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Workplace anxiety the focus of Plumptre award winner’s research

Anxiety in the workplace and during job interviews is the focus of research by UTSC management professor Julie McCarthy. Photo Source:, Photo by wagg66

Professor Julie McCarthy discusses how to ease stress at job interviews and at work

by Paul Fraumeni

Job interviews and work life in general are tough enough in the best of times. But the economic crisis has made the whole experience even more difficult, with fewer jobs available, the competition more intense and downsizing and increased workloads everywhere. But there are ways to cope.

Professor Julie McCarthy of U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management is a specialist in organizational behaviour and is an expert on anxiety in the workplace. Her recent anxiety research has been conducted by focusing on one of the most high-stress work environments there is – police services. Her report is titled "Public Policing in Canada and the Implications of Workplace Anxiety." Through this work, she has been named the recipient of this year’s Plumptre Faculty Research Fellowship, which recognizes excellence around a public policy issue, and a special lecture and reception will be held to recognize her contribution to the field on Thursday, April 30 at 4:00 p.m. in the Management Building, MW140.

In this interview, Professor McCarthy offers tips for all of us.

Q: Tell us about your research on anxiety in the workplace.

A: My research focuses on the extent to which people are anxious, the different types of anxiety that people might experience and the implications that result from this anxiety. Much of this work has looked at police services in Canada. In addition to studying broad levels of workplace anxiety, I have also conducted studies on feelings of anxiety among job applicants faced with the challenge of job interviews and/or selection tests.

I’ve done research with a number of sample groups and the findings show that, first, in work contexts, people experience more than just the physiological feelings of anxiety. Not just the weak knees and sweaty palms and a fast heartbeat. It’s more complex. For example, in job interview situations they experience levels of anxiety about their communications patterns, their performance, and their appearance. They worry, “Am I communicating effectively, is the interviewer understanding what I’m saying and interpreting it in the way that I am meaning it to come across?”

Q: Is job interview anxiety a common problem?

A: Yes, many of us experience feelings of anxiety in a job interview situation, some of us more than others. My findings consistently show that when an individual experiences anxiety it is negatively related to their performance in that interview. So their performance on that interview, as rated by the recruiter, is lower. This is a serious concern, because it can negatively affect the person’s chances of getting the job.

Q: Is anxiety in job interviews more intense now in this economic downturn?

A: I think it is safe to say that people are experiencing even higher levels of anxiety with respect to job interviews, as well as with the standardized personnel tests that many organizations are having applicants complete.

The market is more competitive in the economic crisis. We have more people applying for a smaller number of positions. This makes it more likely that people will not have alternative job offers on the table, so they’re going to be more likely to go into the interview thinking, “This is a do or die situation. The economy is really poor and there are not a lot of alternatives for me, so I absolutely must perform well on this interview.”

Going into an interview with that kind of anxiety and stress puts enormous pressure on applicants. The problem is that if they are already highly nervous before the interview, then my research suggests that it can lead to problems in being able to focus on the task at hand and that has an effect on their performance.

Q: Is the workplace a tougher place to be these days because of the economy?

A: Yes. Almost every business sector has been hit. Companies are downsizing and those that aren’t are initiating hiring freezes. So it makes it particularly hard on people who are still in the organization, even though they have jobs. They feel confusion, anxiety and even guilt about colleagues who have been let go and they may be wondering, “Why am I still here?”

Couple that with the fact that companies that are putting increased workloads on the individuals who remain, even if the companies are not downsizing. It makes the work experience very tense. Again, anxiety in the workplace is something we need to be concerned about.

Q: How can you make a job interview or work experience more positive for yourself in these times?

A: You need to prepare. Go in knowing as much as you can about the organization. And people are generally pretty good about doing that. But you also need to go in knowing about yourself.

Sometimes we assume that we know where we’re coming from but often we’re not as in tune with ourselves as we think. So we need to review our qualifications, work history and our personal style in job interviews. Conduct mock interviews. You can do them with friends or family members. Try to understand the way you are communicating in a job interview situation. Get a list of three or four questions that are likely to be asked and have your mock interviewer ask you them. Practice what you’re going to say and how you’re going to present yourself. We know that interviewers are strongly influenced by an applicant’s personal style.

Some of us have habits that we might not be aware of. In a mock interview, a friend might be able to say to you, “Listen, you’re fidgeting non-stop” or “You are saying certain things over and over or you’re not looking me in the face.”

Do the mock interview professionally. Get dressed up and ask your mock interviewer to get dressed up. Get a video camera and tape the interview. This is wonderful because you can go back and watch yourself and see your behaviours. That can be useful to see yourself and then say, “Hang on a minute, I’m conveying this image but that’s not what I want to really convey.”

Q: What about handling anxiety in the workplace?

A: This is the focus of some of my newer research. And again the findings show that anxiety is negatively related to performance on the job.

An effective strategy is called work recovery. In short, you need to give yourself time to recover from the stresses of work.

I have data that shows that exercise helps to reduce anxiety. It is also useful to practice psychological detachment – being able to mentally detach yourself from the workplace, so when you come home you can maintain an increased separation from the work. Focus on things at home, on your well-being, your family, friends and community, your hobbies. Put work out of your head.

At work, make it a priority to take a break. Go for a walk or have lunch with a friend. Even just 10 or 15 minutes can be valuable.

Coping strategies are important. Don’t completely avoid a hard problem or stressful assignment. By the time you get back to it the problem may have increased. Also, while some of us may find it helpful to talk about work problems with friends and family, don’t spend too much time on that. The data shows that too much of this is detrimental, because you’re taking the focus away from the problem at hand and you’re ultimately going to have less time to do the work. You’re not recovering.

So, work on what I call problem-focused coping. Try to engage in strategies that focus on actively reducing the problem at hand.

Q: Can you give us an example of using problem-focused coping?

A: Say your company has downsized and your workload has become heavier. Suddenly there are new skills you need. So, what do you do? You can talk to people and complain about it. You can avoid it, but it’s going to catch up with you. The better way is to focus all your energies on this new challenge. Talk to the people who can help you, enroll in a training program, or read relevant material. Immerse yourself in the problem until you have control of it.

Ultimately, you need to combine problem-focused coping with work recovery strategies. And, in fact, one feeds the other. But that combination will help balance and manage your anxiety.

The Wynne and Beryl Plumptre Faculty Research Fellowship was established in honour of Wynne Plumptre, a distinguished Canadian economist who was Principal of the Scarborough campus from 1965 to 1972, and his wife Beryl, a well-known Canadian economist. The fellowship is funded by donations from the Plumptre family and friends. For more details on this year's Plumptre Lecture, click here.



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