Anxiety isn’t always detrimental to work performance and can offer a boost, according to a study by Bonnie Hayden Cheng of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Julie M. McCarthy from the University of Toronto Scarborough.

They point out that previous research has in the main presented workplace anxiety in negative terms: after all, it can result in low performance, trigger unethical behaviours or even lead to psychological disorders. But in some situations, workplace anxiety can boost performance by helping employees focus and self-regulate their behaviour, say the researchers in their study, Understanding the dark and bright sides of anxiety: A theory of workplace anxiety.

To reconcile these seemingly contradictory findings and gain a more accurate perspective on the effects of workplace anxiety, the researchers developed a new model that sets out the triggers for workplace anxiety, and how and when this can have both negative and positive effects on job performance. The Theory of Workplace Anxiety (TWA), as they call the model, draws on and advances existing research and theories on anxiety and stress.

The model makes a distinction between two types of workplace anxiety: dispositional and situational. The first relates to individual differences in feelings of nervousness or unease about job performance. The second concerns a transient emotional state reflecting nervousness or unease about specific tasks or ‘episodes’ in an employees’ daily work life, such as meeting a deadline.

The model outlines how both types of workplace anxiety can, in certain situations, produce beneficial effects. A moderate level of anxiety can lead employees to engage in ‘self-regulatory processing’ – monitoring their own progress on a task and focusing their efforts towards performing that task, ultimately boosting performance. Conditions that can help prompt this response include motivation, emotional intelligence and ability.

Cheng explains that work-anxious employees who are motivated are likely to harness anxiety to help them focus on tasks. Those who are emotionally intelligent are adept at recognising their anxiety and so use this to regulate their performance. Those who are experienced and skilled at their job are also less likely to let anxiety affect their performance. "Clearly, anxiety is more complex than how it has been modelled in the past," the research paper says.

The TWA model, it adds, has practical relevance for personnel selection practices, employee training, goal-setting initiatives, work-life balance programmes and leadership development strategies.

This article was originally published in Work. magazine, Summer 2018.

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