How Job Anxiety Can Help You Succeed

Author says you should embrace change and angst—and now is the perfect time to do it.

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It wouldn't be fair, really, for the media to detail each twist and turn in the economic downturn dance, parade doomsday data before your eyes at every opportunity, and then tell you to relax. So we won't.

We'll suggest, instead, how to be anxious. Psychologist and business adviser Robert Rosen, author of the new book Just Enough Anxiety, believes that a healthy amount of nail-biting actually drives people—and companies—to be successful. This is a particularly topsy-turvy time. "There's more change and uncertainty in the world right now than there has been in a long time," Rosen says. But anxiety used well can make all the difference—it can challenge and motivate us. Here's how to make it work for you:

Rethink anxiety. People have long been conditioned to think about anxiety and change as negatives, as things to attack, rather than seeing them as opportunities for growth, Rosen says. But "this is what life is all about," he says. Never mind the recession worries—the economy always goes up and down. And in the age of globalization, jobs are always on the line. Even the Mayo Clinic says a moderate amount of anxiety can be a good thing, helping motivate us to excel at work.

Don't let it overwhelm you. If you let anxiety grow too big, it can turn to panic. People who have too much anxiety show the face of fear, Rosen says. They live in tension and can be impatient, preoccupied with success.

Too much anxiety can also do major damage to employee productivity. According to a recent study, American workers in February reported wasting 2.3 hours of each 9.2-hour workday. That's up 44 percent over last year. Leadership IQ, which conducted the survey, blames the trend on "recession rumination." Last year, workers said their No. 1 time waster was shopping online. This year, workers are wasting the most time surfing the Net for information on career improvement (not that there's anything wrong with that!).

Don't ignore it. Workers with too little anxiety avoid conflict and seem overly positive. It's as though they're living in a bubble, Rosen says. They can also be less willing to take risks and have a tendency to overplease.

Embrace the uncertainty. Good leaders see anxiety as a positive, Rosen says. Without it, they know they're not taking enough risks. They also are able to maintain their confidence throughout a recessionary period, whether because they expect to keep their job or because they believe they can recover even if they lose it. Rosen, who is CEO of research and consulting firm Healthy Companies International, held 250 face-to-face interviews with CEOs and found a common quality of great leaders—all were able to live and lead with "just enough anxiety."

Remember the past. Yes, the job market is rocky. But it's nothing you can't handle. Employees have dealt with change and uncertainty their whole lives. "This is nothing new," Rosen says. People have a much greater capacity to deal with change than they think they do.

Embrace your boss's prodding. Management expert David Maister, author of Strategy and the Fat Smoker, agrees with Rosen's take on anxiety. In his experience, Maister says that workers generally fit into three categories: dynamos, cruisers, or losers. If employees were left to their own devices, most would be cruisers. Only about 20 percent of us would be self-motivated dynamos—the sort who get up early and go for a run. Good managers add value by introducing enough energy and anxiety to get cruisers moving.

Build internal and external support. Rosen suggests workers spend time cultivating their confidence and courage. The truth is that layoffs and illnesses are often opportunities in disguise: Maybe you get pushed out of a job you dislike and it's a chance to rethink your career, skills, or purpose in life. Know that you can get through it; then learn to recover and bounce back. Also, Rosen says, ask family and friends for support.

Let others be anxious. If a coworker or your boss is fretting about the future, don't discourage it. Rosen thinks this is important. Many companies are poor at managing the emotional side of change. It's important to give people the opportunity to express their anxieties.