A panic attack is an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. A colleague experiencing a panic attack may feel unable to breathe, have shaky limbs, a pounding heartbeat and shortness of breath. They may feel as though they’re losing control or even think that they’re going to die. Most panic attacks last between five and 20 minutes and can be a symptom of prolonged unmanageable stress or a mental health problem such as an anxiety disorder or panic disorder.
Why is it important to help employees who have panic attacks?
Although usually short-lived, panic attacks can be terrifying and temporarily debilitating for the person experiencing them. As with any other physical or mental health problem it’s vital managers and colleagues offer support and compassion. The most important thing for co-workers to remember is to stay calm and listen. Try to think about how you feel when you are anxious, and how you prefer people to help you – for example by remaining calm and allowing time for the anxiety to pass. Putting yourself in their shoes might help you better understand how they feel when they're going through a bad time.
What kind of effect can it have on their work and wellbeing?
Panic attacks are usually over quite quickly, but employees will not be able to work while they’re experiencing one. They’re also likely to feel shaken for some time afterwards. How much of an impact they have on productivity and wellbeing also depends on the frequency with which they occur. As with any mental health problem, people who experience panic attacks are still able to thrive in their roles and make a valuable contribution to the workplace, but might need extra support.
A panic attack could also be symptomatic of a wider cultural problem. For example, employees who are regularly exposed to long hours, unreasonable targets, excessive workloads and/or prolonged pressure are more likely to develop a mental health problem, which could include panic attacks. That’s why it’s so important employers create a mentally healthy workplace.
What can employers do to help?
In general, creating mentally healthy workplaces involves promoting wellbeing for all staff, tackling work-related mental health problems, and supporting staff experiencing mental health issues. What benefits employees prone to panic attacks will also benefit the wider workforce, whether they have a mental health problem or not. Putting initiatives in place to promote staff wellbeing shows that you are a responsible employer who values their contribution and wellbeing. It also makes good business sense – organisations that look after their workers reap rewards in terms of increased staff morale, productivity and retention, as well as reduced sickness absence.
There are a number of practical ways employers can improve working conditions, which needn’t be costly. Small inexpensive measures can make a huge difference. Wellness Action Plans – available free from the Mind website – are jointly drawn up by managers and staff and identify what helps people stay well at work as well as specific symptoms, triggers and support needs, and agreed solutions if they experience a mental health problem. These tailored plans can be very effective as they recognise the fluctuating nature of mental health problems and the way they affect everyone differently. Even more importantly, the plans can facilitate constructive and supportive conversations about managing mental ill health.
The environment can have a bearing on our wellbeing too. Workplaces with lots of natural light, ventilation and greenery are best. Having a quiet room where people can go if they feel distressed is really important, as is being able to get outside in the fresh air, especially for those experiencing panic attacks. If it’s the workplace environment that is triggering panic attacks a reasonable adjustment could be the option of working from a different location. Similarly, if commuting is causing problems you could change start and finish times. Many people struggle with confined spaces and crammed conditions, so even adjusting working hours by an hour could make a difference.
Finally, regular communication between managers and their team members is very helpful. Having frequent catch-ups creates the space for employees to discuss any issues they are facing.
Emma Mamo is head of workplace wellbeing at Mind