How to Find the Right Job If You Have Anxiety

Turning on lights involves detective work, internal and external.

Turning on lights involves detective work, internal and external.

Finding a "healthy" level of stress can be a challenge.

The workplace can often seem like a minefield of stressful situations. But for those with anxiety, there are certain roles or work environments that can be particularly problematic. Knowing which jobs or atmospheres are likely to trigger or worsen anxiety can help you avoid a workplace that could end up being toxic.

Roles That Could Spell Disaster

Certain jobs or job duties are especially anxiety-inducing—and you probably won’t be surprised at some of the biggest culprits. Roles that involve dealing with the public or juggling multiple tasks in a fast-paced setting are inherently stressful, and could prove mentally and physically grueling for those with anxiety.

Carole Lieberman, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror, cites some examples of jobs and workplaces that could be challenging for those with anxiety:

  • jobs with tight deadlines, like daily newspapers.
  • jobs where people’s lives are at stake, like surgeons or nurses.
  • jobs in places that were sites of past terror attacks, like the offices where the Twin Towers once stood.
  • noisy environments, from jobs at or near airports to subway conductors.
  • mental health professionals treating people with serious, confrontational or hard-to-cure problems.

On the other hand, there are roles and workplaces that could be soothing, and help establish a calm setting. These might include:

  • jobs that involve working with nature, like forest rangers or beach sanitation.
  • jobs that are located in nature, like an office overlooking a lake.
  •  jobs with low time constraints, like artists or sculptors
  •  jobs in a very friendly supportive environment which fosters creativity.

How the Boss Fits In

Susan Kuczmarski is the co-author (with her husband, Tom Kuczmarski) of the leadership book Lifting People Up: The Power of Recognition, to be published in May 2018. She says there is one critical element of a workplace setting that can make all the difference for a worker with anxiety: the boss. “The boss should be a person who nurtures lots of leaders, shares leadership, promotes continuous learning, encourages employees to perform at their maximum potential, nurtures personal development and expansion, and promotes open dialogue. Stay away from a control and compete type boss.”

Certain personality traits will make a manager more likely to support and motivate an employee, including those with anxiety. “Of critical importance is the ability of the boss to listen, include, free, trust, use rewards, and praise. Leaders who are best with high anxiety employees use praise to generate personal growth, understand that a culture of praise is essential, mentors managers on how to give praise, knows that praise is the fuel that fires-up the team, and finally, praise for curiosity and moving forward. Bottom line: praise makes people feel valued. Accordingly, stress is reduced.”  

Spotting Your Own Triggers

For any employee (whether they have anxiety or not) assessing your individual skills and challenges, and then zeroing in on jobs that align with your strengths while causing minimal stress, is a smart approach to identify a role in which you will shine. Serena Houston, MA, LPC, of the Wellington Counseling Group in the Chicago area, advises people to do an honest self-assessment, keeping past triggers and common stressors in mind.

“Pull from your past experiences at work as well as in your everyday life. Identify what has triggered you in the past, and consider whether those triggers will likely occur in the prospective job/workplace.” Taking stock of your own habits and preferences can help you spot any potential red flags. “Consider what you don't like, what has triggered stress/anxiety in the past, and personal areas for growth. Working in an environment where these variables are prominent will more than likely induce a lot of anxiety.”

Investigating the Workplace Culture

Hiring managers aren’t necessarily always forthcoming about the most challenging or demanding aspects of the job, so you may have to read between the lines or do some detective work. “During interviews, ask questions about work dynamics and/or culture,” Houston suggests. “Try to observe the environment as well as inquire with other employees; if you are given the opportunity to do so. Pay attention to keywords provided. For example, ‘fast-paced’ could be a warning sign.” She also recommends being attuned to nonverbal clues. “Pay attention to body language. Those who appear friendly, happy, and/or excited are much more likely to enjoy their job than the person who appears cold, short, or annoyed.”

A Real-Life Example

Kelly Clay has been living with anxiety for years. “At 32, I’ve been struggling with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder since high school.” She has also followed an interesting and wide-ranging career path, involving many different roles. “I’ve worked nearly every top of job imaginable: fast food, retail, a 9-to-5 office, freelance writing—which has taken me all around the world and to hundreds of conferences—and most recently, the front desk of a hotel. Some of these jobs have been more suited to my unstable emotions, and others an inherent trigger.”
By carefully observing how different roles affect her mental state, Clay has been able to identify some trends. “I’ve realized that jobs that lack structure—the retail and hospitality industries, especially—are more prone to cause panic attacks and create stress that affects my body in ways such as insomnia, increased depression, and even things like intense heartburn to the point I’ve projectile vomited my own acidic saliva,” she says. “I thrive on a calm atmosphere, a solid team, and a supportive manager who has my back—no matter who makes the mistake, if the phone doesn’t get answered, or if I’m going to be late because my medications make me groggy and I need to hit snooze one extra time.”
For Clay, a flexible situation that can accommodate her needs on a given day is key. “I’ve embraced my life as a freelance writer because I can work on my own schedule,” she says. “If I’m not doing so hot, maybe I’ll just focus on answering emails and send out pitches, or enjoy the sunny weather and dedicate the day to my mental health. Sometimes this means I have to write my heart out until midnight on a Saturday - but that’s the kind of life that makes sense for the swings my emotions and motivation go through day-to-day. I’ve been able to sustain it for nearly a decade, except for the few months I yearned for benefits and PTO. In hindsight of those days behind a hotel desk, the control over my day—and how my emotions can dictate it—is far more important than any fringe benefits. The stress, the chaos, and the negative impact on my health are not worth it.”

Have you worked in a place that exacerbated your anxiety? What helped? Share your thoughts in the comments below.