Coaching Employees Through Anxiety
Anxiety can come up as a coaching issue in several different ways and take many forms. Whatever your practice, you need to be able to recognize when the anxiety that the employee is experiencing is best addressed in a different professional context. Particularly when working in an organizational context, you need clear and transparent three-way contracting around confidentiality and the action you might take if you believe well-being or safety is endangered. It is vital that you have good professional supervision in place, where you can go to seek guidance and support in dealing with issues such as these.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety creates a state of body and mind, often referred to as ‘fight, flight or freeze’. It evolved as an appropriate and safe response to future threats that we could and should avoid. But it is often unhelpful in the modern world and particularly damaging when it becomes chronic or when the anxiety trigger is unavoidable.
In most cases, as coaches in organizational practice, we explore employees’ anxiety in the context of a transformation that they are seeking to make in their impact, performance, career or work satisfaction. Anxiety will come up as a way of being, thinking and feeling that is disabling them from reaching their goals and may be limited to particular situations, challenges or relationships. However, particularly in recent years, anxiety can be at the heart of the transformation that people are seeking to make. They find themselves in situations where they feel constantly anxious but don't know what to change or haven't found a way to change that enables them to escape the grip of that feeling.
Coaching the mind
Traditionally, coaching has focused on exploring thinking and retraining thinking habits. If you are working with an employee experiencing anxiety, the problem can be that their capacity to think and to retrain their thinking is hampered. And so, an effective way to start is by helping the employee work with their body and emotions to reduce the impacts of anxiety, as well as shifting their thinking patterns as needed. Simple breathing exercises or a short mindful meditation can help clear their mind, especially if they suffer from constant low-grade anxiety or are preparing for a specific situation.
Helping employees get out of their heads and into their bodies can be a valuable way of re-framing anxiety. Many people believe fallaciously that what they feel is created by what they think. The truth, however, is that thinking, feeling and physical state all impact each other and simple shifts in physical state can create a new frame of mind and emotional one. I might ask the employee to close their eyes, focus on their body and locate where they feel anxiety. I will ask them to describe that sensation and the discomfort that it creates. We can explore and experiment with what they would need to do physically to ease that discomfort. We can then develop actions or little exercises that can help. For some employees, that might be changes in posture or physical movements; for others, it's as simple as getting up from the desk, going outside and having a walk.
Exploring anxiety at work
I notice that some individuals are taking all the responsibility for their anxiety onto themselves or putting all the blame onto others or external situations. In most instances, neither of these extremes is correct. There will nearly always be something the employee is experiencing as a threat to their future safety and is triggering their anxiety. That threat is rarely to their physical wellbeing but is much more commonly a social threat. Frameworks and models such as David Rock’s SCARF® model of psychological safety can be helpful in getting the employee to explore what the threat is, and then to look at how they are interpreting and responding to that threat.
Exploring anxiety makes us vulnerable, and it is essential that, as a coach, you don't allow your own perceptions and biases around the employee and their situation to interfere with their thinking. You want to hold a safe space where they can expose their own thinking to themselves and improve or change it entirely. During the session, I ask clear questions and use techniques such as silence and deep listening. I’m always looking out for inconsistencies and assumptions that need to be challenged and for statements with keywords such as “always”, “never”, “should” and “can't.
I also get employees to look at what lies behind their fears and the actual future consequences of their worst fears coming true. So, for example, an employee might be paralyzed by a fear that they won’t deliver on a particular deadline and, as a consequence, they will be poorly rated by a manager which will mean that they lose a promotion or even lose their job. I would almost certainly explore whether all of that is true or likely, but I might also ask what would happen if it was all true – would (as individuals may unconsciously fear) the result be homelessness and destitution? Or, actually, would they just need to get another job? How easy would that be to do? By making these unconscious ‘catastrophizations’ conscious, employees may be able to escape the anxiety they create.
Changes for the future
In some cases, by doing this kind of work, we identify an ingrained habit of anxious thinking triggered by particular fears or situations. Making this conscious is not enough to stop it, just as being conscious that you should exercise more doesn’t necessarily mean that you do. We might then work to retrain the habit by identifying the trigger, constructing a new desired response to the trigger and practising until that becomes the habitual response.
For many individuals in the grip of anxiety, one of the issues is that they’re not identifying the resources and support that they have around them. Coaching can help them to identify what support they already have, the people they can reach out to, or how to access further resources. This not only helps them to deal with current anxieties but also makes people more resilient for the future.
Other individuals identify that they need to change something in their environment. The job of the coach then is to help the employee to understand their agency; what can they change, what are their choices and how to make good and effective plans. This can take time. It is therefore important to help them put in place mechanisms to allow them to deal with the anxiety that is being created by their environment while they're making the transition.