Career Report
November, 2008 — Issue 105

Bob Larson, CPC
Bob Larson, CPC

Dealing with Financial Anxiety

Day after day of economic turmoil is making it harder for employees to concentrate on their work. With corporate profits falling, jobs disappearing, and stock prices dropping, many can’t stop worrying about their job security, their retirement portfolio and their whole future. In a Q&A feature published by The New York Times, careers columnist Phyllis Korkki offered the following insight and guidance on the topic of dealing with financial anxiety.

Q: Is it normal to worry about the economic turmoil?

It’s only natural to feel anxious during a financial crisis. But understand that anxiety can distort reality, disrupt thinking and erode performance—unless you take steps to manage it. “Our minds are trying to protect us by bringing up things we should worry about,” said Margaret Wehrenberg, a clinical psychologist in Naperville, Ill., and co-author of “The Anxious Brain.” Too easily, though, these negative thoughts can crowd out all others as they replay in an endless loop inside the brain.

“Right now, the whole United States is a little uptight,” Dr. Wehrenberg told the newspaper. But the feeling is worse for people “who tend to ruminate a lot anyway and have a hard time turning off those worried thoughts.”

Q. How can anxiety affect people’s work?

Anxiety creates cognitive distortion and can make it harder for people to concentrate and to process information, said Myra S. White, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School who focuses on workplace performance. Their decision-making is impaired, and they are more likely to make mistakes, she said. Because they can’t listen as well, they may need to have instructions repeated to them several times. They may also have shorter fuses and become more impatient.

“Anxiety is living in the past or the future; it’s not living in the moment,” Dr. Wehrenberg said, so the work in front of you is bound to suffer.

Q. Can your co-workers have an effect on your anxiety level?

It is very easy to “catch” anxiety through a process known as “emotional contagion,” said Sigal G. Barsade, associate management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Densely populated workplaces, she said, are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. So if one of your colleagues is moaning that her portfolio has fallen 40 percent and that she will never be able to retire, or another is ranting that your company is sure to go under, be aware that you could “catch” their emotions almost as if they were colds. “The key to absorbing negative emotions is “to take them in but not let them take over,” she said.

a Professor Barsade told the newspaper that anxiety might be worsening the financial crisis. A kind of collective anxiety—in part emerging in the workplace—could cause people to take overly drastic actions with their money, which could hurt the economy, she said. Managers need to be aware that their employees are feeling anxious now, she added. They should let employees express their anxiety—and should discuss and clarify the company’s situation honestly.

Q. Are there physical aspects to anxiety?

“Anxiety can wreck havoc on the body,” said Dr. White, who has a doctorate in psychology. Physical symptoms can include a pounding heart, sweaty hands, headaches and indigestion. She also noted that anxious people tend to hold their breath and take shallow breaths, so work on taking deep breaths, especially when you exhale.

Yoga, meditation, exercising or simply taking a walk can also help dispel symptoms, Dr. White said. “Any time you’re really stuck in your mind, moving your body helps shift it,” Dr. Wehrenberg added.

Q. What else can you do to tame anxiety?

Dr. Wehrenberg recommends this strategy: worry once and do it well. In other words, if you’re going to fret, be systematic about it and get it over with. If you’re concerned about your finances, for example, meet with a financial planner and decide what steps to take to protect assets as best you can. If you’re worried about losing a job, update your résumé and lay all the other initial groundwork for a job search. Then focus on the job you still have; that is something you can control, as opposed to some horrific future scenario that may never occur.

If you start to feel anxious about your job or your finances, remind yourself that you have a plan that you have done everything you can at this time, Dr. Wehrenberg said. Say to yourself, “Stop, I already worried, then pull yourself back to your work,” she said. But if you feel overwhelmed by anxiety to the point that you can’t finish your tasks or are having destructive thoughts or abusing drugs or alcohol, you should seek professional help, she said.

News from BLK

We would like to remind all our readers that our consulting/contracting program, “Transitional Talent for Tenuous Times” has experienced double-digit growth in the past several months. For employers hesitant or unable to add to headcount, hiring contractors provides a risk-free solution. To learn about our consulting services, please contact Michele Meussner, CTS, Director, Client Services, at 201-556-2884 or

Susan Cocchiaro, PHR, CPC, CERS, and Joanne Ehlermann, PHR, were the featured speakers at a recent program at Ramapo College for students ready to enter the workforce. Presented in conjunction with the College’s Cahill Career Resource Center, the program provided valuable information on various job-search and employment topics, with Susan and Joanne acting as Subject Matter Experts.