If you’re feeling anxious at work, you’re not alone. No one is immune from the intense emotional and physical symptoms that come from worrying about things that may or may not happen. But anxiety is manageable if you practice reframing it as excitement, says Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information, and decisions. “Anxiety is not a great place for us to live, yet that is where most of us reside a lot of the time,” Schweitzer said in an interview with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM channel 132. “If instead we can take some of the most acute moments and get excited, not only will we feel better; studies have shown that we actually perform better.”
Schweitzer said it’s important to recognize that workplace anxiety is pervasive, even though few talk about it. The COVID-19 pandemic heightened anxiety over job security and the economy, and there are lingering effects. “We need, as managers, to anticipate that our employees are often feeling anxious,” he said.
Schweitzer offered two simple steps for managing anxiety. First, try to recast fear and dread as hope and excitement. “When we’re feeling anxiety, we’re worried about things going wrong,” he said. “We can instead think about the ways in which things might go right. Imagine if this presentation went great — what would happen? Imagine this negotiation ended up better than I expected — what would happen? It’s high arousal, high activation with excitement, and our heart can still beat fast. We’re now just focused on opportunities.”
The second step is performing a ritual. According to Schweitzer, rituals help us mark transitions and give us a greater sense of control. In his online Nano Tool for Leaders on reducing anxiety, Schweitzer cites tennis great Rafael Nadal, who has used rituals to achieve focus before and during matches, including adjusting his shorts, pushing his hair behind his ear, and precisely arranging water bottles by the player bench. “Rituals can be an important part of our tool kit to help us navigate anxious times,” said Schweitzer.
The professor also conducted a study in which participants were asked to sing karaoke — “Don’t Stop Believin’,” by Journey — in exchange for a small payment. Their payment would be based on performance, which meant the less anxiety they felt about singing, the better they would do. Schweitzer and his colleagues invented a ritual for participants: to draw how they felt on a piece of paper, sprinkle salt on the paper, and rip it up. The experiment was repeated with different tasks, including taking a math test. In each case, rituals helped participants. “Telling people to calm down doesn’t diminish their heart rate, but going through a ritual does,” Schweitzer said.
He urged managers to identify anxiety triggers and figure out ways to “take the temperature down” in order to improve mental health, well-being, and performance for employees as well as themselves. “As managers, what’s really important is to recognize our own anxiety and recognize how anxious the people are around us,” he said. “They’re so anxious that if we could diminish their anxiety, they might perform better.”
Published as “When Work Leads to Worry” in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Wharton Magazine.