how can I help an employee who suffers from anxiety?

A reader writes:

How can I help an employee who is suffering from anxiety? The employee in question is a very hardworking, very conscientious employee but she suffers from excessive worry and anxiety. This isn’t my diagnosis — she told me she’s taking advantage of our employee assistance program and getting help with it. However, part of her illness is that she worries — a lot — and doesn’t always have a good sense of perspective on what’s worth worrying about and what’s not. I understand this, as I’ve been there as well.

The way this manifests is that she frequently asks me if she’s messed something up, or made mistakes, and she seeks constant reassurance. I am very good about giving feedback, positive and negative, so she knows that I’ll tell her if there’s a problem. But I think the illness is clouding her ability to really accept that. So how do I work this? I don’t mind giving reassurance, but I don’t think it’s really helping. Is there something else I should be doing?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My coworker keeps answering all my emails in person
  • Should I let my friend know his references are terrible?
  • I gave the wrong answer about salary
  • Should HR prep candidates before interviews?

{ 92 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Roscoe

    As far as the question about references, I agree with Alison. I think a lot of people (myself included) use the word “friend” pretty loosely. If you really do consider this person more a friend than a former co-worker you talk to now and then, absolutely tell him. If he is just someone you talk to on occasion, since you are hearing this second hand and don’t even know what references, I’d be inclined to stay out, at least without more specific info.

    Reply
  2. KellyK

    This is a tough one, because if you get in the habit of providing constant reassurance, then she’ll worry any time she doesn’t get that. When she asks if she screwed something up, I’d ask if she had specific concerns about the thing she’s asking about. If so, you can address those. If not, remind her that if you find problems with her work, you’ll come to her.

    The reason I mention asking about specific concerns is that you want to head off general “Please reassure me that I don’t suck, because my brain is telling me I suck!” requests. But, you don’t want to discourage questions about stuff that matters. Like for example, there’s a difference between asking “Was the teapot design report okay?” and “What did you think about the level of technical detail in the teapot design report? I thought it might be too much, but they asked a lot of questions about spout dimensions on the last one.”

    Reply
    1. Lord of the Ringbinders

      “If not, remind her that if you find problems with her work, you’ll come to her.” Hmm. She’s constantly worried that’s about to happen. I think it’s better to focus on the present (have you come to her with a mistake? no? then she hasn’t made one) than what might happen, as it’s best to focus on concrete information/evidence that is definitely true or not true. You can’t argue with someone’s paranoid/anxious fears about what might happen.

      Reply
      1. Nabby

        I think the idea is to establish that “if i havent said anything everything is fine”. So no news is good news. Do you think that works/makes sense?

        Reply
        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

          Yep – took the words right outa my mouth – or keyboard.

          A positive reinforcement – once a week, saying, “hey, good job this week, Betty” or “I appreciate all you do – ” or “I’m glad you’re here! Be sure to relax this weekend!” Say something nice once a week.

          Of course, that won’t work with a managerial “I drink vinegar for breakfast” style, or trying to keep people “off balance”.

          But, OP, I don’t think that’s your style! You seem to be nice!

          Reply
        2. CanadianDot

          Ugh, as someone with loads of anxiety (seriously, my boss could have written that question…), no news is good news may sound all well and good, but my brain can’t process it. I’m working on it, but my brain weasels say that if I’m not hearing feedback, I’ve not done a good enough job. So ymmv, but for some people with anxiety, no news may just leave them stewing in their freak-ing out-ed-ness.

          Reply
          1. Bryce

            My brain does the same thing, but I’ve found that if I explicitly establish that with someone I can shut that voice up. It’s not something you can just assume they’ll understand from past context, because anxiety almost by definition doesn’t follow that logic.

            Reply
          2. Liz2

            True, but it’s unfair to expect a coworker to provide more than that. What helped me (in addition to Ativan) was actually working through the catastrophizing and realizing even if “the worst” happened, I was competent and supported enough to deal. In addition to a ton of other coping mechanisms I was learning and enacting and, again, chemical support.

            Reply
        3. KellyK

          Yes! “No news is good news” is definitely what I was going for. You still have to provide positive feedback when things are going well, but you want her to be able to assume that not hearing anything either way means her work is fine.

          Reply
      2. KellyK

        Yeah, I think your focus on the present makes sense. “If you had made a mistake, I would’ve come to you,” might be a better way to phrase it.

        Reply
    2. Evan Þ

      Maybe that’d be a good topic for the 1:1’s that should probably be regularly scheduled anyway?  OP could just start them out with, “You’ve done good work the last two weeks…”

      Reply
      1. CEMgr

        Some employees may need or want positive feedback much more than others, but I’ve never come across a human being who actively disliked it. Giving frequent, specific, positive feedback is a hallmark of great management (and can also make the giving of negative feedback, when necessary, somewhat easier). Even the best of us could stand to increase this type of communication. So I’d suggest using this as an opportunity to start giving X positive occurrences of feedback per day to every employee where it is merited. This could be the catalyst for dramatically improved performance and employee engagement group-wide. Doing it across the board will also feel better for the employee in question (i.e. none of the awkwardness of being singled out for special support).

        Also…….I wasn’t sure how the manager knew about the employee’s use of the EAP for anxiety. I’ll assume the employee herself gave this info. (If it was otherwise, I’d have an additional comment to make about privacy for EAP use.)

