How Supervisors and Co-Workers Stop Anxiety from Hurting Performance - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #544

How Supervisors and Co-Workers Stop Anxiety from Hurting Performance

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Workplace anxiety leads to emotional exhaustion, which in turn reduces job performance. The quality of relationships between employees and their supervisors and their fellow employees goes a long way toward mitigating this emotional exhaustion and thus improving performance. 


Workplace anxiety and stress causes work performance to suffer. Previous research shows that performance suffers because of what academics call ‘cognitive interference’: when employees are stressed, they cannot focus on their tasks and think as clearly as they need to.

In this previous research, cognitive interference focuses on tasks that require a high-intensity effort over a short duration of time, such as taking exams or engaging in sporting activities.

Overall job performance, however, relates not only to short-term intense tasks but also, and more typically, to sustained and often routine work over extended periods of time. This type of work draws on personal resources such as energy, effort and persistence. According to new research from the University of Toronto and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, workplace anxiety reduces work performance because it drains these personal resources. Instead of allowing employees to focus all of their energy and effort on the tasks at hand, employees spend time and energy worrying about the sources of their anxiety.

The result is ‘emotional exhaustion’, the core cause of anxiety-generated reduction in job performance. In other words, job performance is influenced in times of anxiety by emotional exhaustion above and beyond the effect of cognitive interference.

How can employees reduce emotional exhaustion caused by workplace anxiety? According to the authors of the research, emotionally exhausted people will turn to social support for help. In the workplace, such social support comes from interactions with supervisors and co-workers. In their study, the researchers explored how interactions with supervisors and with co-workers played different roles in mitigating the damage of workplace anxiety.

Interactions with co-workers are more relational or interpersonal, and based on trust and reciprocity. Employees feel free to share their internal feelings with their co-workers, who help them find ways to deal with problems and cope with the strain of workplace anxiety. The support from co-workers, in other words, is mostly emotional.

Interactions with supervisors, on the other hand, will be more transactional or economic. In contrast to co-workers, supervisors offer material support. Part of this support is in the form of tangible resources that help employees accomplish their tasks and responsibilities. Even more interesting, according to the research, supervisory support also takes the form of motivation to perform and meet expectations. Despite feeling internally depleted, highly motivated employees can overcome emotional exhaustion caused by the workplace anxiety.

In short, interactions with co-workers reduced the anxiety caused by emotional exhaustion; interactions with supervisors reduced the impact of emotional exhaustion on job performance.

The research was based on results from a series of surveys involving more than 250 Royal Canadian Mounted Police personnel including police officers, their supervisors and their peers. The first survey was focused on workplace anxiety. The second survey, 3 months later, was focused on emotional exhaustion and cognitive interference. The third survey, six weeks after the second, consisted of evaluations of the original officers by their supervisors and their colleagues.


This study confirms the high cost of workplace anxiety — and the important role that good relations with co-workers and supervisors can play in reducing the impact of anxiety on performance. Especially in times of stress, managers must take every step to ensure positive, open relationships between employees and their co-workers and supervisors. All employees should be trained in how to develop positive work relations with others and behave in a consistently supportive manner.

Other steps that can be taken to reduce performance problems due to workplace anxiety include: giving employees breaks, letting them use these breaks as they see fit, and reducing emotional pressure on employees. Individuals should also be encouraged to take steps to help themselves, such as ensuring that they get quality sleep and even taking up new, distracting hobbies.



Are Anxious Workers Less Productive Workers? It Depends on the Quality of Social Exchange. Julie M. McCarthy, John P. Trougakos & Bonnie Hayden Cheng. Journal of Applied Psychology (Forthcoming)

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Idea conceived

September 1, 2015

Idea posted

Aug 2015
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