How to Deal with an Anxious Boss

Anxiety is not fun for anyone.

Anxiety is not fun for anyone.

There’s something about the workplace that seems to make even the most relaxed people tense. Dealing with your own anxiety or that of a co-worker can be challenging enough, but when it’s the boss who has anxiety, this tends to affect everyone in the office. Worse, it can create a vicious circle: an anxious boss stresses out employees—which in turn increases the boss’ anxiety, and on it goes. What’s the best way to keep everyone calm, and establish a positive and productive work environment?

Expert Insight

There are indeed certain conditions inherent in many workplace atmospheres that tend to provoke anxiety—and this can be more prevalent the higher up the corporate ladder you go. “People in leadership positions, especially those who own their own companies, can be at greater risk for mental health and medical issues given the complexity and responsibility of all they have to juggle,” says Lubna Somjee, Ph.D., Clinical/Health Psychologist and Executive Coach. “Those in leadership have to be careful to manage their own anxiety, or other distressing emotions. Otherwise, these become contagious, resulting in low morale and productivity amongst employees.”

Anxiety as a General Concept

The term “anxiety” is often used as a general way to refer to behaviors that show signs of stress. “Anxiety is a physiological experience,” says Katie Playfair, LPC, CSP, counselor and workplace behaviorist at Playfair Consulting. “It's about that feeling of impending doom, where your body is preparing for something bad to happen. Worry and planning are common cognitive responses to anxiety. Stress or stressors are things happening in the outside world that put pressure on our system (physical, psychological, and social). Bosses can become anxious like anyone else for a variety of reasons. They may have a bio-temperamental predisposition to feel anxious or a cognitive habit of worry and planning that exacerbates anxiety.”

Whether the official diagnosis is actual anxiety (in the clinical sense) or just stress-induced panic and worry, the end result for employees can be the same: everyone is tense and on edge, and probably not performing at their best. The work of the team overall is likely to suffer, which in turn will just cause more stress.

How Stress Factors into the Equation

It’s no surprise to learn that stress is often to blame for anxiety at work. “Anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety, excessive worry, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, like diabetes, cardiac conditions and migraines, while not caused by stress, are highly stress sensitive,” said Dr. Sally Winston, Clinical Psychologist and Co-Director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. “This means that workplace stress can easily make things worse in both bosses and employees prone to anxiety. Long hours can lead to poor sleep, decreased exercise and haphazard eating habits. Too much screen time and not enough people time can be unhealthy. All these are risk factors for increased anxiety.”

Bosses and Anxiety

Are bosses more prone to anxiety? Not necessarily, although it depends on who you ask. Research conducted by the American Institute of Stress seems to indicate that work can be stressful for everyone—at every level of the company hierarchy. In one AIS study, 80% of workers said they feel stress on the job, and nearly half said they need help in learning how to manage stress. When things aren’t going well, though, it’s often the boss who feels the most heat. “Like all of us, bosses are hounded with external pressures, overwhelmed with information overload, asked to deliver more with less, work longer hours, and have less personal time for renewal activities,” says Antoinette Klatzky of Eileen Fisher LifeWork and Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute. “But what happens when company profits fall or something doesn’t please shareholders? The bosses must take the blame and they are often the first to be fired.”  

How Employees Can Help

For employees lower on the food chain, their feeling of a perceived lack of power can often contribute to workplace stress. Yet ironically, they actually have quite a bit of power when it comes to causing—or alleviating—anxiety for their boss. “It's important to put yourself in their shoes when you are working with a boss like this, and recognize your boss is likely having to juggle multiple demands from potentially multiple directions,” said Somjee. “If you are able to understand what contributes to your boss’ anxiety, you might be able to help quell some of it, whether that's by having the team double check something, helping to make sure soft and hard deadlines are being met, or keeping them in the loop on certain things.”

Minimizing Your Boss’ Anxiety

There are some basic, obvious things you can do to help avoid causing additional stress for your boss. “Not getting your work done on time is sure to increase any boss’ anxiety,” notes Klatzky. “Arriving late to work, taking long lunch hours and breaks - all these behaviors are sure to cause a boss to worry that you aren’t dependable. And if you aren’t dependable, the boss will come under attack from those above him or her.” So being a reliable, dependable employee who doesn’t cause your boss undue headaches can significantly reduce office anxiety Bottom line: the things that make you shine as a star employee will also help lower your manager’s stress level.

Staying Positive—and Productive

Anxiety and stress can be contagious, so it’s important to try and protect your own mental health when things get tense in the office. “The number one rule — remain calm,” said Klatzky “Here at Eileen Fisher LifeWork, every meeting begins with a minute of silence so we can shift into a relaxed state. Most of us have studied mindfulness and practice regularly. It works. Mindfulness is the ability to intentionally pay attention to the present moment without judgment. In other words, it is the art of cultivating the ability to be in control of our own minds instead of our minds being in control of us. When we face an anxious boss, mindfulness training helps us to not react in the moment. Instead, we pause and consider our options. If the anxious boss is asking us to do something that we can’t do, we would initiate a conversation about another possible solution. Offering another solution to a demand and inviting dialogue, usually diffuses the other person’s anxiety.”

Anxiety can have individual effects in each person, so it’s important to try different approaches to see what works best for you. Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends a multi-faceted approach for treating anxiety, both in and out of the workplace. Among the most effective treatments are therapy, medication, alternative/holistic treatments, and meditation.

Real-Life Example

Playfair offers this anecdote from her own experience as a case study about how anxiety impacts the workplace:

Early in my career, I worked for a boss, whom we'll call "Bob." I came to work for Bob as an internal transfer and everyone warned me that Bob did not like anyone he did not hire directly. I was convinced that if I worked hard to impress Bob and build a relationship with him, that I would be the first person he didn't hire that he got to like. I focused on the content of my job, yet at each check-in, Bob gave me poor feedback. So I tried harder and did the things he asked me to do. Still, he gave me bad feedback. I worked harder on the content of what Bob was asking me to do and the feedback just got worse. I left, never really knowing what happened. I later learned that Bob distrusted people he didn't hire and those who had relationships across the larger organization, especially with the executive team. I imagine given my previous role in the organization, I might have been a stressor. 

I did not have the experience nor the skills at that point in my career to ask Bob about what was really going on. Many years later, I would want to say to him, "I have really excelled in this company for the last several years I've been on the staff. I notice that my feedback suddenly worsened when I arrived here in your office. I keep trying to incorporate the feedback you've given me to make changes but I can't figure out what I'm missing. I find myself wondering what's going on and how our messages are getting crossed in weekly in-person meetings. What do you think about this?" I now know how to formulate questions that could have helped me understand Bob's world and that would have forced him to examine the fact that ultimately, he was sabotaging me and "forcing me out." I simply did not have the skills nor the tolerance of discomfort in conversations to effectively engage in that type of discussion at that time. 

Have you ever had an anxious boss? Were you able to find productive ways to communicate? Share what you learned in the comments so that others can try your techniques.