        Reply
    3. starsaphire

      For anyone else in this situation, here’s something one of my better supervisors did that helped me out:

      We didn’t have regular 1:1 meetings, so when he needed to talk to me about anything, from my annual review to a quick check-in about a project, he’d have to ping me and ask me if we could “chat for a minute.” He worked out from my body language that it was freaking me out every time, so he got in the habit of saying, “It’s nothing bad” or “It’s nothing serious” when those statements were true. Helped the anxiety issues a LOT.

      True, when he didn’t say it, I panicked like mad — but I also had a minute to prepare while we went looking for a conference room.

      Reply
  3. Lord of the Ringbinders

    #1 I have some advice to offer. If you have an employee with a condition like anxiety it can be really helpful to fill in a WRAP (wellness recovery action plan) which you both sign and which lists things like particular triggers, what helps and what doesn’t help. Are there any accommodations that would be helpful for her? (Constant reassurance clearly wouldn’t be.) For example, mine says that, where relevant and possible, my manager will talk me through what to expect and what’s going on as I don’t do well with suspense. It’s a good idea to set a date to review it as it can take some trial and error.

    You could talk together about exactly the process you will follow if she does make a mistake. Then, if she asks for reassurance as to whether she has messed up, you can ask her to consider what you agreed and whether that has happened. You could also talk together about what it looks like when she is doing okay/doing well. What does that look like? Can she look out for signs that things are okay rather than looking for signs that they’re not? This should come from a management perspective. You’re not trying to be her therapist. So make specific references to this context – her doing her job, you managing her – rather than talking very generally. And make sure it isn’t just: “here’s how I will tell you when you have SCREWED UP.” Make it clear it’s collaborative, e.g. you could talk together about how you might discuss things where she needs more help/guidance/input.

    If you don’t already, it could also help to give her a list of clear objectives (make them SMART), have regular catch-ups to talk through what is going well, and give feedback on positives. In a way this is also reassurance, but it’s a more constructive form of reassurance she can mentally ‘bank’ to refer back to.

    Sometimes people have anxiety about something because that is a purely arbitrary outlet/container – anxiety can just kind of stick to something in your life like marshmallow and expand to fill the space. Or (and this is the case for me) it may be that past life experience (whether in or out of work) taught her to expect constant disapproval.

    Whatever is happening, you can’t fix it. But you can put more information into her ‘stuff that challenges’ this basket. Being consistent and, as Alison says, having good boundaries will help.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      This may be a UK/US difference, but I really quail at most of that; it makes me feel like I have a therapeutic role as a manager, which is highly inappropriate.

      Reply
          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

            And what we’re suggesting is that in the US, this would be outside professional norms.

            Reply
            1. fposte

              Yeah, now I’ve dug a little deeper it looks like WRAP is a US-created protocol for self-management, and it looks really useful–but it’s an individual method of self-regulation, not a workplace thing to do with a manager. Looks like it’s expanded in the UK.

              Reply
              1. TL -

                Yes, I would be really uncomfortable if I was asked to do any of those things for a colleague – and I do some of them for my very closest friends.

                Reply
                1. Jamie

                  I have done many of these things for people I love.

                  The intrusion factor totally aside, it can be somewhat effective with those closest to us because we know them. We have a history and can read their moods and triggers in way that no one could do in a more casual relationship.

                  Most people who have been in this situation with someone they care about realized at one point they had been preemptively responding to the others triggers long before they even knew what was wrong.

                  Conversely no matter how intimate the relationship I’ve never known anyone who tried to help someone with mental illness or addition who didn’t get it wrong. A lot. Helping others manage their demons can make you long for the easy and carefree life of Sisyphus.

                  And being hyper vigilant about someone else’s issues and health is…not easy. It has times where it’s unbearably painful. We do it because in the end we care more about lessening their pain than avoiding our own.

                  Love drives that. Love is why we take on the hard job of helping them fight. And love is why they feel safe enough to (sometimes) accept the assist.

                  In the chaotic moments it’s so hard to get someone to accept feedback about their challenges when they know you love them and all you care about is their well being (and the well being of others you love being affected.) Being receptive to it from someone with whom your relationship is employee/employer and no matter how nice or well meaning doesn’t love them? How would that work?

                  The one thing every (good) therapist will tell someone is that they’re not responsible for the illness or choices of the person they love. Supportive is great and really necessary, but the second we think their recovery/management of symptoms is our responsibility and subsequently our fault when things get bad? Then everyone is screwed. And it is soooo easy to do…because if you’re a control freak without the struggles of mental illness and/or addiction of course you want to manage everything because then you can just create a project plan, set benchmarks, get stakeholder buy in then bang out some policies and procedures which when followed will address all the critical issues and mitigate risk.

                  The problem is as much as the person you love my genuinely want to get better mental illness and/or addiction give zero f**ks about procedures or logic or project plans. About as many as they give for love, loyalty, obligation. The person we love cares about those, desperately, but when their issues are not under control it’s hard to find evidence supporting that.

                  Apparently this has touched a nerve for me. Sorry.

                  TLDR: Managers should have a different type of relationship with their reports than with those they love the most deeply and happiness is made of boundaries.

                2. TL -

                  @Jamie – well, for me it’s more along the lines of “You seem stressed; you should probably talk to someone” or “yes, that is a crazy thought. No, it is not true.” I’m very low-key in my involvement with other people’s health but for the right friend, I will have one or two conversations where I tell them they seem way more stressed/out-of-character than normal. (and if I know they have an issue, I’ll be more likely to modify my behavior reasonably when asked.)

