Brendan Street: The UK’s unspoken epidemic, ‘Anxious Achievers’

The latest research suggests one in six adults experience symptoms of anxiety or depression every week, and this number is on the rise.

As mental ill health continues to impact employees, we’re seeing a rise in a demographic coined ‘Anxious Achievers’ – high-performing individuals who keep underlying mental ill health close to their chests.

What is an Anxious Achiever?

Anxious achievers are employees who, at least in part, fuel positive work performance with via symptoms of anxiety. Constantly worrying about not doing enough or something going wrong drives them to always go the extra mile, but with a cost. For them, work is never ‘done’.

It is often disguised via positive performance, with employees paying extra attention to detail and working over their hours to get things done. However, behind the scenes, it’s taking a toll on health and it’s not sustainable.

This is because anxious achievers are in a state of chronic stress. And while stress is positive in small doses, giving us the concentration and energy to perform under pressure, long-term stress harms our health – with physical symptoms like insomnia, head and stomach aches, and emotional responses like increased risk of depression.

However, if you’re an Anxious Achiever you’ll usually suffer in silence because you associate perceived coping mechanisms with positive work performance. Perfectionism and over-working are often misinterpreted as the qualities of a successful person, not someone who’s experiencing distress.

Without the support needed to help employees achieve a healthier approach to work, symptoms only continue to become exacerbated, leading to poor mental and physical health and behaviours like leavism, presenteeism and eventually, total burnout.

A problem on the rise

Before employers can provide the right support, we need to understand why the number of cases is growing.

Despite a seemingly global focus on breaking the fear of discrimination often associated with mental ill-health, many employees are still reluctant to speak out for fear of impacting their professional life and career.

We all have an image of what it means to have an anxiety diagnosis and for many employees, it’s a negative one that stops them seeking support. Some individuals even feel they perform better under pressure and worry they won’t be able to keep up their successful achievements without stress, and their response to it (e.g. longer working hours) means they continue to be silent.

Plus, modern employees are working harder than ever. The growing demands on our workforce, tight deadlines and mounting workloads are producing unhealthy levels of anxiety but those facing them daily are the same people who see no choice but to keep up the routine if they want to continue to be successful. There’s an ethos that ‘It’s not okay, not to be okay’.

Spotting the signs

It can be difficult for today’s anxious achievers to notice symptoms in themselves, so it’s important HR managers look for signs stress has become unmanageable or is starting to impact an employee’s emotional wellbeing and performance at work.

It starts with noticing daily behaviours. Everyone gets stressed from time-to-time and the occasional short temper or quiet day isn’t cause for concern. However, signs of impaired performance or exhaustion – for example regularly turning up late or appearance standards slipping – suggest they may be experiencing unhealthy levels of stress.

Other signs can be noticed through workplace performance too. If an employee is having difficulty making decisions, taking only the negatives from feedback or dwelling too much on any mistakes, this is something to be aware of.

In the same vein, while we all like to be told we’re doing a good job from time to time if an employee is seeking constant validation and reassurance, this could mean anxiety is taking its toll on how they are feeling at work.

If you’re worried an employee is experiencing mental distress, check-in with their line manager to see if they’ve noticed signs of performances wavering. Also, check your absence records for patterns of increasing sick leave, as this could be a sign of underlying poor mental health.

Playing your part

It’s not just enough to notice when an employee is having difficulties, you need to be able to help guide them towards the right support.

An open culture is key, where employees are encouraged to speak out and seek help if they need it. Start by holding informal office floor chats and let employees know there’s nothing to be ashamed of and they can speak to their line managers if they have any worries.

Consider appointing mental health champions and provide training at the cost of the company to support them in the role. These are people employees can speak to about their emotional wellbeing and receive help from in an informal environment in the office.

Employers and HR teams should also consider support like employee assistance programmes (EAPs) which offer direct, confidential contact with counsellors and mental health experts.

Or, think about inviting a specialist into your workplace to discuss some potential coping mechanisms with teams. These can be arranged during work hours and employees should be encouraged to take the time out to attend and know their health is as much of a priority as their work.

It’s important to evaluate the work environment, as employees will be spending most of their time in the office, alongside colleagues. However also think about those employees who are remote workers. These workers can have unique needs. Whatever the environment, it can be valuable to talk to staff about the services they feel will help them the most.

You can do this through informal one-to-ones or anonymous feedback forms. These may include questions about whether they feel their workload and office hours are fair and the results may help you make reasonable adjustments to ease stress.

Anxious Achievers need to know it is not a manager’s expectation they give their everything to every project. Change the ‘100 percent at all times’ mindset to something more manageable and realistic and help individuals recognise ‘worth’ is built on positive contributions, which do not need to be perfect.





Brendan is the Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health. He has 30 years’ experience of treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector.
He has delivered mental health treatments in various settings; hospital, community, offenders/prison and homeless hostels, employment/corporate, to adults and children suffering from a wide range of conditions (psychosis, anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD).

Brendan is a BABCP Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and Supervisor, fully qualified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) practitioner, and NMC registered Mental Health Nurse.