How to support employees with increasing health anxiety

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With clinical levels of health anxiety on the rise, employers need to consider how best to support those who are scared of getting sick.

Despite a significant fall in cases of coronavirus and the lockdown easing, fear of catching the virus remains high, with 15% of people experiencing clinical levels of ‘health anxiety’ – meaning fear of becoming sick has become a distressing and constant preoccupation for many.

For the most part, anxiety serves a good purpose, warning us of a threat and helping us to prepare for that threat, so it’s an important emotion that we need to acknowledge. For example, it means we follow guidelines on staying safe by not stepping onto a crowded train carriage if we can find another way to get to work.

The problem is that our bodies can’t tell when we’re just thinking worrying thoughts from when we’re actually being confronted with danger. So, if we’re constantly worrying about catching coronavirus the next time we go out, even while we’re safe at our desk or at home, we will be experiencing the same symptoms of anxiety as if we were genuinely at risk.

Employers looking to return people to the physical workplace, or who want to reduce coronavirus-related mental health issues, now have an important role to play in helping people to feel less anxious. Not least by ‘normalising’ anxiety by reassuring people that feeling anxious is a normal reaction to the abnormal circumstances we now find ourselves living in and encouraging them to talk about what’s making them anxious and share coping strategies.

Managers should be encouraged to show the caring face of the organisation by asking people how they’re feeling instead of just talking about work, and using group workshops to educate people how to recognise and deal with the symptoms of anxiety. These can include feeling sick to your stomach, rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, fatigue, trouble sleeping, reduced appetite, headaches and even panic attacks.

There are a number of practical things you can do to reduce anxiety levels, from limiting negative news consumption to talking about your feelings or finding an ‘anchor’ which pulls you back to the present and reduces negative thoughts.

For some people this might be listening to music, for others it might be going for a walk or doing a mindfulness exercise. Limiting caffeine intake, getting enough sleep, and taking deep breaths can also help to lessen anxiety.

It can also be helpful to reassure people that their health and safety will continue to come first and share the thoughts and rationale that have gone into the measures put in place to safely return people to the workplace, or by allowing people to continue to work from home or conduct meetings online where possible.

In the event that someone is really struggling with anxiety, they should be encouraged to talk to their GP or access free counselling through your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). In some cases, access to online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help them to understand how they can control their thought patterns to keep feelings of anxiety under control.

With data from the ONS showing that more than one in three (37%) people in the UK now have high anxiety, compared with 19% towards the end of 2019, there is now a risk that anxiety in all its forms overtakes stress as the main cause of absence.

The more you can do to normalise anxiety in general, and get people to ask for support before their anxiety has a chance to spiral into a more serious condition, such as depression, the better for both individuals and the business.

Louise Abbs is managing director at PAM Wellbeing

Further reading:

Test, track and trace in the workplace

Antibody testing could be needed to make employees safe at work

Returning to work could create a mental health concern for HR

Five things HR leaders should consider in return to work planning

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