                3. Jamie

                  @TL – yeah, you have the normal response and I apparently fell down a rabbit hole of my own experience with this kind of thing which was a little more extensive than is typical. :)

                  Ignore me, I intended to agree with you that we’ll do stuff for people in our personal lives we shouldn’t have to do for colleagues and forgot to stop typing. :)

                4. TL -

                  @Jamie – no worries! Vent away. There are different levels of helping and mine are always with adult friends, the easiest to deal with.

          2. fposte

            That includes a plan for managers to “Ask if I have been for a swim or to the gym etc. or am going that week. See if I am eating lunch and getting some fruit or vegetables during the day, or perhaps drinking too much caffeine or alcohol.” That’s not an appropriate manager requirement in the U.S.

            I think the name of the plan announces its US problems–I am absolutely not involved in managing my staff’s recovery and wellness. I am happy to be involved in accommodations that allow employees to be productive. It’s possibly a subtle difference but a big one to me.

            Reply
            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

              Yes, this. Hell no, I’m not going to ask my direct reports if they’re getting their veggies or whether they’re going for a swim or if they’re hitting the sauce too hard. No, no, nope. We’ve seen letters to AAM from angry employees whose bosses do stuff like that.

              Reply
              1. paul

                I’d be livid if my boss asked if I was eating healthy because A: You just saw me eat biscuits and gravy so you should know and B: WTF boss, not your business

                Reply
      1. designbot

        yeah this feels like inviting your manager into your treatment, which can open up a whole can of worms you’re not prepared for.

        Reply
      2. Jamie

        I am going to start using quail as a verb because that is awesome…and just reading this froze me like deer in the headlights. I would be so uncomfortable with that type of plan or interaction I couldn’t be part of that.

        Clear list of objectives and touching base regularly for feedback are excellent ideas.

        Reply
        1. Jamie

          Hit send too soon…also even broaching something like this could NEVER come from a manager. A manager approaching work issues by incorporating the employee’s medical issue into a formal plan? Someone would be getting the labor attorney on the phone asap to mitigate the damage any place I’ve worked.

          Reply
          1. Lord of the Ringbinders

            It’s not about intrusively going into the medical issue. It’s about support needed in the workplace.

            Reply
              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

                Yeah. If there’s specific ADA accommodations required, that’s a matter for HR. It’d be highly inappropriate to discuss them in depth with one’s supervisor.

                Reply
                1. Jamie

                  Absolutely. And even if ADA didn’t come into play, if the accommodations are reasonable and within professional boundaries that’s fine, too.

                  It wouldn’t just be inappropriate to discuss with supervisor in this context, it’s a very slippery slope. You can have a great manager. great at their job who knows nothing of these kinds of issues and the risk of mishandling or unintentional insensitivity is huge. And to expect managers to be able to properly arm themselves with the knowledge to deal with medical issues which can manifest in wildly different ways from person to person is completely unrealistic.

                  Like they say, don’t let your therapist build your virtual server and don’t let your IT management help you with psychological treatment. That’s a good rule of thumb and applies to all departments.

              2. Lord of the Ringbinders

                You’re all misunderstanding what I meant by triggers. I meant triggers in the course of work. I give up.

                Reply
                1. fposte

                  I don’t think we are misunderstanding–we’re saying this isn’t workable in a U.S. workplace. The document you link to describes a protocol of individual workplace involvement that’s out of bounds here. It’s significant that while the WRAP concept originated in the U.S. it hasn’t become a workplace thing here, only a therapeutic or clinical one.

                2. TL -

                  I think that, for those of us in the USA, it’s reading as your work providing you the support that your social and familial circles should provide. That is a huge boundary crossing here (the UK could be totally different!) and most people would be hugely uncomfortable asking or being asked to do such things.

                  Even phrasing something as a trigger is harder to swallow in the workplace. Usually people are pretty good at modifying their behavior based on who they’re talking to, but writing an action plan around triggers feels to me like saying, “So-and-So’s mental health depends on me not ever doing X,” which is a huge burden to place on me! Especially if I’m stressed and tired and have to interact with So-and-So that day whether or not I want to.

                3. Jamie

                  I assumed you meant workplace triggers. That doesn’t reframe the argument for me.

                  I read through the PDF and agree with fposte that there are many good things in there for one’s own plan for self care and could be useful with a therapist but in the US there are things in here so problematic in the workplace it would be a major legal issue – but tbh I don’t think this stuff should happen in any workplace:

                  Regarding when a manager should make sure an employee takes time off:

                  Switch off your mobile and email It might help to hand over my work mobile during this time, so I can’t be tempted to make work calls on it. It might also help to agree
                  that I won’t check my work emails during this time. You might also want to check what
                  arrangements I’ve made with friends or family to hand over any credit cards and cheque books to avoid overspending (common behaviour during mania).

                  This was about how a manager can notice the employees early triggers and can be the difference between a few rough days (paraphrasing) and a longer much more serious period of illness.

                  What manager, anywhere, is competent to gauge triggers or helping head off a longer and more serious period of illness? I couldn’t do that – I don’t have the ability to do that and I’d be damned if I would bear the responsibility for that.

                  I may be taking on too much on weekday evenings and not getting enough rest. If you know me well, you could ask what my plans are for that week, and if they seem
                  unreasonable given my state of mind, then do tell me.

                  There is a lot of good advice in there for self care but the level of intrusiveness from an employer this would require seems actively dangerous to me. If this were required of me I could easily, with the best of intentions, cause great harm.

