Performance Anxiety at Work

Written by: Jacqueline Osgood-Renouard – BA (Psychology)

Last updated date : March 23, 2022

Is it time to hand in that project? Or time for a big presentation or your yearly review coming up? Performance anxiety at work can send our heart in flutters and make our stomach knot itself so tight we feel a little nauseous! Sometimes it can get to a point where just talking to colleagues or getting simple tasks done sends us into a kind of panic. So, what kind of coaching for improved work performance do we need?

Is it time to hand in that project? Or time for a big presentation or your yearly review coming up? Performance anxiety at work can send our heart in flutters and make our stomach knot itself so tight we feel a little nauseous! Sometimes it can get to a point where just talking to colleagues or getting simple tasks done sends us into a kind of panic. So, what kind of coaching for improved work performance do we need?

The truth is that more people than you may think become anxious at work. Company directors can struggle when talking to big clients, right down to the receptionist picking up the phones. Although the first instinct might be to get rid of the anxiety. Sadly, anxiety is a normal part of our nervous system.

We may not be able to take out our performance anxiety, but let’s look at what it is and how to cope with it better.

Performance anxiety is a blend of worrying about judgement from your peers, fear of failing and overthinking small tasks. When performance anxiety at work strikes, it can affect our productivity, cause us stress, and hurt our mental health.

Some symptoms of work-related anxiety are:

  • Racing pulse and quickness of breath
  • Sweaty palms
  • Dry mouth
  • ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach
  • Stuttering or stumbling over words
  • Nausea
  • Hyper aware of our body or facial movements
  • Forgetfulness
  • Inability to focus on tasks
  • Fatigue or insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Irritability

Whether related to a talk you need to give in front of a crowd of judging eyes or simply to become too nervous about speaking up in meetings, judgement is the most significant anxiety factor. When we lose sight of the task at hand and focus on what others think of us, it leads to those overthinking cycles that can make us very drained.

Instead of placing the focus on how you will perform, whether those around you will judge or critique your work, instead focus on giving them the information they need. We are all natural storytellers with friends and family members, question why work should be any different?

Deadlines

Deadlines as a cause of workplace stress has a whopping 55% in a Workplace Stress & Anxiety Survey done by the ADAA. I’m sure you can see why, the build-up of putting the hours in, working on a project, with the deadline looming. Some of us leave it to the last moment and pulling a caffeinated all-nighter.

But the best coaching for improved work performance strategies involves planning your time carefully. It can help ease this stress if you write a schedule for when work needs doing and plan to hand things in ahead of a deadline.

Lack of Resources

Sadly, not all companies have the resources we may need, the staff, tools, and that can cause us anxiety. This one isn’t as easily solved either, as you may tell your boss, but the company may not have the finances to help.

This is where we can take a step back and say, I’ve done everything I can with what I’ve been given, and be proud of what we can accomplish with very little.

Pressure

Ah yes, the pressure! Sometimes it’s what others expect of us, and other times what we expect of ourselves that can create this invisible pressure. You may have had thoughts like “I have to outdo my last project to earn respect,” or “I made a mistake, and so I’m useless! I need to do much better!”

In this, I can relate; it’s called being too hard on yourself. We are allowed to make mistakes, and we are allowed to have off-days where projects aren’t quite as good, it doesn’t mean we aren’t improving. We learn as we go, so take that invisible pressure and shift it into a playful reminder that it’s just a job.

Presentations / Interviews

If your goosebumps also raised at the thought of either giving a presentation or going to an interview, you’re not alone. A Small Business Trend survey found that 93% of people feel anxious when going for an interview. It also noted that it was the idea of answering difficult questions or coming across in an unintended way that heightened the stress.

And no, picturing people in their underwear doesn’t help you focus on the presentation. In my experience, what helps is writing down the main bullet points without over-scripting, allow room to talk naturally. Then, if you make a mistake during the presentation, laugh about it and continue with your presentation.

Lastly, really hone in on the idea that you are sharing your knowledge with those you’re talking to. A great way to combat performance anxiety at work is to think of it as expressing your idea in your head with everyone around you.

Long Hours

Some people are working six days a week, twelve or more hours a day. There’s no doubt that long hours can cause us exhaustion and anxiety. If you’re overworked, then your work performance usually suffers, as does your mind. I’ve been there, the delirious stage of working non-stop and your mind finds things hilarious one minute and stress spiking the next.

It can also be a challenging thing to ask your boss for fewer hours. For example, they may be short on staff, have a big project they need your help on, etc. But ask yourself if it affects your performance or mental health, is it truly worth it?

Chapter 1:
High Psychological/ Physical Demands

Heavy-duty labourers or office workers alike can suffer from burnout. Overly exerting your mind or body leads to the slippery slope of becoming irritated, resentful, angry, and then the crash. As a result, we can start to feel helpless or trapped, lose our motivation, become detached and even depressed.

Here you need an honest conversation with your employer, discuss how you can rearrange your workload. Or ask yourself whether it’s the right job for you, which leads in nicely with the next section.

