Here’s a scenario many marketers dread: The CMO, under orders from the CEO, abruptly announces marketing is switching to revenue-based metrics.
‘We’ve never had to set revenue goals!’ you say as your heart beats faster. ‘We don’t even have the data to connect marketing to revenue! THIS ISN’T RIGHT!!’
That’s just one example of how work can fan the flames of anxiety. I’m certainly no stranger to it. My personal anxiety sometimes spills over into the workplace and it can be debilitating. But I’d also argue that anxiety is not always a bad thing at work. It’s a matter of channeling the right amount of anxiety to keep you striving.
Psychologists call this “optimal anxiety”. It’s based on the Yerkes–Dodson law, which dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.
In this article, I outline how anxiety manifests itself in the workplace and how I found a sweet spot for my own anxiety.
For a long time, employees and companies dealt with employee anxiety by trying to eliminate it completely, as if anxiety only has a negative effect.
Thankfully the stigma has waned in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic has made us more empathetic about anxiety. In addition, the mainstream media covers the topic more often and athletes (Kevin Love) and celebrities (Ryan Reynolds) have spoken up about their own struggles with anxiety. I’ve even started seeing more company leaders speak up about how they deal with their own massive anxiety.
This awareness has carried over into the workplace, with companies offering support groups, flexible schedules, and better access to mental health professionals. There’s certainly less tolerance these days for tyrants verbally abusing employees. The anxiety this causes has proven to be counterproductive. A World Health Organization study found that anxiety disorders cost the global economy about $1 trillion in lost productivity every year.
From my experience, employees overwhelmed by anxiety will do the bare minimum because they’re afraid to fail. They will only do what’s safe and the quality of work suffers. They fly under the radar, doing just enough to not get fired.
Another kind of anxiety is a lack of anxiety. This occurs when goals are unclear and the company culture is too lackadaisical. Think “lifestyle company”. In the same way that too much anxiety hampers risk-taking out of fear, a lack of anxiety does it out of complacency.
This leaves us with “optimal anxiety” where there’s enough to motivate you, but not enough to take you down.
To be clear: I’m not saying that anxiety is not a serious condition. It’s a real challenge that’s best treated with meditation, exercise, therapy and sometimes even prescription medication. I recommend some combination of these anxiety treatments (for me it’s meditation, exercise, and talk therapy)… but I’ll add two more methods that have paid off for me at work: relationships and data.
My best managers have pushed me out of my comfort zone and held me accountable for my work. Yet they also helped minimize anxiety by setting clear goals and not judging me when I fell short on a project. Every interaction with them was “safe”, meaning even if I had bad news, their reaction was tempered and predictable.
Stay open to discussing your feelings with your manager. It’s a two-way street. You both have to cultivate the relationship. But having a manager who pushes you but also provides a safety net is a godsend and will keep you in the anxiety sweet spot. Also, if you’re the kind of person who craves a personal relationship with your manager, but they are at arm’s length with you, reconsider whether that relationship is going to work for you or not. It’s true, people leave managers more than they leave jobs.
Data are facts (or should be). If I have high-quality, accurate data available, I can have a clearer view of what the future looks like, and know how I’m progressing against my goals. I know whether to sound the alarm, or whether I can relax a little bit and focus on other things in that moment.
Data can serve as a wake-up call about demand and budget needs. Wake up calls are scary but they ease anxiety by inspiring you to take action and create order. When I have user data in front of me, I can make predictions and feel confident I’ll reach my goals.
Here are a few specific data strategies I’ve used to curb my anxiety in the marketing roles I’ve had:
Forecasting using a demand model
I use a demand model to forecast the number of leads, opportunities and deals needed for the company to hit its goals. The model walks me back from a closed/won deal to understand how many opportunities, MQLs, leads, clicks and impressions I need and how much money will drive that demand.
Note: In a follow-up article I’ll publish this model and explain it in more detail.
Budgeting and monthly true-ups
I spend a lot of time on my budget. How much money do I have? How much did I spend last quarter? Do I need to make up for it now? Where’s my money going and what is my return on it? Then I true-up my budget every month with finance so I’m always working from the closest version of the truth.
Analyze website visitor behavior
Two campaigns may have the same number of leads but they impact users differently. I use Google Analytics to understand what else people are doing on my website. If they didn’t convert, did they at least see multiple pages or click to download content? I then use this data to better understand the relational impact of a campaign on prospects.
I’m really encouraged that we’ve finally accepted that eliminating workplace anxiety is a fool’s errand. There’s always going to be some anxiety. But you can choose to harness it, and make it optimal and put it to work for you.