Anxiety at Work: How anxiety can affect our attention and concentration

by | Aug 20, 2017 | Anxiety at work, General Anxiety, Social Anxiety

One place where you need to be able to concentrate, take in information, and decide the best course of action with a clear head, is in the working environment. Anxiety at work can be a huge obstacle to attention and concentration. There are so many ways anxiety can take you out of the present moment and leave you knocking around in your own head.

Anxiety can affect both productivity and your dealing with other people. Here are some of the main ways:


The effect on productivity


Anxious about things outside your control

In the absence of certainty, an anxious mind will try and run through every conceivable possibility, in order to be ready for every eventuality

If you are a worrier, intrusive thoughts about future events can be all-consuming. With worry, the need for control and certainty is key. In a busy working environment, however, certainty can be in short supply. Much of what we have to deal with in our day to day working lives is ambiguous. We cannot predict how a project will go, or what pressure will be involved. We cannot foresee all the obstacles we may encounter, or how our managers will react.

In the absence of certainty, an anxious mind will try and run through every conceivable possibility, in order to be ready for every eventuality. This can be exhausting and really affects attention and concentration, as the “what if” thoughts take over.

A better solution: To reduce the role of worry in our working lives, we need to become more tolerant of uncertainty. We must learn to become more accepting that uncertainty is a natural part of life. We cannot avoid it, and the time we use trying to counter it, seems like valuable time wasted.

A study at Cornell University found that 85% of what people worry about never comes to pass. Of the 15% that did go as predicted, 79% of the participants found that they either handled the problem better than they would have thought, or they learned a valuable lesson from the outcome.

So, instead of the constant ‘what ifs’, figure out what is in your control, and put your focus into that.


Avoidance and procrastination

Anxiety can affect our ability to tackle a job head on. If we fear a job is too large, or difficult, we may put off starting it. This can become procrastination, where we will find a way to distract ourselves. Or possibly we might start an easier, lower priority job, to make ourselves feel like we are being productive. Our priority work, however, remains unstarted, and now we have less time.

A better solution: This one is about trusting our own ability to understand what needs to be done, and our ability to get it finished. Once it is started and we get our teeth into it, the job begins to get more manageable. Starting is half the battle.

Look back on the evidence of other jobs you have done. This one is no different. It is important to believe that you have the ability to figure out anything that comes your way. That might be on your own, or enlisting the help of others.



Stop starting and start finishing

Excessive worry can make you jump from one thought or subject to the next. It can make focusing on one job very difficult. If there are 4 tasks to do in the day, worrying you won’t get them done may cause you to flick between the four, without getting much traction on any of them. Not being able to pay attention to one job will slow you down, thus raising your anxiety, and so the cycle continues.

A better solution: Stop starting, and start finishing, as the great Lean statement goes. And it’s pretty accurate and helpful. Try and put aside everything except the job you are currently working on. As it will be difficult to focus your attention for long periods of time, try working in 25-minute bursts with 5-minute breaks. Set shorter goals, with tasks that are quite small, but where you can still get through the work.


The effect on conversations and meetings


Thinking about what might go wrong ahead of time

All the while, you have mentally checked out of the conversation you are currently in

If you are talking to a colleague or manager, and they are giving you information on an upcoming task or project, anxiety can play havoc with your ability to pay attention and take everything in. You might hear one part, and then go off in your head imagining the worst-case scenarios, or trying to solve problems that do not exist yet. All the while, you have mentally checked out of the conversation you are currently in. The conversation that has information that you need, with possible solutions, ideas, or people that may be able to help.

A better solution: This type of thinking can actually make us appear spaced out, or not paying attention. It is important to be aware that this is how anxiety tends to affect you in conversation. Stay focused on the person you are talking to and what they are saying. In order to stay focused and take the important information in, repeat back to them a summary of what they have said, for clarification for both of you. Do not let yourself drift off into negative thoughts.


Worrying what people are thinking of you

When we are constantly worried about what people think of us, it can really hamper how we operate in work

Fear of embarrassment or judgement can be a huge factor in anxiety, and social anxiety in particular. When we are constantly worried about what people think of us, it can really hamper how we operate in work.

Anxiety about what you may be asked in a meeting, and how you will look when trying to answer, can have you caught up in your thoughts. Your focus will be on internal cues, and what how people must be able to see how anxious you look. You may find it hard to concentrate and listen to what is being said.

If you are talking to a colleague or manager, this worry about what they think of you can have you in a spin. Rather than listening to what they have to say, your focus may be on how you are being perceived. You may worry about saying the right thing, or making a good impression, rather than listening, which in turn can leave you with your mind going blank when you need to talk.

A better solution: Instead of this internal examination, look out into the meeting, or at the person you are talking to. Focus on what is being said, so if you are asked a question, you might be better placed to hear, and answer it. If you fear people are staring at you, look around and see if this is true. Never let your head tell you something without any evidence.


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