 

Perhaps the performance anxiety at work is rooted in the fact that you’re not fully happy in your current career. But it would be bad coaching for improved work performance advise to say, just hang it up and quit! Quitting shouldn’t be taken lightly, we all have bills to pay for. Maybe there is a way to combine your passions with a career you love. Even if it’s doing your passion on the side.

Start by asking yourself what it is you truly want? More time with the family, maybe, a more creative career. And take small steps to get that, whether that’s rearranging your schedule, doing a passion project on the side of your job, or taking the leap to start your own business.

According to a Labour Force survey done in Britain in 2019 and 2020, 17.9 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression and anxiety. In addition, there’s been a shift in the way we work during the pandemic that has seen an increase in work stress.

There’s also the fact we’ve had to endure lockdowns, living near our family whilst working, an inability to separate work from our home life, or many have altogether lost their jobs. Not to mention the real threat of Covid-19 itself.

It’s been a worrying year.

Anxiety starts from either a big life event (moving house, the loss of a loved one, an injury etc.) or a build-up of lots of little life events that wear you down. Then it triggers the fight or flight response that gives you a rush of chemicals to the brain, causing you to shout at colleagues at the office party or take as many sick days as humanly possible.

Our brains are so cyclical that we may even fear anxiety itself, causing us to rouse into a panic. So, how do we stop being afraid of the fear of anxiety and performance anxiety at work itself?

You are a human being, you’re allowed to be anxious about your performance. Sometimes that anxiety is what drives us to improve and grow in our careers. Other times it’s a signal that perhaps you’re not on the right path just yet.

Our anxiety is an instinct, it’s not ours to control. Instead, look at those butterflies in your stomach as excitement, as an opportunity to do something you’ve never done before. And if you land on your face as you get up to talk, even more proof that you’re only human.

One part of us is the inner critic, who regulates us psychologically. But sometimes, this inner critic or self-doubt can become a little out of control, causing us anxiety. It can take the form of judging our work performance as not up to par with others, point out your mistakes, or compare past and future mistakes.

This inner critic can be a constructive critic or an incredibly destructive one. Ask yourself whether your inner voice tries to lift you or tear you down. A great way to work on the inner critic is to look in your life to see if this character in your mind represents someone real. Perhaps someone when you were growing up who criticised you a lot.

Then write a letter to the inner critic, don’t show the letter to anyone, but write whatever you want in the letter and see how you feel before and after writing it. Trust us, that’s a simple and effective tool to understanding yourself better.

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Chapter 2:
It’s Not About You (Harsh but Sometimes True)

Especially in a presentation in front of a crowd, we begin to worry about how we come across. When we start focusing on ourselves is when the audience starts to disconnect. So instead, focus on giving them the information they need; after all, it’s not really about you. It’s about getting across the right information, story, idea, etc.

Use the Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal human process when faced with stressful situations. Use performance anxiety at work as fuel to organise your projects ahead of time, prepare for meetings, and get everything done. Don’t fear it. Anxiety is your friend not a foe, listen to it.

Put Your Focus in The Right Place

Although easier said than done sometimes, try not to focus on what others think, especially how you may be judged. Focus on the task at hand and doing it to the best of your ability.

Talk it Out

Anxious about a colleague relationship, talk with them about it. Nervous about your work performance, talk to your boss about it, unless they’re causing it, then you should still probably talk to them.

Or if the anxiety has got to the point of burnout or depression, then consider talking to a psychologist or other mental health professional about it. It can do wonders for getting to the route of your anxiety.

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Chapter 3:
Managing Stress

The term managing your stress doesn’t feel quite right but instead releasing that stress. Stress can feel like a mental rabbit hole of thoughts, festering on what we need to get done, what we’ve done wrong, and getting that deadline finished. You’ll find hundreds of stress remedies, from running baths, self-care routines, etc. But what does science tell us about what actually reduces our stress? It usually starts with exercise, yoga, meditation, walks in nature, vacations, and helping others. But, each individual is different. Every person has a unique reason for the stress too. If you’re pushing yourself too hard, perhaps a run isn’t the right thing for you, but booking yourself a massage instead. If you’re feeling low in motivation, perhaps you need to start taking small steps to build good routines. Maybe your stress comes from overthinking and festering, then maybe the gym and nature walks are for you. Deep down, you know what you need, so start asking what you can do for yourself, to reduce the stress – and if that fails, then taking a holiday is backed by science! We can give you a kind of coaching for improved work performance template, but the rest is up to you. Don’t sweat it too much. We all go through periods when we feel like we could take over the office and many days’ when anxiety pops up. The best coaching for work performance advice we can give is to be kind to yourself. Try to figure out what the stress is telling you. Is it telling you that you need time off, that you’re about to do something exciting for the future? Is it telling you that you need to start an open discussion with colleagues or bosses about your workload or hours? Anxiety isn’t a threat. It’s a chance for you to understand yourself and treat yourself better. You’ve got this; you always did.