Anxiety Disorders: How Employers Can Support Employees

  • Employee wellbeing
Michelle Ann Zoleta

Michelle Ann Zoleta, Health & Safety Team Manager

(Last updated )

It is natural to feel occasional anxiety whether related to events at work or in personal life.

However, excessive fear and worry over every day or minor concerns that interferes with daily life may be a sign of severe anxiety.

Wait, isn’t anxiety the same as stress?

No. Stress is your body’s natural response to an external threat. It goes away when the threat is removed or resolved. Stress can be a trigger for anxiety.

Anxiety is characterized by intense, excessive, and relentless worrying and fear that is hard to control and disproportionate to the cause of concern. At times, there may even be no stressor.

So, severe anxiety is a mental illness?

Yes. The Canadian Human Rights Commission defines mental illness as “alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour—or some combination thereof—associated with significant distress and impaired functioning.”

Severe anxiety is a mental illness that can develop into one or more anxiety disorders. According to Health Canada, anxiety disorders are “the most common of all mental health problems.” One in 10 Canadians suffers from an anxiety disorder.

It is hard to say what exactly causes an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders may be caused by a mix of biological, social, economic factors, brain functions as well as challenging personal experiences.

Once diagnosed, anxiety disorders can be successfully treated through counselling, medication, and self-help strategies.

What are the different types of anxiety disorders?

There are several types of anxiety disorders. Some of the more common ones include:

Generalized anxiety disorder

People who suffer from this disorder, worry excessively about ordinary, everyday events and activities. The condition also causes physical symptoms such as headaches, sore muscles, and sleep problems.

Social phobia or social anxiety disorder

People with social phobia are terrified of doing or saying something wrong in front of other people. Their fear of being judged negatively is so intense that they may altogether avoid social situations. In some cases, they may experience a panic attack or physical symptoms (sweating, shallow breathing) in a social setting.

Panic disorder

It is a type of anxiety disorder in which the affected person experiences frequent and unexpected attacks of intense fear. The affected person may also have chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, stomach discomfort and fear of dying.

What are my obligations in this regard as an employer?

Under the law, employers have a duty to accommodate a person when their needs are based on one of the 11 grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act, to the point of undue hardship.

Employees with anxiety disorders are just as capable of making meaningful contributions to the workplace as anybody else.

It is important that you implement measures to support employees with anxiety disorders, or any other mental illness. Doing so will help improve employee performance, reduce staff turnover and absenteeism, and help you build an inclusive work culture.

How can I support employees with severe anxiety?

We recommend the following:

Educate staff about available mental health resources

Start by creating awareness about mental health issues in the workplace. You could organize talks, events, programs on the importance of mental health. Make sure your staff is aware of your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and that they can get confidential, one-on-one professional counselling through it. You can also share information about available government mental health resources.

Encourage staff to reach out to you if they’re struggling

Let your staff know that any conversation about their anxiety disorder would be confidential. Make it clear that being aware of the challenges they are facing will help you support them better.

Be supportive during such conversations

If an employee does reach out to you, make sure you listen to them carefully and patiently. Try to look at things from their perspective. Your moral support will be reassuring to your employee. Be flexible about accommodating their needs. You could also consider taking a mental health training course. It will help you notice signs of poor mental health and carry out productive conversations on such issues.

Make small adjustments

Minor changes to the work routine could help employees with anxiety disorders cope better. For instance, allow them to take their lunch when they feel the need for a break instead of at a fixed hour.

Ensure their workload is realistic and check in with them on a weekly basis to see how they are doing. You may also want to offer them the option to occasionally work from home, if possible.

Make sure the measures you put in place are regularly reviewed to see whether they are working or need to be tweaked.

Do you need help creating health and safety policies for the pandemic?

Our experts can help you develop company policies as well as with any other HR, health and safety, or employment advice you may need. See how we have helped other small and medium businesses get their business compliant with provincial legislation.

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