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Redirecting Anxiety Toward Improving Job Performance

Anxiety can impact performance in various ways. Think about presenting in front of a large group of people. On one hand, anxiety can cause you to overthink the consequences of a bad performance. Overthinking can cause you to go blank and stumble over your words. In contrast, anxiety can help you slow down, gather your thoughts, and walk through the presentation step-by-step and carefully. As this example demonstrates, the relationship between anxiety and performance is not a simple one. Anxiety can sometimes help you and at other times, hurt you.

In a recent article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers presented a theory of workplace anxiety. The goal of this article was to establish a comprehensive model that explains both the positive and negative effects of workplace anxiety. Workplace anxiety is defined as feelings of tension and nervousness that arise from job performance.

Workplace anxiety is either dispositional or situational. Some individuals are more disposed to workplace anxiety than others. Also, there are situations that are more likely to cause workplace anxiety. When considering dispositional anxiety, several factors should be considered: gender, age, length of employment tenure, health, and core self-evaluation (how people evaluate themselves). Women usually experience more workplace anxiety than men. Those who have less employment tenure and those who are younger also experience more workplace anxiety. Further, those who have poor health and negative self-evaluations experience more workplace anxiety.

In terms of situational workplace anxiety, some types of tasks are more likely to be anxiety-provoking than others. Tasks that require someone to carefully monitor and control emotional reactions are more likely to promote anxiety. Task that are ambiguous, difficult, or have approaching deadlines also are likely to create workplace anxiety. Workplace anxiety is associated with organizations that have uncertain environments (e.g., high rates of turnover). Organizations that limit autonomy, are demanding, competitive, and/or fast-paced also are more anxiety-provoking.

The researchers found that anxiety level was related to job performance. When employees had low anxiety, they became distracted and had less motivation to engage in problem-solving and exert effort. When employees had high workplace anxiety, they were more likely to experience emotional exhaustion which negatively impacted their work. When employees had high anxiety, they were also more likely to worry excessively about their job performance, which led to their inability to focus on tasks. The researchers found that job performance was highest when workplace anxiety was moderate. When employees had moderate anxiety, they were motivated to set goals, be more organized, and invest more time and energy into their work, which ultimately led to increased work performance.

Cheng, B. H., & McCarthy, J. M. (2018). Understanding the dark and bright sides of anxiety: A theory of workplace anxiety. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(5), 537-560.