Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, being the sixth-leading cause of disability worldwide, with greater rates of disability occurring in females and in people aged 15 to 34 years, and are associated with a poorer quality of life compared to not having anxiety, including higher rates of divorce and unemployment.

Anxiety disorders comprise a range of different mental illnesses that are all characterized by excessive fear and apprehension, as well as problematic behaviours related to the anxiety that disrupt one’s ability to function in daily life. Typical symptoms include physical complaints like sweating, trembling, stomach upset, and difficulty speaking; intense panic or fear; and constant unwanted thoughts related to the anxiety.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) includes in its Anxiety Disorders chapter the following diagnoses, among others:

  1. Separation anxiety disorder: a disorder of excessive and persistent fear of separation from home or from attached individuals;
  2. Phobias: disorders of intense, irrational fear of specific items, events, or places (e.g., heights, blood, insects);
  3. Social anxiety disorder: a disorder of extreme discomfort with social interactions or situations;
  4. Panic disorder and panic attacks: sudden experiences of intense terror that include sweating, dizziness, increased heart rate, and feeling like you are losing control or dying; and
  5. Generalized anxiety disorder: a condition of excessive, constant worry about a wide range of items, events, and topics such as health, money, relationships, and everyday life (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder are well-known related conditions that DSM-5 considers to be similar but separate from the anxiety disorders listed above.

Most practitioners believe that anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors, much like physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Anxiety can often be successfully treated with cognitive-behavioural therapy or antianxiety medications, or a combination of both.  Anxiety disorders are frequently underdiagnosed and left untreated with less than 25% of people with anxiety disorders seeking treatment.

Anxiety disorders are associated with poor job productivity and short- and long-term work disability leading to an average of 4.6 work days lost to disability per month and 18.1 work days lost to disability per 3 months, as well as an average of 5.5 work days of reduced productivity per month. Workers with anxiety disorders have more than 1.5 times the risk of being absent for at least 2 weeks than those without anxiety and more than double the risk of having poor work performance.

The World Health Organization recently reported that an estimated 12 billion working days will be lost to untreated depression and anxiety by the year 2030, resulting in a global cost of $925 billion. The upside to these staggering figures is that for every $1 invested in treating depression and anxiety, there is a $4 return for the economy clearly supporting programs that improve worker access to treatment for anxiety.

Employers can help by creating an informed and accommodating work environment:

  1. Educate employees and managers about mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders.
  2. Promote the use of an employee assistance program (EAP) and other related health programs. Early intervention is key to helping people with anxiety get the help they need and live fulfilling, functional lives.
  3. Giving employees more control over their assignments and schedules and ensuring a collegial, supportive environment may help individuals with anxiety perform better.
  4. Be mindful that employees with anxiety disorders may benefit from certain accommodations such as modified workspaces, flexible schedules and deadlines, or permission to take periodic breaks throughout the workday.
  5. People with anxiety often struggle with organization, planning, and time management and might need extra coaching or skill-building in these areas.
  6. Supervisors should work with employees on an individual basis to handle excessive absences. Stay in regular contact with absent employees, and work collaboratively to develop a return-to-work plan that includes specific dates and accommodations to make the job setting as comfortable but productive as possible.
  7. Finally, maintain an empathic, understanding attitude toward working with individuals with anxiety. A supportive workplace also helps build employee loyalty, dedication, and motivation to perform well.

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