According to Geller (2004), trait anxiety is a relatively stable personality quality that determines one's motivational and emotional responsiveness to circumstances. With those high in trait anxiety, typically being energetic, highly-strung, self-conscious over-strivers or failure avoiders, who are more nervous than average, they worry about being unsuccessful, and generally work under tension. In contrast, state anxiety relates to a particular situation or external condition in which a person finds himself or herself, and is therefore a more external experience of anxiety (Coleman, 2006).
This explanation of the state of anxiety is not dissimilar to that of stress which has been described as psychological strain generated by emotional, social, economic or occupational circumstances, events, or experiences that are difficult to manage or endure, and which reflects a wider process of interaction between the person and his/her environment (Cox, Griffiths & Rial-Gozalez, 2000). Since the experiences of both state anxiety and stress. Closely linked to external forces, circumstances and experiences, it can be argued that the experience of one could be misinterpreted or confused with the other and vise versa.
The prevalence of anxiety
The prevalence of anxiety disorders is startling. Epidemiology studies show that days lost to stress, depression and anxiety in the United Kingdom increased from 6.5 million in 1995 to 13.4 million in 2002 (Gyngell & Wessely, 2004). Furthermore studies conducted in the United States, Canada, England and the Netherlands concluded that anxiety, depression and simple phobias were the most prevalent disorders in the working population (Sanderson & Andrews, 2006). This high prevalence of anxiety is a major public health concern, with research showing that anxiety and related conditions are linked to increased heart disease, stroke and mortality from suicide, as well as absenteeism, presenteeism (lost productivity at work) and decreased quality of life and its many cost implications.
The costs of anxiety
The costs of anxiety can spiral exponentially if left unrecognised and unmanaged. Sustained anxiety can lead to depression, burnout and eventual withdrawal from the workplace. Should this happen, there is the compounding effect of lost earnings and missed opportunities for growth and career development, together with the related costs of medical and convalescence treatment (Schultz & Schultz, 2006).
From an industry and societal perspective, the loss of a productive resource can be extremely damaging. The absent person becomes a drain on medical and social support systems, whereas previously he or she would have been a positive contributor and a generator of income and wealth. Other less obvious tangible and intangible costs associated with higher anxiety include adverse effects on self esteem, wellbeing and key relationships (Byrne, 2000).
The relationship between anxiety and stress
As indicated earlier, the anxiety phenomenon can be confused with the experience of stress and vice versa because of, amongst other things, similarity in symptoms. It could be argued that a person with symptoms of anxiety, may consciously or sub-consciously choose to label these experiences as “stressful” – feelings and sensations caused by external stressors. Whereas, internal states and anxiety may be the cause of the symptoms. Moreover, since stress is traditionally associated with external forces and relatively positive connotations (I am stressed because I take on a lot of responsibility) and anxiety, is typically associated with internal forces and relatively negative connotations (I experience anxiety so I must suffer from some form of psychopathology), it is understandable and intuitively logical to see why “stressed” would be a more favourable label than “anxious” among this same group of individuals. Serious stigma and discrimination is a tragic reality facing people with any form of mental illness causing them to remain quiet in order to avoid a negative label (Stewart, Lips, Lakaski & Upshall, 2002).
Anxiety and its effects on performance and health
There is substantial evidence to support the argument that anxiety in excess can adversely affect performance and health. In this regard, Crowe and Matthews (2003), for example, showed that anxiety significantly impairs working memory with regard to verbal, spatial and central executive tasks. According to Peter Williams, director of the Executive Burnout Programme, the hormones cortisol and DHEA become unbalanced when people are stressed, affecting cognitive ability and resulting in irritability, forgetfulness and poor performance (Hanson, 2006). What is even scarier is the assertion that unmanaged and sustained anxiety can cause permanent damage to the immune, metabolic and brain functioning according to studies by Wetherell, Reynolds & Gatz in Booth, Schinka & Brown, 2006.
However where stressors are perceived as positive and challenging, effects on performance were more favourable (Cavanaugh in Fevre, Kolt & Matheny, 2006). The work by Hanton and O'Brien (2003) on goal attainment and anxiety reduction in elite and non-elite athletes corroborates this view that anxiety balance, control and control perceptions are key to optimising performance. They showed that it was the perceived ability to control stressors and balance anxiety that was critical to high levels of functioning - a finding consistent with the work on self-efficacy and resilience done by Bandura (Bandura, 1993).
