If you do not suffer from panic or anxiety attacks, it is hard to understand the feelings that overtake a person when an attack occurs. I suffer from panic and anxiety attacks. The worst thing about these attacks is they are front and center for the world to see: My face gets flushed. I perspire profusely. And the more conscious I am of the visible displays, the worse the symptoms become. It is challenging to maintain a sense of professional decorum when it looks like you were either caught in a torrential downpour or just finished running a marathon.
Having anxiety and panic can be embarrassing, debilitating, and lonely, especially at work.
Discussing panic and anxiety is accepted more today than when I first entered the workforce. When I began my professional career, any mention of anxiety, stress or panic was viewed as being weak, or that you somehow could not handle the pressures of the job.
Unlike those surrounding physical ailments or diseases, conversations about mental health seem to be a one-and-done proposition within the workplace. In some cases, leaders may think that employees can simply make a quick stop by EAP and have a conversation about what is bothering them, and things will be better after that point.
Regardless of how mainstream the topics of anxiety or panic have become, a stigma still exists around these issues. Sharing that you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks is an incredibly brave thing to do. It has been my experience that once an employee discloses these conditions, leaders generally ask two questions: “Are you seeing someone about it?” and, if the manager is close to the employee, “What are you doing to control it? “
Once these questions are asked, the discussion generally ends. Unless the anxiety or panic attacks become debilitating or cause the employee to miss work, the manager typically does not talk to the employee about these issues again. Why? The answer is simple: Most people who suffer from panic and anxiety put their game faces on and continue coming to work. These employees continue to produce and contribute, but they also continue to suffer. Rarely, if ever, do leaders check in with team members who have disclosed suffering from anxiety or panic attacks for two reasons: 1) Mental health can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, or 2) there may not be any outward signs that something is wrong with the employee.
When the conversation stops, feelings of vulnerability, isolation and fear can begin to creep into the thought process of the employee. They may wonder, “What if my boss thinks I cannot do my job?” “Am I the only person going through this?” or “What if people find out?”
As someone who suffers with anxiety, and who has led team members who suffer with anxiety and panic attacks, I believe that stopping the conversation is one of the worst things leaders can do. When a leader stops the conversation after an employee reveals they suffer with anxiety and panic, it gives the impression that the conditions should not be discussed, or that the employee should somehow feel ashamed.
Leaders can do few key things if an employee discloses their experience with these conditions.
Do not stop the conversation: Leaders should respect the privacy of employees, but checking in with the employee shows a level of compassion. A manager may say to an employee, “You shared you were coping with anxiety. How are you doing? It is okay if you do not want to talk about how you are feeling right now, but if you do want to talk, my door is open.” This simple invitation is usually all an employee needs to feel safe and to feel like their manager is an ally.
Language matters: Do not paint those of us who experience anxiety or panic attacks as victims. We are not victims, but we are looking for a level of understanding and compassion. Using words like "victim" reinforces feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
Realize that employees may not show outward signs of anxiety or panic: There are days when I am in a hyper state of anxiety and panic for no apparent reason. I am able to function, but the constant state of anxiousness is ever-present, and just because I look fine does not mean I am fine. Leaders need to create a safe environment where employees have the space to manage their feelings. Allow employees to take a walk, leave the office to take a drive, to sit quietly by themselves for a few minutes. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach for people managing anxiety and panic. Allow the employee to tell you what helps, and give them the space to manage their feelings.
Do not minimize feelings: Those of us who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks would gladly take a reprieve from the conditions. One of the worst things leaders can say to employees is, “You look fine,” or “Stop worrying about things.” The feelings of dread, panic, and, in some cases, doom, are real. Those of us coping with anxiety and panic can neither stop worrying about things nor just calm down. When gripped by panic or anxiety, a wave of adrenaline courses through your system, your heart beats rapidly and you feel like you are in a true fight-or-flight situation — except the monster is in your mind, and you cannot outrun it.
There are days when it feels like I am swimming for the surface of the water all day long. As someone who works in human resources, I know that it is important for me to let people know they are not alone. Leaders need to create an environment where employees feel safe to talk about these topics at work. These subjects can be scary to discuss, but there is liberation in being vulnerable and a freedom that results when people can bring their “full selves” to work without fear of consequence or recrimination.
Originally published on Forbes.com