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Designer's Perspective: Dealing with Anxiety in the Workplace

I used to feel like the world I lived in was so different from everyone else’s and that somehow, I was the only person at work with racing thoughts, excessive worrying, and feelings of impending doom. Turns out, I was unknowingly in good company. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in every five U.S. adults (nearly 51.5 Million people) experience depression, anxiety, or another mental illness in any given year. As of June 2020, the CDC cited the number of people experiencing mental health issues was up to 40%. So statistically speaking, I know now that I’m definitely not alone, and there’s a strong chance that a member of your team may be facing one or more mental health challenges similar to mine daily.

In 2013, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which in hindsight, helped explain A LOT about who I am and how I think about the world. It explained why I felt like I couldn’t breathe during that one design critique or why I would obsessively worry the world would somehow find out what a terrible designer I was.

Throughout my career as a designer, I’ve experienced an increase in my daily job demands, which includes more autonomy, responsibility, and multitasking — sounds familiar, right? These daily job demands increase my engagement and happiness at work, making me think “Heck yeah, I’m on top of the world!” Simultaneously, these increased demands activate my anxieties which can lead to a loss in productivity, confidence, and overall quality of work, making me think “I’m going to ruin this user experience and get fired!”

Although at times my anxiety has felt debilitating and very scary, I also know that my anxiety is double-edged. It’s my hidden superpower that helps me daily, especially when designing. I love that it allows me to think of worse case scenarios for user flows (anxiety is great for all the what-ifs of the world). It heightens my attention to details with obsessing over white space, type, or color. It can boost my energy level and engagement, especially when I have a deadline ahead. It has pushed and challenged me to be better than the day before, and it was with me in my hotel room at 2am as I prepped for one of the biggest design reviews of my career.

Anxiety is my old friend and is a part of who I am. There is no “right way” to manage anxiety at work; trust me, I’ve looked for the magic answer. However, there are a few significant factors that have allowed me to experience the best version of myself at work. This checklist has contributed to my confidence as a design leader, and I hope you find it helpful for yourself or someone you manage.

My Workplace Anxiety Checklist

1. Life’s short, find a mentor who believes in you.
I attribute so much of my success to all of the strong mentors who lifted me up, helped me find answers, and listened to my fears. My past and present mentors have always created a psychologically safe space for me to confide in, without the fear of repercussion or judgement. I still remember that day in 2012, as a young timid designer in NYC, when my mentor and I took a walk and he told me he believed in me. Through mentorship, I gained confidence, empowerment, and guidance. It’s worth mentioning that my past mentors were not always on my same team or discipline. I found it very helpful as a young designer to seek guidance from an outside source. Don’t be afraid to ask your manager for help in finding a mentor! I would encourage you to reach across disciplines to seek support from someone who could bring a different perspective and is willing to support you on your journey.

2. Prep with Visualization.
Visualization is a coping method I use quite frequently in the workplace. It reminds me of the ethos, “If you can see it, you can achieve it.” Visualization allows me to think through a situation and helps prep me for what’s ahead. I visualize the best version of myself — and let me tell you, she is awesome! I visualize the woman who is confident and calm, filled with optimism, and hungry to find solutions to design problems. I visualize my upcoming meetings, especially the scary meetings where I’m expected to stand in front of executives and present a few months of work. I visualize what success looks like and how I want to feel when I finish my presentation. I also visualize what failure might look like, and by doing so, I become less afraid of failure. I visualize what would happen if I answered the question wrong, or if I tripped and fell on my way to the front! Or worse — forgetting everything and going blank! Visualization allows me to have power over my thoughts and anxieties. It also helps me celebrate my successes (even if they are small) and reduce the gloomy doomy, scary feelings that have overwhelmed me in the past.

3. This may be controversial: Slow down on the caffeine.
Seriously though, how much caffeine do you drink? If you’re like me, the answer is too much. Caffeine is a stimulant that may trigger your “fight or flight” response. And after a conversation with my therapist, I decided to decrease my caffeine consumption. I didn’t realize the effect it had on me at work! Decreasing my caffeine intake helped me feel more calm, and decreased my anxiety. Decreasing caffeine is not for everyone but I found that reducing my intake significantly improved my mental health.

4. Take advantage of workplace benefits and wellness programs.
Anxiety and other mental disorders can be difficult to manage without help. Many companies, including WillowTree, have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which is a confidential, pre-paid assessment and counseling service designed to provide you and your family with assistance in managing everyday concerns. It’s been a great resource to me, and also a good resource to provide to fellow mentees and coworkers. Some companies also have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that help individuals with similar backgrounds or life experiences connect with one another — WillowTree’s ERGs include Chronic Illness, Accessibility, and Mental Health Support, Female/Non-Binary Engineers, Trees of Color, LGBTQ+ Trees, and many others. You can learn more about our ERGs by visiting this page.

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Only 1 in 4 adults with an anxiety disorder have discussed their mental health issues in a workplace setting. I encourage you to share and talk about mental health with your mentees and peers. Hopefully, by doing so it will break down the fear and stigma associated with discussing mental health and provide help and support for teammates facing these challenges.

For more information on mental health resources visit www.nimh.nih.gov

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