Giving Feedback to Employees with Anxiety: A How-To Guide

Here’s an increasingly common scenario:

It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for Molly to schedule her team’s annual reviews. She sends a 1:1 to Erica, and knows this is going to be a tricky meeting — Erica does great work, but she gets so panicked and overwhelmed that she’s been missing deadlines lately. 

Molly is concerned that any hint of negative feedback is going to be hard for Erica to take, and only exacerbate her work-related anxiety.

While you’ll find many articles offering advice to managers about dealing with their own performance anxiety at work, there’s relatively little about giving constructive feedback for employees who suffer from anxiety. 

In this post, we’ll break down the brain science behind anxiety, how it can play out at work, and tips for feedback on employee performance when anxiety is a factor.

Understanding someone with anxiety

Managing employees with anxiety is much harder if you’re not familiar with the neuroscience behind the condition.

Understanding anxiety starts with a basic fact that is true for all of us: safety is the brain’s #1 priority. Perceived threats (like losing one’s job and not making rent) can trigger destructive negative thinking, and even elicit a physical response (like increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure). 

An employee who has significant anxiety is often living in the “fight or flight” mode we experience when faced with a truly threatening situation — and will have that emotional reaction even if it’s above and beyond what the situation calls for. 

Work-related anxiety issues are more than just a classic case of email anxiety; signals from the area responsible for the emotional part of the brain — the amygdala — take over the cognitive function of the brain (which allows us to reason). Employees with anxiety have a far more active limbic system, which includes the hypothalamus and thalamus in addition to the amygdala, making it very hard to regulate emotional responses to something like routine constructive feedback. On an uneventful workday, an employee experiencing anxiety can have trouble focusing and feel fatigued (a sustained state of panic is physically and mentally draining). 

Recent research has shown just how many employees are dealing with anxiety at work. A survey by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) revealed that anxiety in the workplace affects up to 40 million Americans, with a third of adults having experienced an anxiety or panic attack. In another poll, nearly 20% of workers described their anxiety or depression at work as “debilitating,” with a rate almost twice as high for millennials. Workplace anxiety is tied to rising instances of absenteeism.

What can make anxiety a particularly difficult thing to navigate with performance reviews is the fact that anxious people grapple with criticism. People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) “are very fearful of being judged and being criticized,” as this “can feel like being under attack in a war zone.”

While managers may not be able to completely avoid an anxious employee’s feelings of rejection, embarrassment, and upset after hearing constructive or critical feedback, there are tactics that can help reduce the employee’s perception of danger.

The emotionally intelligent manager: How to give constructive criticism  to employees with anxiety

You can’t force an employee to learn how to take constructive criticism or how to deal with anxiety at work, but a combination of empathetic accommodations and useful behavioral health resources can make all the difference. That includes:

  • Creating a culture that normalizes mental health challenges. From addiction to depression, most everyone deals with a mental health issue at some point in their lives. When discussing performance, management feedback shouldn’t reinforce the misconception that our mental health is separate from our professional lives. At Total Brain, we practice what we preach — our executives openly talk about their own mental health struggles with workplace stress management and anxiety.
  • Schedule the review within a day or so of the actual meeting. Scheduling too far ahead in the future will give the anxious person more time to worry about it and play out negative scenarios in their head. The less lead time, the less room for buildup.
  • Listen more than you talk. Even if your company doesn’t include 360 reviews for management as part of its employee assessment practices, listening to what your employee has to say in response to constructive criticism will allow you to be more aware of their feelings — which can paint a more accurate picture of what the employee is experiencing at work. Having a dialogue and talking out challenges is always more helpful than one-way “conversations,” and can shed light on what, exactly, management can make better.
  • Watch your body language. Anxiety is about the perception of threats, and your physical presentation during difficult conversations can carry just as much weight as things like tone of voice and word choice. During the meeting, make sure your posture is relaxed, be mindful of your facial expressions, and make eye contact. If you’re concerned that you won’t be able to monitor those things, consider a phone meeting.
  • Serve the compliment sandwich. Even if you’re discussing areas where an employee can improve, keep communication positive. Our brains focus more on negative feedback than they do on the good stuff, so deliver more positive employee feedback than bad. Communicate their strengths, provide examples of jobs well done, go over areas of improvement, and then wrap up the meeting with encouraging thoughts about what they’re doing right. The compliment sandwich doesn’t mean skirting around important critical feedback (candid workplaces are happier workplaces) — just make sure the pros get enough air time.
  • Reinforce their psychological safety. After making a mistake at work, negative thought patterns can spiral out of control in a person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That’s why it’s important to help your anxious employees feel psychologically safe. When someone knows their thoughts matter, their contributions are valued, and that they have room to mess up at work, they’re happier. Even with the existence of hierarchies, everyone is working as a team — so make an effort to highlight the collaborative nature of your team throughout the evaluation process. Using phrases like “We have worked so hard on this,” “Let’s talk about..” and “I know we depend on each other” is one way to support psychological safety.
  • Focus on the problem, not the person. Work-related anxiety can really ramp up when employees are made to feel that they, as a person, are the problem, rather than that they are experiencing a problem. Going back to our opening scenario, Molly needs to address Erica’s habit of missing deadlines. Molly can ask Erica what is making it difficult to deliver on time — are there too many projects on her plate? Are directions unclear, leaving her to make guesses on process, or rmake excessive revisions? By framing an issue as part of a larger set of moving parts (rather than a personality defect) managers can reduce an anxious employee’s sense of feeling judged or criticized.
  • Check-in regularly. Consider establishing an open-door policy instead of only having quarterly reviews for employees. This gives anxious staff a chance to bring up stressors as they arise, making hurdles easier to overcome. Encouraging anxious employees to speak with you when they need to also mirrors the characteristics of a psychologically safe environment.
  • Supply the right tools. Each year, more workplaces opt to bring digital tools for mental health and overall well-being to their workforce. Aside from addressing the productivity issues associated with the rise in workplace anxiety levels, keep in mind that the ADA recognizes certain anxiety disorders as disabilities, depending on the severity and nature of it. That makes the employer legally obligated to make accommodations — like offering assistance programs — so that affected employees are able to be productive at work. Total Brain’s brain training app has proven to be an ideal resource for helping stressed and anxious employees be more resilient, whether it’s an improvement in accepting criticism or reducing anxiety when workloads are heavy. The app’s brain training games can strengthen users’ ability to think more positively, to focus better, and to self-regulate. And, the app’s library of breathing exercises, relaxing Neurotunes, and quick meditations make it a great go-to tool for reducing anxiety throughout the work day.

Interested in helping your anxious employees have a better experience at work? See how Total Brain can be a transformative part of that mission — request a demo today.

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