                  Not that I’ll ever work in the UK, but I hope this doesn’t stop people from seeking treatment. I wouldn’t ask for a single accommodation if it would open the door to this.

            1. Jamie

              I apparently an quick on the submit trigger today. If an employee requested accommodations that would be fine, and as long as they were appropriate for the workplace and didn’t place an undue burden on the manager to become involved in their treatment. I’m a big fan of granting accommodations when possible within professional parameters.

              It’s a manager referencing the medial issue in any type of workplace plan that would be a huge breech.

              Support is a lovely concept, but some kinds of support or offers of same are highly inappropriate in the workplace.

              Reply
            2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

              It’s both. Yes, an employee has a prerogative to request appropriate support from their manager; I have done so concerning my own hearing loss. But I’m with everyone else who’s qualing (doodle oodle oodle) from the idea of it being anything so structured, in depth, and documented as a “wellness recovery action plan,” and I certainly wouldn’t want to be discussing my triggers with my boss.

              Reply
    2. JMegan

      I actually think it’s a great idea! (I’m Canadian, if that matters…)

      You’d have to keep it very tightly work-focused in order not to stray into therapeutic territory, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t have a mutual list of expectations for managing her anxiety, and behaviours that help vs behaviours that don’t help. YMMV, of course, and if it’s not helpful for the employee then it’s not helpful, regardless. But I do think it could work really well for some people, in the right context.

      Reply
    3. MillersSpring

      1. I wouldn’t call it “wellness recovery”–that really is a manager inserting themselves into your treatment.
      2. I wouldn’t go into a discussion of triggers; let the employee tell you (as guided by their own therapist) what sort of help they need.
      3. A couple of accommodations and a process could be useful, e.g. “If you’ve made a mistake, I will try to alert you by end of day, but certainly by end of week, unless business reasons prevent me from doing so.” Also, maybe “When I see a process you need to improve, I’ll coach you accordingly.”
      4. Coaching her to “look out for signs that things are okay rather than looking for signs that they’re not” would fall too far into therapy not management.
      5. Objectives and regular catch-up meetings are good as long as they are performance related, not a progress meter on her personal management of her anxiety. If you regularly do performance reviews annually, consider doing a monthly check-in to assure her that her performance is good.

      Reply
        1. MillersSpring

          I meant that whatever conversation the manager has with the employee or steps she takes should not be formally called Wellness Recovery Action Plan or any similar language, because that very much sounds like the manager playing the role of therapist. I would be apprehensive if any of my direct reports asked me to participate in or agree to something called a Wellness Recovery Action Plan. It inserts me too far into their private health issues. Such a plan should be their personal activities with likely a therapist guiding them.

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    4. Rat in the Sugar

      I really disagree with this. As someone who suffers from anxiety and is regularly a Chicken Little at work, this would be the opposite of helpful. For one thing, it’s involving my boss in my personal mental health recovery in a way that’s really inappropriate–both because my boss doesn’t need to have that much personal info about my mental health and because it’s not my boss’s obligation to help me recover from my illness.

      Also, there is no WRAP you could put me on that would reassure me. There is nothing my boss can do to stop me from being a Chicken Little. That’s the thing about anxiety; it’s not a reasonable fear so reasonable responses just don’t work. My anxiety has me convinced that people pretend to be nice to me out of a sense of social obligation; even on this WRAP program I would still assume that my boss was only pretending to give me positive feedback. No matter what the terms of the WRAP were or how closely the boss followed them, I would still believe that my boss secretly hated me because my anxiety simply can’t be soothed by the actions of others.

      As much as I wish it were otherwise, no one can hold the sky up for me.

      Reply
      1. olives

        I agree with this: anxiety is not reasonable. Treating it as though it’s reasonable only feeds it. Every single time.

        I mentioned downthread that the things that my manager has done well are to deflect my requests for reassurances and only speak to the fact that he trusts me to do my job. That’s the extent of what anyone else could possibly do for me; the rest is on me to figure out how to believe what’s being said to me. But it *has* made an enormous difference to be in an environment that continually reinforces that trust.

        To me, that’s somewhere in-between this WRAP idea and treating them like nothing’s wrong – curious what others think though? WRAP def feels uncomfortable – I’ve been in meetings like this before in other environments and it only made things worse.

        Reply
      2. Oryx

        “No one can hold the sky up for me” might be my new favorite phrase. It’s so hard to explain Anxiety but using the Chicken Little reference is good. (I usually fall back on “It’s like being in a huge, large room with a million shoes hanging from the ceiling and I’m just waiting for each and every one to just drop at every single second of every single day.)

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    5. Kathlynn

      Depending on the person, a WRAP would really help. Especially if they got to keep a copy (or 5 ;) for back ups ). I know that it would be easier to manage my work anxiety if I knew that my manager would tell me when I wasn’t doing enough work or what I was doing wrong (if there was something specific). And having the sheet ‘in front’ of me would let me cancel my anxiety out (even if it’s just knowing I have the sheet).
      As for legal or management interference, line crossing. The EEOC does say this:
      https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html#other
      Must an employer ask whether a reasonable accommodation is needed when an employee has not asked for one?
      Generally, no. As a general rule, the individual with a disability — who has the most knowledge about the need for reasonable accommodation — must inform the employer that an accommodation is needed.(108)
      However, an employer should initiate the reasonable accommodation interactive process(109) without being asked if the employer: (1) knows that the employee has a disability, (2) knows, or has reason to know, that the employee is experiencing workplace problems because of the disability, and (3) knows, or has reason to know, that the disability prevents the employee from requesting a reasonable accommodation. If the individual with a disability states that s/he does not need a reasonable accommodation, the employer will have fulfilled its obligation.
      And near the beginning of the document this is shown as an example of a request for reasonable accommodation:
      An employee tells her supervisor, “I’m having trouble getting to work at my scheduled starting time because of medical treatments I’m undergoing.”