Research by the author
A qualitative grounded theory approach to the research was followed by the author to probe anxiety (including anxiety management strategies), as personally experienced by a group of senior managers and executives, and anxiety's role with respect to workplace performance and health. Participants interviewed during the research process had different subjective experiences of anxiety with multiple effects and inputs. They did not share a single objective truth, but had different understandings, interpretations and explanations of anxiety and its role in the workplace. Consequently the methods followed in obtaining data about anxiety, the workplace, performance and health, and the related reasoning strategies that followed, were inductive and context-specific in nature.
Common to all participants was the existence of anxiety and action strategies adopted to moderate their impact on both work and home lives. Being senior managers whose functions required of them to perform, as well as to be “perceived” to be performing, notwithstanding substantial environmental stress, accountability and delivery pressures, all participants had management and coping strategies for doing this. These varied amongst participants and ranged from manipulating the environment, to minimising exposure, to seeking support and counselling, to building personal resilience, to enhancing self awareness, emotional intelligence and spirituality.
These anxiety management strategies are all well recognised in literature. For instance, Osca, Urien, Gonzalez-Camino and Martinez-Perez (2005) refer to the crucial role of social and organisational support when there is the expectation to perform at high levels in the context of significant stressors. Similarly Jones (2004) refers to key leadership qualities, such as resilience and high emotional intelligence, that are evident in high performance leaders and which provide a level of protection from the pressures typical of high level corporate positions.
In summary, for the senior managers engaged in this study, high levels of anxiety appear to exist and are:
Also evident from this research, is that:
The emergent theoretical framework for considering the dynamics of anxiety in the workplace is set out in figure 1 with a senior manager's current anxiety state, being the starting point (entitled “Anxiety is either higher or lower”). If this manager is experiencing higher anxiety for whatever reason, we follow the right hand side of the diagram headed “Higher Anxiety - A”. This manager is likely to have “Compromised Performance - B”, as well as “Worse Health – C” as a result of the higher anxiety. In addition, B then adversely affects C, and C then adversely affects both B and C in a vicious downward spiral of worsening health, compromised performance and higher anxiety.
In contrast, a senior manager with lower anxiety, as shown on the left hand side of the diagram, is likely to have “Enhanced Performance – 2”, as well as “Better Health – 3” as a result of the relatively lower anxiety. Furthermore, 2 then favourably affects 3, and 3 in turn favourably influences both 2 and 1 in a positive upward spiral of better health, enhanced performance and lower anxiety.
Not surprisingly, senior managers that are higher in anxiety will attempt to reduce anxiety (a transition to the left hand side of the diagram) by applying, amongst other things, appropriate anxiety management tools and strategies.
This study shows that higher levels of anxiety that “take over” are destructive and correlate negatively with performance, achievement and health, a finding consistent with much of the prior research done on anxiety and performance (Clarke, Davidson, Windsor & Pitts, 2000).
At lower levels of anxiety some participants acknowledged that anxiety, to a point, improved performance by providing, one or all of stimulation, motivation and direction. These findings are consistent with earlier contemporary thoughts around anxiety and stress drawing from Selye's (1956) influential book, “The Stress of Life”.
In conclusion then, it appears that anxiety amongst senior managers does adversely impact both performance and health in the workplace, with the effects being mostly negative, leading to self-fuelling downward cybernetic spirals of compromised health and adverse performance. Senior managers to a varying degree are typically aware of these impacts and endeavour to manage and minimise anxiety's potency and detrimental effects by adopting a variety of coping and management strategies to maintain high performance levels, protect health and enhance wellbeing while allowing benign levels to provide a measure of motivation and direction.
The research also raised the very diffuse yet close association of anxiety and stress and, on the grounds of social stigmatisation, it can be argued that a senior manager experiencing burnout symptoms would rather attribute these to stress than to anxiety. Having anxiety panic attacks will negatively affect the corporate image of an up-and-coming executive, as stigma and discrimination typically attached to those with any form of mental illness, and so much more so, for these leaders of industry (Stewart et al., 2002). Why society views anxiety amongst its leaders as unacceptable while considering stress amongst this same group as more acceptable and the norm, together with the deeper consequences of such preconceptions, are areas worthy of future research. In closing, it can be argued that if more work is done to acknowledge anxiety's existence and its effect at the highest levels of our industries, we as a human race could better accept, manage and possibly benefit from this most human of conditions.
View the asa website (www.Accountancysa.Org.Za) for references.
Eric Meyers CA(SA), MCom (Industrial Psychology), BA(Hons), BCompt, is a management and organisational development consultant, facilitator, instructor and coach, whose specialisation is in the finance, consulting and wellness industries. His key competence, passion and signature theme is overcoming anxiety to achieve high performance while maintaining a healthy, balanced and fulfilling life.
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