Working from home has made it easier than ever to get caught up in your head. Without the presence of colleagues to bounce ideas off and the buzz of the office to keep you in the moment, it’s all too easy to find yourself over-analysing everything that happens throughout the day – just one of the reasons why levels of self-doubt are on the rise right now.
But with self-doubt can come another, equally troubling, problem – work anxiety, or a fear that your work isn’t good enough and you’re doing everything ‘wrong’.
It’s a problem I’ve been struggling with a lot over the last couple of months. As an anxious person, the isolation of working from home has made it far too easy for me to start worrying about every little aspect of my working life, including what other people think of me and my work.
Whether I’m struggling to complete a task because it’s not ‘perfect’ or worrying that I’ve let someone on the team down, the source of my anxiety is the same – I can’t let go of the fear that I’m completely, utterly crap at my job, or at the very least not meeting expectations. And although I know this isn’t the case (or at least, I hope it isn’t), it’s a fear that I, and many others, are struggling with. So, why is this?
According to Gemma Leigh Roberts, organisational psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge, one of the main reasons so many people are dealing with increased anxiety about their work performance at the moment is because of the lack of ‘informal’ feedback we’re getting by being in the same space as our colleagues and learning from how they work.
“It’s about a fear of the unknown,” Roberts explains. “If you know how you’re performing – whether that’s good, bad or somewhere in between – you can benchmark yourself and put a plan in place going forward. However, if we haven’t got any feedback or we’re not quite sure how we’re performing in comparison to others, our brains tend to work in overdrive, and can create all kinds of stories.”
When we face this kind of uncertainty, Roberts says, there are two ways our brains work to fuel that initial anxiety – the first of which is searching for the negative. This impulse served an evolutionary purpose – paying attention to things which are bad, negative or threatening would have helped early humans survive. But now, when we don’t need to be negative to survive, it can lead us to assume that things will go wrong – even when we have no evidence to back that up.
“If we’re not really clear on how we’re performing or what we need to improve on, then it’s very hard to stop our brains going ‘it’s probably not going well’ or ‘this bit didn’t go well, so the rest of it probably hasn’t’. It’s much harder to find that place which is more sensitive and more positive.”
Once we possess these negative beliefs, the second way our brain tends to fuel that anxiety is through a phenomenon called ‘confirmation bias’, in which we look for ‘evidence’ to back-up our thoughts.
“If we’re feeling a certain way, we look for other areas to support what we’re feeling. So, if you’re feeling slightly anxious, and you’re like ‘oh, I’m really not sure I’m good enough for this’ or ‘I’m not sure I’m doing this right’, your brain will be looking for confirmation that that’s correct, like ‘oh, that project didn’t go very well either’ or ‘that person didn’t seem very responsive to me’.”
If Roberts’ words ring a bell with you, you’re not alone. Lone working isn’t easy, and as much as we’d like to say we don’t compare ourselves to others or need reassurance from time to time, it’s natural to want to know you’re doing well. It’s like we’re in our own, personal echo chambers – without the ‘benchmark’ of other people to evaluate your own performance, it’s all too easy to feel like you’re falling behind or doing things wrong.
With this in mind, if you’re struggling with anxiety about your work performance right now, Roberts says one of the best things you can do is take some time to recognise the situation you’re facing.
“We don’t have any benchmarks to compare ourselves to and we don’t have any past experience to fall back on to know what worked well before, so I think it’s important to acknowledge this, rather than focusing on changing your feelings, because it’s entirely normal in this situation to sometimes feel overwhelmed or anxious.”
On top of this, Roberts says, try to focus on the small things – both those things that make you happy, like a cup of tea or a chat with friends, and the small wins, like finishing a project or having a productive conversation. Not only will this take your mind off of the anxiety, but it’s also a way to counteract your impulse to focus on the negative.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that no matter how anxious you feel about your work right now, it’s most likely not reflective of the job you’re actually doing. Working from home under such unusual circumstances isn’t easy, so try to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Chances are, you’re absolutely smashing it.
If working from home during the pandemic is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of relying on technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.
So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.
Our Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of WFH wellbeing.
For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.
As Stylist’s junior digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.