      And the WRAP type agreement doesn’t have to be a long drawn out document or agreement. This is how I’d approach it:
      scheduled a meeting with the employee, being open as to why (if they don’t want to have this type of plan, you can lay out how your behavior will be from that point on.) a “hey, you’ve mentioned having issues with [worrying about mistakes], I wanted to meet with you to discuss this, to ensure you are clear on how [things] are managed here. ”
      Then at the meeting. Be clear that this discussion involves work related issues only. Get a clear picture about what the issues are. Like “I can’t make announcements over the intercom without a script”, “I forget to write down what I’ve cooked”, or “I’m always terrified that you’re not telling me when I’m taking to long”.

      Then lay out how to work around these issues (like, getting a magnet for the cooking sheets). Write out the steps that will be taken when a mistake is made (big or small), etc. And lay out what will happen if the employee doesn’t follow the steps (like “I will respond with “remember our agreement” or “we already discussed this”)
      Heck, could be that the employee would benefit greatly from having access to manuals. Like I do from having the “what to make” lists, or other instructions. Even when I know what I’m doing. (Which is a big thing for me. I’m often asking “is there a list of that” or “is there instructions on how to do it” because of my anxiety. When I do things by myself, and it’s new, my anxiety sky rockets and I need to double check every step.)

      The goal is to give the employee something to counter their anxiety with (stupid insidious voices). Not just to help the coworker, but to decrease disruptions to both your own work and the other person/people involved.

      Reply
      1. Jamie

        However, an employer should initiate the reasonable accommodation interactive process(109) without being asked if the employer: (1) knows that the employee has a disability, (2) knows, or has reason to know, that the employee is experiencing workplace problems because of the disability, and (3) knows, or has reason to know, that the disability prevents the employee from requesting a reasonable accommodation.

        This part of the policy can’t be applied to mental illness.

        If you hire an employee who uses a wheel chair it is reasonable to expect the employer to know they need ramps and an accessible workspace, appropriate bathroom stalls, etc. It would be an absurd to claim otherwise.

        To assume that they know, or would have reason to know if workplace problems stem from a mental illness or if the illness prevents them from requesting accommodation? The same mental illness will manifest differently between individuals and differently in the same person at different times. Psychiatrists and therapists can have a hard time coming up with a diagnosis or always what’s attributable to the illness and what is not…to expect laypeople just running a business to be able to do so is unconscionable.

        Reply
  4. Amber Rose

    The key thing to remember is that you don’t need to help. Helping is what her therapist is going to do. What you want to avoid doing is aggravating anything, and unless you’re told otherwise, I don’t see that providing reassurance is going to make anything worse.

    If you find that it’s impacting you to provide that constant reassurance, you could gently bring it up with her that maybe she could work on toning it down a little. But the best thing right now is just to let her work through her treatment and manage her normally. With all due respect, you can’t fix this and you really, really shouldn’t try.

    Reply
    1. TheLazyB

      For me, providing reassurance *does* make my anxiety worse. I needed to learn to live with uncertainty and reassurance messes with that.

      Reply
      1. Nabby

        This kind of reminds me of the question from someone else about a coworker who I think had OCD – lots of people said that making things exactly as she wanted them (alternating male-female at one point?) was actually worse for her.

        Reply
      2. olives

        Yes! Exactly this, from someone who used to be 100% convinced that things would be all better if only someone were just monitoring every little thing I do and telling me which things were right…;)

        Reply
      3. Kathlynn

        I think there’s a difference between ineffective reassurance and constructive reassurance. Because the constructive reassurance gives you something to cancel the anxiety out with. While the ineffective reassurance just tells you it’s wrong, not why. Which is the difference from a WRAP and constant reassurance. A WRAP as described in the first post can have everything laid out, it gives you the ability to go “no, the boss said they’d do this if I did something seriously wrong” . While constant reassurance is only case specific, and gives no hit of whether or not an individual will act the same in the future (in this case, tell you if something went wrong)

        Reply
        1. TL -

          Constructive reassurance once or twice (or once or twice a year), followed by the manager being consistent with their words seems like a great idea.

          Constructive reassurance on demand or frequently seems like it would not be helpful and it would eat into people’s time on both sides.

          Reply
    2. TL -

      FWIW, I used to work very closely with Coworker A, who struggled greatly with being anxious and our management could not have been designed to aggravate it more. There were two of us he talked over his concerns with (and we were told by management that part of our job was to manage his anxiety, sigh) – Coworker B would spend much energy and time reassuring and pointing out all the things wrong with management and all the things right with Coworker A and his work and after at least 30 minutes, they’d exit the conversation both incredibly worked up and stressed out about management and Coworker A’s project.

      He’d come to me afterwards (he had a pattern), I would listen, nod, tell him, “I’m sorry. Management is unreasonable; I’m not sure what else to tell you but that sounds tough,” and, if he had further things to say, would listen and repeat, kindly but almost verbatim (he knew exactly what my response was in almost any given situation – he would tell me my response before I said it). He would calm down after about 5 minutes and I would not get stressed out.

