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Stress, Anxiety and Fear in the Workplace

Sue Paterson considers these three related emotional responses, all prevalent in many of today’s workplaces, and argues that it’s essential for leaders to understand what triggers them.

In  The Fear-free Organization, we discuss the key role emotions play in developing relationships and building trust. We know that triggering fear destroys trust, wrecks relationships, and is bad business practice. But what about stress and anxiety? Is there a difference and does it matter? Is it realistic to expect people to feel calm, cool and collected all the time?

Stress, anxiety and fear stalk organizational corridors

Although emotional and physical responses are similar in all three states, there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences between feeling stressed, becoming anxious, panicking, and becoming frozen by fear. Just as doctors need a common language in order to make and communicate diagnosis, so leaders and managers need to be able to keep their finger on the emotional pulse and get the right diagnosis when stress, anxiety and fear are around. A correct diagnosis will result in a successful action plan for treatment.

Stress, anxiety, and fear are important as they prepare the body to get ready to act in response to a threat. With the options limited to fight, flight or freeze, the body gets ready by increasing the hormone adrenalin, which raises muscle tension, and increases the heart and breathing rate.

Stress can be both positive and negative

Stress is what happens when something disturbs your equilibrium or causes a change to happen. The source of stress is called a stressor. This can be something physical in the external world, or something emotional generated internally because you sense something bad is going to happen. Take the stressor away, and usually the stress will go too.

The figure below shows the relationship between stress and performance (Human Function Curve, adapted from Nixon, 1982).


At just the right amount of stress, performance is optimal. There is a ‘comfort zone’ where you are coping well with the stressors you are experiencing. A little bit of stress is good for you: it can stop an offshore worker from making mistakes around dangerous machinery, ensure the bus driver drives safely, and the actor delivers an outstanding performance.

The ‘hump’ in the figure is the point at which the stressors start to have a negative effect: you are no longer coping well and fatigue sets in. Beyond this point, stress increases, and results in reduced performance. If allowed to continue, it will lead to exhaustion, ill health, and eventually breakdown. You become ‘stressed.’

Whilst the shape of the Human Function Curve is the same for everyone, each individual has his or her own limits for coping with stressors (the ‘hump’). Different people respond to the same stressor in different ways, and not everyone will be stressed by the same things. It is not the stressor that makes people stressed, but their response to it, and that is a highly personal thing.

At work, stressors such as losing a customer or the threat of redundancy can lead to better performance, though it depends on the individual. Whilst increasing levels of stress may work in the short term, in the long run it can only result in a deterioration of performance as more staff become stressed.

Treating stress at work involves identifying the stressors, eliminating them, and helping the individual to cope better with those that cannot be removed.

Anxiety is your attempt to keep safe by foreseeing danger

Anxiety is defined (Sadock et al., 2009) as an emotional response to an imprecise or unknown threat, for example the sense that the boss at work does not approve of the work you are doing. Anxiety is anticipatory and is usually based on an imagined threat, or one that has not yet materialised. Anxiety causes you to get ready to act and deal with the threat. In the same way that different people have different personal stress limits, the level of anxiety felt for a given threat is a very personal thing. Depending on the threats perceived, anxiety could become a general state of distress and last a long time.

Treating anxiety at work involves understanding the perceived threat, the reason for the individual’s response to it, and helping them to rationalise it to feel safe.

Fear is your attempt to keep safe by responding to danger

Fear is best defined as an emotional response to a known or definite threat, for example when the boss tells you he does not like the work you are doing and threatens you with some action. Fear can be triggered by either real or imagined threats – the brain cannot distinguish between the two – but in either case the important thing is that you perceive the threat to be definite.

Fear causes you to act and deal with the threat, but if no action is taken, the body remains in a state of readiness to act. Fear is your attempt to keep safe by responding to danger; the body’s fight or flight response is triggered, with physical changes including rapid breathing, increased heart rate and sweating. Your thinking, feeling and behaviour are all affected, because when you experience fear, you automatically focus on avoiding the threat.

Fear and anxiety are closely inter-related, and one can trigger the other. A past fear can trigger an anxiety in the present, as for example in cases of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. The danger is not an actual one, but it is anticipated or expected based on previous experience, and triggers an anxiety that anticipates danger.

Treating fear at work involves changing the culture and leadership style to one based on joy, excitement and trust rather than fear.

Understanding the differences between these three related emotional responses is critical to ensure that the right steps are taken in organisations so that staff can operate at their best, without feeling stressed, anxious or fearful.

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