Can A Workplace Have A Panic Attack?
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
There's a lot of information available about individuals having panic attacks and most people understand what they are. Just in case you don't know what they are let me describe them for you. A panic attack occurs suddenly, with or without an immediate external threat, in times of or under conditions of high stress and anxiety.
Although there are thirteen "official" symptoms of panic attacks, the most usual experience is a sudden sense of fear or dread, rapid heartbeat, a sense of shortness of breath, confusion and/or mental blank-out and a sense of urgency to do something without knowing what to do. In addition, the sufferer may have a sense of unreality, questioning "is this happening or am I dreaming? Am I actually here?"
The overall feeling often results in behavioral paralysis, and/or illogical or otherwise inappropriate behavior.
(Note:A person with no psychological disorders can have panic attacks during times of high stress. If panic attacks persist into times when there are no external causes for stress and anxiety, and the sufferer has no awareness of immediate threat in his life, but does tend to live in a fairly anxious state nevertheless, then psychologists will usually suspect "panic disorder.")
The above set of symptoms describes an individual experience of a panic attack. However an entire organization -- or segment of it -- can manifest symptoms of a panic attack. And it can damage the business.
When times are tough, whether for the organization, the industry or the economy as a whole, both management and employees are naturally going to be under stress. So, they will be hypersensitive to any news or events that could be taken as signs or omens of impending disaster. They will not be simply anticipating a bit of bad news, they will be imagining the worst. People called into the boss' office may not necessarily think "this is it, I'm going to be laid off," but they may feel an anxiety that wasn't there in better times.
The story of Chicken Little comes to mind as a metaphor of workplace anxiety and the company-wide panic that can follow some of the fairly meaningless events that employees or management take out of context or blow out of proportion. If you'll recall the story, Chicken Little is walking through the woods one day, when an acorn falls on her head. For no particular reason and without any logic whatsoever, she interprets the event as meaning the sky is falling. She starts running to tell the King and meets several friends along the way who accept her interpretation without questioning the facts and who join her in continuing and growing the hysteria. As they all hurry frantically toward the city to report to the authorities, they meet a fox, He tells them he knows a short cut to the city and leads them to his den, where he kills and eats them.
What happens if extremes of anxiety like this hit the workplace? Despite the Chicken Little example, the effects of panic are unlikely to present as hysteria. The motto "When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout," doesn't apply. What you are most likely to see are people who are becoming less and less creative. More withdrawn from friendly contact with one another. More focused on just trying to do everything right, but making more mistakes, because they actually are having trouble focusing on anything. They become less and less able to make even simple decisions, because they are afraid to be wrong. Less comunicative, because they are afraid to say something wrong. Less productive, because they are trying so hard to do everything right that they are taking much longer to do their work.
Both individuals and organizations having panic attacks may look quite normal on the surface. In fact, they often are trying very hard to look normal. But if you do a double-take, you'll see that something is wrong.
Consider the common happening of a woman at a formal dinner who aspirates some of her food and puts her embarrassment ahead of her life by leaving the table quietly and choking to death in the hallway. What was she thinking? She wasn't. She was in a panic. Just like her, as the panicky feelings take hold in a workplace, no one talks with anyone else about their dilemmas. Yet they all need help and calming.
In an organization where there is already a sense of trust and support between management and employees, calming the fears, preventing panic and resolving panic are much easier than in organizations where there was not much trust and support prior to hard times. Where there is lack of trust, you will have to gain it in order to be believed and to be effective.
You need individuals with leadership ability, power, authority and trust who are calm and sure within themselves and can calm and reassure everyone else. You need to have an excellent communication system with your employees and make even greater use of that system when you have reason to believe high anxiety prevails in the workplace. You may not be able to control the economy or the events of the marketplace, but you can show your employees your concern for their welfare and allay their fears. If there is reason for fear, such as an impending layoff, you can at least share the facts with them and keep them "in the loop," so that they know what's up and don't have to imagine. However bad the facts are, their imagination probably will be worse.
These are the circumstances where you need leaders with "people skills" or "soft skills." If you've been developing those people in management, you've got a head start in identifying, preventing and resolving workplace anxiety and panic. If you've been developing basically "Theory X" type management, you are in trouble. Look around your organization and find employees who are good leaders, with great "people skills" and start developing them now. That very act alone will be reassuring to the rest.
Any organization, anywhere, anytime can go into panic mode and shut down creativity, performance and productivity. Be aware and be prepared. Punishment doesn't work. Incentives don't work. Management care, communication, trust, reassurance and patience are the solutions. Just like when dealing with an individual in a panic attack.