      I don’t know about OP’s situation, but I spent about 3 months doing what Coworker B did – constant reassurance and explanations on demand – and found it stressful and severely detrimental to my working relationship. I spent a lot of time looking for better strategies and the one that I ended up using saved my working relationship and my sanity.

      Reply
  5. Bwmn

    For #5, I understand why Alison was irked by the HR questions – but I recently had a friend go through an interview process that involved about 6 total interviews. For one of the interviews, the HR team definitely prepped her with some tips around what to be well versed in and questions that might be helpful.

    It ultimately turned out that this staff member was a bit of a trickier interview and had certain questions she felt were vital to ask (i.e. What do you resonate with most about the Tea Pot Society’s founding history?) that had clearly thrown off qualified candidates in the past. In this case, my friend very clearly picked up on the interviewer being difficult and it put into context the prep that HR provided.

    Reply
    1. Sper

      For this one, I would assume every candidate was given the same prepping you were. There are several reasons a thoughtful recruiter might do that…I personally prep all my candidates with the same script. It is telling who listened and prepared and who did not. Preparation and planning is a big component of my jobs, though.

      Reply
  6. Lord of the Ringbinders

    I had a recruitment consultant try to prep me once. I got the feeling she had had other applicants be poorly prepared. I found it immensely annoying as I already had done my research and actually knew more about the company than she did.

    Reply
  7. anon today

    Re: the employee with anxiety- I have firsthand experience with a similar issue (OCD) and reassurance-seeking creates a bad feedback loop (operant conditioning) where the anxious person gets only temporary relief and is driven to seek more reassurance later. If reassurance-seeking becomes a problem, the literature suggests that the anxious person work out an agreement with family and friends to say something like “I can’t help you with that right now” in order to break the loop. Not that you’re in on her therapy sessions or anything, but it might be reasonable to say, “Look, Jane, I trust your judgment when it comes to this issue. I’ll let you know well in advance if it looks like you might benefit from changing course on this project” or something.

    Reply
    1. Alton

      Oh, yes. Feedback loops can be horrible, especially when you know you’re caught in one but have trouble getting out of it.

      Also, this is something that can be unhealthy for the people who are providing reassurance, too, so setting some boundaries is best for that reason alone.

      Reply
    2. Bwmn

      Completely agree with this.

      To take this out of the workplace, in a relationship if one partner lives in anxiety that the other will leave them – the second partner constantly saying “I’m not going to leave you”, saying it just one more time isn’t the issue. So shutting it down truly is helpful, and even if it provides momentary discomfort for the employee – it also helps raise a new focus point during therapy.

      Reply
    3. olives

      Oh good, I’m glad to see someone else has also benefited from the “I trust your judgment” feedback – even if it’s said huffily as all get out!

      Reply
    4. TootsNYC

      I think a manager might be able to say, with only mild sympathy / neutral observation:
      “Jane, you seem stuck in an anxiety loop. I hope you can break it–it’s so unfair for your anxiety to do that to you.”
      And then walk cheerfully away.
      Or, “That sounds like the anxiety talking.”

      My son was told to “talk back to the OCD monster,” to define the anxiety/OCD as something outside of him. And WE were told to talk about it that way as well–the anxiety wasn’t a part of him; it was an outside force, and it was mean and unfair.

      When he was having a tough time, we were supposed to be sympathetic to the struggle, and also mad at the OCD monster on his behalf. We were told to say things like that: “I get so made at your OCD monster–He’s wrong, and it’s really unfair.”

      So maybe alerting Jane that she’s exhibiting “anxiety loop” behavior would be useful for her, if she’s not able to recognize it.

      And then also pointing out that it’s a mean thing her anxiety is doing to her (and not the objective truth) might also help her see the anxiety as something she can (and deserves to) defeat. Even if only just for now.

      Reply
  8. Newby

    For #2: It might be easier if the OP didn’t ask questions in e-mail. Their coworker is sending a pretty clear message that they prefer face to face interaction. Instead of sending e-mail, walking over to the coworkers desk when the OP has time would prevent getting interrupted later.

    Reply
      1. Kyrielle

        Or when! I work an early schedule and will often send a query to a coworker around 7 am. Some of my coworkers come in around 9 or 10 – by then I’m usually deep in the weeds on something else (either another part of the same task, or another task).

        But yes, if asking in person *is* realistic, I’d do that. I really, really prefer email – but if this person really prefers face-to-face, then it’s to my advantage (and theirs, actually!) if I approach them when I’m ready for that, if the circumstances and question permit.

        Reply
    1. Jamie

      I’ve worked with people who hated email and preferred face to face for everything. I made an effort to meet more often face to face, but I don’t care what they preferred eliminating or even reducing email was never an option.

      We all have preferences and have to compromise at work. But not all preferences are equally valid.

      Email: creates record with time stamps of discussion, can be referenced, doesn’t demand recipient immediately drop what they are doing, recipient can gather necessary information (when necessary) before responding.

      Office Drivebys: Relies on memory of parties involved – one of whom was just suddenly interrupted needing to switch gears making it harder to recall specifics later, no written reference so more follow ups because memory, demands immediate attention, doesn’t provide notice to gather relevant info so often ends in having to get back to them anyway.

