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For all the wonderment of our rapid technological advances, access to a seemingly infinite source of new information and a greater understanding of the human brain, something is horribly amiss. We are full of anxiety and worrying ourselves to death.

Whilst a great deal of attention is (rightfully) focused on the rising prevalence of depression within society, it’s easy to overlook that there are twice as many Australians with an anxiety disorder. It may feel like cold comfort, but with two million Australians affected, there’s a lot of it about.

There is a gender and location bias too, with a new study from the University of Cambridge, revealing that anxiety is twice as common in women and more common in those from Western Europe and North America.

More worryingly though is the level of anxiety being reported in young Australians aged 16 to 24 years. One in six have experienced an anxiety disorder over the last 12 months.

Unless adequately addressed, anxious teenagers and young adults grow up into anxious adults less well equipped to deal with the complexities and demands of the modern world.

Anxiety is pervasive, sneaky, and can paralyse performance. Living with chronic anxiety is exhausting because no matter how much sleep you get, you never feel refreshed. When tired it’s harder to focus, to learn effectively and we make more mistakes.

Why is there so much anxiety?

What is adding to our worries? Uncertainty around geopolitical events, difficult economic times, job security, managing or meeting deadlines, high expectations from ourselves and others, giving presentations, dealing with workplace bullying or managing staff, all of these and more contribute to our daily cognitive workload on top of “just doing our job.”

And to mention too, how social media is adding to our anxiety woes. Facebook anxiety has been created through our frequent exposure to seemingly endless stories and pictures of happy smiling people who are all doing and experiencing apparently amazing things and having sooooo much fun, leaving us to feel inadequate, small and insignificant by comparison.

 Is the modern plague of anxiety of our own making?

In some instances, it might appear that we have created a culture of anxiety.  Intense emotion is contagious, meaning anxiety can spread through a team or office faster than you can say, “bless you” after a sneeze.

While how anxious or stressed we feel as an individual is influenced by our temperament and personality, in a group setting everything changes. When exposed to a common threat, we adopt the same level of anxiety as everyone else.

The need for greater organisational health starts here.

The implication is that for a business or organisation, managing workplace anxiety requires knowing how to minimise social threat, which may take the form of distrust, disrespect, micromanagement, favouritism, uncertainty and lack of empathy.

According to a study from the University of Toronto, the effect of workplace anxiety on performance is closely connected to the quality of relationships between bosses, co-workers and employees. This should come as no surprise. If you are working in a stressful environment but have an empathetic manager or supervisor, it is far easier to deal with a level of emotional exhaustion. A workplace culture that builds strong social networks is one that will help allay fears and worry.

Working too hard for too long without support, adequate resources, insufficient downtime or acknowledgment of realistic expectations for what can be achieved in a given time frame is a recipe for disaster, yet has become the “norm” for may workplaces.

What if every workplace had in place a protocol to ensure that every employee had the necessary strategies to keep stress and anxiety at manageable levels? What impact could that have on their level of productivity and performance?

Getting the best out of people without burning them out or causing mental health issues requires ensuring that our basic physiological and psychological needs are met first. Our magnificent brain seeks to keep us safe and energy-efficient. We work at our best when we have had sufficient rest, when we feel supported and when we feel the work we are doing is meaningful.

This is where using the brain science can make the most significant impact to optimise mental performance and enhance stress resistance. This is what will assist in reducing the economic and social burden of mental health problems.

It’s high time this scourge of anxiety was dealt with more effectively.

Is your workplace brain safe?

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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