Dealing With Fear and Anxiety At Work


Over the last few days – I had multiple conversations about different aspects of anxiety in the work place . I also chimed in on a couple of threads in social media about it . So when I woke up today – I felt like I should share some thoughts about how I deal with it myself .

When I was a young consultant – I was anxious all the time . Every Sunday I would get anxious about getting on a plane on Monday morning . Every time a Partner visited my project, I would get anxious . Every time I had to make a presentation or report status – I would get anxious . It didn’t take much to for me to feel anxious .

It would manifest in many ways – ranging from sweaty palms on the mild side to acute acid reflex on the harsh side . I was misery personified . What made matters worse was that I also tried really hard to hide my anxiety from my colleagues . And strangely I never asked anyone for help – and just chose to suffer through it myself . Not a lot of my friends even know today that I had to deal with those problems back when we worked together .

It had an impact on my career progression too – At 29, I was still a senior consultant when most others who started with me were managers and one or two were already senior managers .

While struggling through anxiety for several years – I also got better at analyzing problems and experimenting with solutions . I started analyzing what was causing my anxiety and what could I do about it . And at some point – I think I cracked the code !

Life turned for the better – and rather dramatically . I started feeling better physically , and started enjoying Sundays . I no longer threw up before big meetings . And my career took off – in another 5 or 6 years I got into the executive ranks .

So what did I find out ?

The primary cause of my anxiety was fear – or more precisely the fear of getting fired !

I had very good skills for my line of work . And my line of work – SAP development – was in hot demand . And if I messed up at work – the first thing a Partner or my client would do was certainly not to fire me . In hindsight all of this is plain obvious . Just that it took me half a decade to realize that the odds of getting fired were really low !

I also realized I had two big weaknesses to overcome .

1. I could have come to this conclusion quickly if only I had asked for help sooner .

2 And there was a possibility that even though I had great skills – I just didn’t know enough good people to find a job if and when I needed one.

So I started actively seeking help .

Thanks to my wife insisting on it – I went and saw a doctor and he prescribed something that helped with my acid reflux . He almost immediately diagnosed that it was stress related – and he was right . As soon as my approach to work changed – acid reflux went away and I didn’t need the medicine any more .

Looking back – a part of the problem was that I was (and still am) an introvert whom many people who know me mistakenly take for an extrovert . By now I know I am not alone with this situation, and I can joke about it 🙂

I started asking for help early and often and that made a big difference . I no longer felt the need to be the smartest person in the room who knew all the answers . This also made me realize that everyone has some difficulty asking for help . The moment I started asking for help – others in my team did so as well . Collectively – we figured out solutions much faster and with less stress . Another learning was that it is a very limited exercise if you only helped people who could help you back . You have to help what you can and then over a long period of time , you tend to always get more help than you ever expected .

I also made it a point to keep my skills sharp all the time . Every quarter I set a goal to master a new skill and I would use the weekly plane rides to get it done . It’s a habit that has become second nature . It has helped me change my line of work several times over the years – from ABAP to SAP functional consulting to BI to CRM to AI and so on . Off late – my interests have also widened to ethics , psychology and history . Eventually it became no longer about job risk mitigation – but it doesn’t hurt that it serves as an insurance in case I ever need it .

Then came the need to network . It didn’t take long to realize that just by connecting to a lot of people on LinkedIn and Twitter didn’t do me any favors in having a useful network . It’s a painstaking process of building meaningful relationships one at a time – starting with strengthening existing friendships and business relationships and then working from there to extend to others . It takes a long period of time and there is no end to it – it’s something you do all the time , and again without making it a “I will only help people who help me ” transaction .

There are other factors involved like living under your means and saving for a rainy day , taking good care of your health , prioritizing your family over work and so on . You can’t take those for granted – just by optimizing on work alone will not get you to a good space .

The confidence – and especially the peace of mind – that comes from removing fear from your mind is something that you need to experience for yourself . Words are not adequate to explain it . It’s a huge feeling of liberation from a jail that you created for yourself .

It’s not that I no longer feel anxious – I absolutely still do . It’s just that I have learned how to use it to my advantage instead of letting it stress me out . The “trick” for me essentially is to have a routine about things I feel anxious about .

For me – that includes listening to music – usually Carnatic , getting plenty of sleep (I need 7 to 8 hours) and focusing hard on just the first couple of things I need to do to get into a rhythm . If I have a presentation to make that I am starting to worry about – I focus on making sure I know what I have to talk to for the first 2 or 3 minutes . Once I get through that – my experience kicks in and I can get through the rest quite easily . If I have to review my business with my bosses – I think about what they would want to know and figure out that aspect of my answer very well . I spend less time worrying about peripheral things . If I still feel the stress – I know it’s because I need more help . I call one of my mentors and spend a few minutes talking with them and pretty quickly I am back in a good mental space .

Dealing with your own anxiety is one thing . That in itself takes a lot of effort – but it still might not be enough . There is a high chance that people in your team are anxious – and you may actually be the reason for that . As I grew into leadership roles – this started becoming more and more a topic of interest for me .

My approach to this is as follows –

1. I cannot be insecure at all if I have to help some one in my team with their anxiety . This means I need to think carefully about how I hire , how I communicate and so on . Insecure managers compound the insecurity of their team .

2. Everyone is different . What worked for you to minimize your anxiety might not work for them at all . I remember a young colleague who got anxious about flying – fearing that the plane will crash if there is turbulence . That led to a couple of glasses of wine every trip and some times even before getting into the plane . I tried to help but this was beyond me – and I was happy that this person went to a professional and got the help he needed .

3. You need to proactively and consistently take fear away from the work place – and then make sure that other people in your team are reinforcing that behavior .

4. Your primary expectation as a leader should not be to be liked – it should be to be respected and trusted . If they like you – that’s a nice side effect . The truth is that you will have to take hard decisions that affect people in your team . As long as they know you have been consistent and fair with your decision – they will understand and respect your decision even if they don’t like you for what you did . I try to be as transparent as I can be with my team – and give them headlights into what will happen next for each course of action we take .

5. All that said – there is one area where I haven’t been able to minimize my anxiety . That is about firing people . Almost invariably the moment I take that decision – I feel sick and the acid reflux comes back full swing . It’s predictable and that makes me realize it’s my body preparing me and I get through it with some pain . It is one area I definitely need to improve .

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Rajagopalan Madhavan says:

    Vijay, Awesome post. Its relevant for freshers all the way to experienced.

    Like

  2. Manoj says:

    Thanks Vijay for sharing this..my anxiety is =I think all the time about what reporting manager thinks about my work.. whether i am living upto his expectations.. strangely this started only in my recent job where i was supremely impressed with my manager whennhe interviewed me and I strongly wanted to work with him:-)

    Like

  3. Great post. 🙂 I liked your suggestion of focusing on the first 2-3 minutes of the presentation. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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