      I’m not saying they are always horrible, sometimes you’re walking past someone isn’t busy and it’s fine. If it’s an emergency always fine, grab me where I am. But popping my multiple times a day, every day, to ask questions that can handled more efficiently and quickly in email should be capital offenses.

      And if the perpetrator insists on starting every single interruption from the first to the 19th with, “How are you? How has your day going?” instant beheading should be legal and customary.

      Reply
      1. Newby

        I agree that e-mail has many advantages, but the letter said that just walking over was the norm in that office. If the office culture is heavily tilted towards in person interaction, it makes it much harder to get a coworker to stop completely or even see it as a problem.

        Reply
    2. Not Karen

      Why is the coworker’s preference for face-to-face interaction more important than the OP’s preference for e-mail?

      Reply
      1. fposte

        It’s not about what’s more important, it’s about what will solve the OP’s problem. If it’s easy for her to walk over at the time of her own choosing and that prevents the co-worker from interrupting her, that might be a way to solve the problem. (I don’t know that it will–a lot of people just pop over when a thought comes into their heads–but if it does solve it, it makes more sense than waiting for the co-worker to change.)

        Reply
        1. Jamie

          Maybe I’m jaded by my experiences with the every time there is a thought in their head types, but I think catering to that personal preference can contribute to a culture where constant interruptions are the norm. And the OP works on stuff that requires focus and it will be harder for her to try to get people to communicate in a way that doesn’t interrupt her work if she’s also interrupting others on a regular basis (no matter how pragmatic the intent.)

          I’d do it sometimes with mine and they’d light up, so excited I dropped by to ask them something.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            I do actually know people who would put me on the rota as a stop during break and would be fine forgoing that if I stopped by their office earlier instead, so they exist. I was mostly trying to reframe this as something other than a “whose communication style wins” contest, because given that the OP is the office outlier in not liking this style, she’s not likely to win.

            Reply
            1. Jamie

              I am sure my fear of escalating is past trauma and the scars on my tongue from having to bite it to keep from losing my job. :)

              And much of this depends on the info being asked for – if I can toss off a quick answer it barely registers as an interruption. If it’s highly technical or involved and I’m put on the spot and have someone standing there staring at me while I search for the info to answer their question …that’s how I became pro-beheading.

              There is definitely a middle ground here and I would make concessions for office culture in a way I wouldn’t for an individuals personal preference for this kind of thing.

              Reply
  9. BTW

    I don’t have any advice but I just want to say how happy I am to hear that you care enough about your employees to broach this subject. A lot of employers wouldn’t. As someone who suffers, you are the best kind there is! So thanks!
    (My employers are equally as supportive)

    Reply
  10. Mimmy

    If I didn’t know any better, I’d think OP#1 was referring to me! It sounds like the OP and employee was doing all the right things–manager reassures employee about her strengths, employee utilizes the EAP services available. I’ll add that maybe the OP could ask the employee if there are any specific areas she feels nervous about, e.g. answering certain types of questions from callers, writing certain types of reports.

    This has been a lifelong issue for me, particularly with one job I had about 10 years ago. It didn’t help that my manager was often coming back to me with critiques. Sure, that’s normal for a new job, but it just felt like I wasn’t doing ANYTHING right, which led to me constantly second-guessing myself. I’m waiting for a start date on a new job, and I am hoping, PRAYING, I don’t come across this way.

    Reply
  11. Den

    The anxious person sounds just like me, but am a guy and don’t utilize any wellness services. Always worried. Always thinking I’m doing something wrong, despite working at the same place for a few years. And I don’t let myself take compliments in work thinking what I do is nothing special or people overrate me. I try to keep quiet and hold myself back a lot on with my cool supervisors, even if I’m sad and anguishing on the inside and they rant to me or to other staff about their problems.

    I don’t have any advice on how to overcome it since I’m dealing with this on what feels like a lifetime, but can strongly sympathize and kudos to the OP for being real supportive.

    Reply
  12. olives

    As someone with a whole lot of anxiety, I think the OP is doing the right things – but one thing I’d say is that if you’re trying to accommodate the anxious employee by acting patient about giving feedback, stop that immediately.

    Giving the positive / negative feedback the employee thinks is necessary reinforces only one thing: that their fears are right, and they can’t trust their own judgment. That’s definitely not what you want out of them – you want less of the behavior, not more, over time.

    The best possible response you can give is one that a) reinforces the employee’s judgment, b) reinforces their trust in you as a manager, c) reinforces their sense of safety at work.

    Here’s how my current manager has handled it when I’ve been desperate for feedback, or acted like something relatively small is a world-ending problem or firing offense:

    – Tell me clearly when something *important* is wrong, and when and where I need to improve. (Conveniently, this is what you ought to be doing for any employee, anxious or not!)
    – When I look for reassurance / feedback on minor things, go ahead and express whatever surprise / confusion / irritation they’re feeling! (e.g., “Why are you worried about it?” with genuine mystification on their face. Whatever my response, they usually say something like, “Just remember that whatever you do, we have your back on this,” or, “You can trust me to tell you if things aren’t going well – I trust you to take care of things the best way you see fit.”)

    It doesn’t always sink in, but over time, I’ve become a more confident employee after repeatedly having this sort of interaction. What I’ve learned from this is that part of my job is making choices, *even if* they’re “mistakes” (or not what someone else more experienced would have chosen), because I was hired *specifically* to take that kind of work off my manager’s plate. Me doing the job less well than them still frees up their time to focus on more important tasks.

