize, and invest more time and energy into their work, positively impacting their job performance. Previous research suggests that employees who are highly motivated, capable, and emotionally intelligent are more likely to effectively channel moderate levels of anxiety into increased work performance.
The model proposed in this study suggests that organizations should not aim at reducing anxiety, but rather at helping employees channel their anxiety in specific ways to increase their job performance. More specifically, organizations should help those who are disposed toward anxiety to avoid emotional exhaustion. Similarly, organizations should help those who frequently work in high stress situations (e.g. police officers), to avoid becoming unfocused and disorganized in their problem-solving.
Because highly motivated employees tend to channel their anxiety most effectively, managers could benefit by helping employees find what makes them inherently excited about their work. This could help employees become absorbed in their work and focus on the pleasurable aspects of their job, reducing their risk for emotional exhaustion. Capable employees are also better at effectively channeling their anxiety, so employees could benefit from ongoing training, development, and feedback from their employer. As they become more confident in their skills and abilities, they are less likely to engage in problematic worrying. Finally, offering training and education on emotional intelligence could help employees effectively identify and manage their feelings of anxiety before these feelings lead to problems.
Cheng, B. H., & McCarthy, J. M. (2018). Understanding the dark and bright sides of anxiety: A theory of workplace anxiety. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(5), 537-560.