How the best business leaders combat anxiety

Sep 26, 2017

Of all mental health conditions, anxiety is the most prevalent, with Australian Bureau of Statistics data showing that one in four of us will experience the condition at some point in our lives. This makes it a very real workplace issue.

This article originally appeared on Fairfax National Mastheads. Credit: Alexandra Cain/Fairfax Syndication’

The starting point for managers and senior leaders in creating sound policies around anxiety is to develop a basic understanding of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Nick Arvanitis is the head of workplace research and resources at Beyond Blue. His advice is to start by understanding the range of experiences employees have with mental health issues.

“You have people in the workplace who have anxious feelings, which are a natural part of work within any challenging role and being stretched, and that’s not necessarily something to be concerned about,” says Arvanitis.

Further along the continuum are people experiencing significant job stress, followed by people towards the end of the spectrum who are experiencing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

“So it’s understanding the breadth of experience that team members are feeling,” says Arvanitis.

Research shows anxiety and mental health is a critical issue for Australian businesses.

According to Beyond Blue’s State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report, 75 per cent of Australian employees think their workplaces should provide support to someone who is experiencing depression or anxiety.

Moreover, mental health has a financial impact on businesses that the best executives should understand. According to the same research, 21 per cent of employees had taken leave as a result of feeling mentally unwell in the previous 12 months.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace is beneficial for everyone in a business, not just for people dealing with mental health conditions. This involves building a supportive workplace where stress is minimised and an environment where people feel comfortable putting their hand up when they are struggling.

Arvanitis says there’s a difference in the way managers and senior leaders should approach mental health in the workplace.

“Managers have day-to-day contact with staff members. So there’s an expectation they will get to know their staff, be aware of changes in their team members’ behaviour and have a private conversation if they feel someone is struggling. Encouraging good communication and respectful behaviour sits at the team leader level.”

In contrast, senior leaders are the real influencers when it comes to workplace culture.

Says Arvanitis: “We encourage senior leaders to speak openly about mental health and mental health conditions in the workplace, to normalise conversations and to share personal experiences they’ve had. That’s one of the most effective ways to encourage conversations and reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues.”

Experts say there is strong evidence to suggest that when employees believe their CEO values a mentally healthy workplace, there are significant attitudinal and behavioural benefits.

“These include half the level of absenteeism due to mental health conditions and more positive perceptions of mental health in the workplace,” says David Roberts, the practice leader of Relationships Australia, a not-for-profit body that provides counselling and other services. “Additionally, workplaces where CEOs are believed to value mental health are more likely to be considered physically safe. The key is for managers to promote strategies for preventing workplace stress.”

Corporate coach Muffy Churches says managers must be aware of the early warning signs of anxiety in themselves and their teams.

“Some of the signs to watch for are fatigue as a result of sleepless nights, reduced ability to focus well on the job at hand and feeling distracted by worry. Overt seriousness or loss of sense of humour and difficulty engaging in discussions in meetings can be other signals of anxiety,” says Churches.

“When anxiety becomes more advanced it takes a more physical toll. Trembling, frequent comments about stomach aches, rapid heartbeat or feeling unwell and a noticeable rise in sick days are also symptoms managers should watch for. Daily variances are normal for all of us but it’s noticing a more long term shift in employees’ behaviours that can be an important clue.”

There are lots of ways for managers to support their own and their staff’s good mental health.

Promoting physical activities like office walking groups helps encourage great mental health. It’s important for the executive team to take part in these activities for their own mental health and to show leadership around mental health.

Giving staff greater autonomy over their work, promoting stress management tools, providing healthy food and ensuring staff – including management – have access to workplace counselling are other ways to promote mental wellbeing.

Nikki Fogden-Moore, who runs executive coaching business The Vitality Coach, works with senior leaders to help them manage their stress and anxiety. She says it can be incredibly challenging for executives to detect intangible signs of anxiety that affect overall mental and physical wellbeing and contribute to reduced ability to handle stress.

“Managers often don’t want to show their sense of vulnerability and continue to turn up at work. But they may be masking signs of depression, illness and reduced operational capacity,” she says.

Business owners have a responsibility to encourage staff to talk about anxiety and mental health generally, and assist and encourage anyone who seems to be suffering to get help – including themselves.

It can help if the senior leadership team also checks in with each other from time to time to make sure colleagues are okay.

Says Churches: “Much responsibility falls on the organisation’s leaders in facilitating open dialogue on the topic in team meetings, by being available and approachable. Properly observing and frequently communicating with each direct report is also essential.”


Creating a mentally healthy workplace needs to be as important for organisations as creating a physically healthy workplace. Ultimately, workplace health is a leadership issue, and change must start at the top. Organisational leaders play a critical role in driving policies and practices that promote mental health. They are able to positively influence workplace culture, management practices and the experience of employees. Heads Up provides free, practical information and resources to create mentally healthy workplaces.

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How the best business leaders combat anxiety

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