    The short of it is: *Don’t play an anxious person’s game.* It’s tempting, when you’re a nice person, to reassure someone who seems distressed. But they’ve likely been dealing with this anxiety much longer than they’ve known you, and no amount of positive or negative reassurance until now has helped! Focus instead on demonstrating that you have no reason to question your trust in their ability to do the job in the first place.

    Reply
    1. Jamie

      I have worked with a lot of users over the years new to computers at work and clearly anxious in training (not saying they had overall anxiety, but some would visibly shake in early training and expressed abject fear at making a mistake.

      I’d smile, tell them to breathe (some actually hold their breath out of fear and that unnerves me) and tell them the big IT secret that I don’t give anyone access to do the kind of damage they are afraid of causing. That I expect all users to make mistakes and there is nothing they can do that can’t be easily fixed. Unless their computer problem was caused intentionally, by them, with a hammer…we’re good.

      And then I mention some mistake I made recently laughing at myself so they know I don’t expect anyone to be 100% error free, just honest about it so we can fix it asap.

      And toss in some stuff about how many people are super nervous and I have no doubt they’ll get this and be comfortable in no time. And I’ve never been wrong on that.

      I did that every time, to the point where I’d sometimes hear other employees (always former anxious new users) repeating it almost verbatim telling people to relax and just tell Jamie since “you didn’t use a hammer she won’t get mad.” Ha.

      So while it’s different for people with more global anxiety the similarities to dealing with situational anxiety seem to be expressing confidence in the person’s abilities and letting them know mistakes will happen and so will fixing them – nbd.

      Reply
      1. olives

        I really like that way of handling it! And I totally agree – much of what causes anxiety in the first place is just not having the fundamental belief that it’s okay to get things wrong once in a while, and that making a mistake here or there won’t call your worth into question. So sharing that belief can make a huge difference.

        Reply
  13. Worker with anxiety

    I have a fairly severe anxiety disorder. Honestly, when I’ve had good managers, it’s been mostly a non-issue at work (not that it goes away per se, but it’s no worse there than in the rest of life, and I manage that with the help of my doctors, not my work manager).

    Mostly I just want my manager to be predictable and follow good management practice. For example, I want to get feedback regularly–meaning that I want to always get clear and actionable feedback when there’s a problem, and regularly get acknowledgement when I did particularly well at something. Not that I’ll get constant feedback on every little thing. Good managers do that for everyone anyways, so no special treatment needed!

    I do NOT expect (or want!) my manager to try and eliminate my anxiety at work. I have anxiety everywhere, all the time, and have for my entire life; for me at least, getting rid of it is an improbable goal, and possibly straight-up impossible. I’m just looking for a consistent, predictable management style where I can trust that I’m getting the support and feedback that I need, so I’m not trying to manage my illness on top of already-unsteady ground.

    Reply
  14. Junior Dev

    For the employee with anxiety, I think one thing that might help is to get in the habit of giving positive or neutral feedback when the opportunity presents itself. Just little things like “thanks, good work!” when they hand something in (that does actually appear to be good work). And if they really do go above and beyond in some way, let them know you recognize and appreciate it.

    I’m not talking about praising them for basica stuff like showing up on time, or stuff that could be seen as condescending (eg the recent LW who was annoyed the boss was praising her admin skills when that’s not what she wanted to be doing), and I know it can be a tough balance to strike, but if you can let the employee know things are going OK in general, outside the context of reassuring them they’re not terrible, I think it can help a lot. (I have anxiety and it makes me feel a lot less scared about my job when someone gives me a quick “thanks!” Or “good work!”)

    Reply
  15. LH, not real initials.

    I know this sound like I’m making a large assumption but due to context clues and my own current situation I’m pretty sure that I am(or was?) the OP’s Employee with anxiety, any idea how to reach out to Original Poster?Actually If I’m right not sure if OP/she would want me to know. I’d say the industry, but I’d be awfully narrowing, assuming if I’m right but I’ve always been keen to details and way too blunt, despite/perhaps in part bc of anxiety. There’s SEVERAL CONTEXT CLUES in this letter alone, or maybe that’s the Social Anxiety talking. However the date of this February 22nd yeah I’m aware this could be a longshot, by the way I’m female, my OP would probably be female, but haven’t AAM written about people guessed correctly before, though I know that this is a broader subject but the TIMELINE is so similar to my own situation I have to ask, AAM ?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      This is a reprint of an old letter; it was originally published in July 2013. So if you’re relying on the February 2017 date, that’s probably throwing you off.

      Reply
  16. LH, not real initials.

    And no I don’t mean to sound accusing just incredibly curious. Setting that aside I’m personally definitely helped by all of ya’ll’s comments on how to help OP’s employee, put’s a lot in perspective .

    Reply
  17. LH, not real initials.

    Also it’s not in technology, per say despite my use of industry. So how’d it work out OP or is it still a work in progress ?

    Reply
  18. LH, not real initials.

    Also anxiety can come off as not knowing the right way to say things so they repeat the same thing over, or re-analyze and criticize their own thoughts and words, comes off as either OCD or atlas incredibly Perfectionistic , when it’s just hard to control anxiety,. One example being my writing of 3 different posts when I should have collected my thoughts to write one slightly long one. Good luck everyone. Definitely been working on mine lately and realizing how it can affect more than myself, the anxiety other wise it’s encouraging to see how empathetic the OP seems to be.

    Reply
  19. LH, not real initials.

    Never mind although even in the older, 2013 timeline it could be me, just a different manager.

    Reply

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