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May 29th, 2018 · No Comments

U of T study shows that anxiety can be productive

Researchers from the University of Toronto have recently published a study demonstrating that some workplace anxiety motivates employees to be more productive and focused on a task. COURTESY SHUTTERSHOCK

By Ahmed-Zaki Hagar

About 500,000 Canadians are unable to work during a given week due to a mental illness, according to a 2008 study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. And, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental illness affects seven out of ten Canadians in the workplace, with anxiety being the most common symptom.

However, a recent University of Toronto (U of T) study has found that workplace anxiety can be beneficial for workers.

Bonnie Cheng, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and U of T graduate, and Julie McCarthy, a U of T professor, say that their findings show how moderate levels of anxiety can motivate people.

“It just does not make sense that everyone is having a bad performance. You see people who are anxious who just get their stuff together and perform quite well”—Bonnie Cheng, assistant professor, Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Cheng says that she was interested in the growing public discussion on mental health and her study aims to show that anxiety “is something we do not have to run away from”.

“If we only accept that anxiety is bad for us, what are the implications of that, if you think about the workplace from so many people being anxious?” she says. “It just does not make sense that everyone is having a bad performance. You see people who are anxious who just get their stuff together and perform quite well.”

Going through past research on the subject, Cheng and McCarthy say that there are three facts that can impact a worker’s performance: motivation, ability, and emotional intelligence.

Cheng says that these factors can either aid with anxiety or “turn it into a fear and [let it] debilitate you”.

“Having some level of anxiety is good because that can stimulate you to put out your best work,” she says. “It is really about embracing that anxiety so that you can use it to facilitate your performance.”

Cheng and McCarthy break down workplace anxiety into two categories.

Dispositional workplace anxiety is based on a person’s traits, like their general level of anxiety. Situational workplace anxiety is how a person feels anxious in certain situations, such as from a job interview or a deadline.

Cheng explained how employees who have to provide a “service with a smile”, at times when they are not happy, have to suppress their anxiety.

The article says that jobs with high emotional labour demands coupled with high customer turnover could lead to heightened anxiety. Other characteristics that can trigger anxiety include office politics, high expectations, and tight deadlines.

Cheng says that these two types of anxiety are “tightly linked”, but can impact performance differently.

“For trait-levels of anxiety, you can think of it as something that is chronic. Over time, it can hurt your performance because it will exhaust you,” she says. “For situational levels of anxiety, because it is more short-term, it can hurt your performance because, in those situations, it will distract you.

“The facilitative side of anxiety for both of them is very similar, they both centre around self-regulation.”

Cheng says that organizations and employers can help their employees with managing their anxiety. She points to Google’s efforts to train managers with helping their employees with their emotional intelligence as an example to follow.

“Organizations can help to invest in employees in terms of offering the right training and giving them the right tools so that employees can feel that they have the necessary resources to perform their tasks,” she says.

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