Company directors are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as employees at other levels, according to a survey of 1,000 UK workplaces. Indeed, the findings revealed, the basic process of communicating carries particularly unnerving connotations, with 94% of directors struck by anxiety around just that single issue.

Conducted by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s corporates-focused subsidiary RADA in Business, the survey also found that networking with new business prospects and pitching are scenarios in which 39% of senior directors feel most unsure about their performance.

In parallel, almost a third (31%) say they are nervous about their ideas being shot down or talked over – an unusual figure, considering that directors are in positions of authority – while an equal-sized segment say they are fearful of people thinking less of them.

Interestingly, the proportion of junior staff who experienced anxiety issues with communication emerged as 92%: very high, but still slightly less than the amount of affected directors.

RADA in Business tutor Claire Dale said: “Businesses looking to direct training towards tackling stage fright and feelings of anxiety when communicating in the workplace should focus first on the lowest and highest levels within their organisations.”

She noted: “In the same way an actor does before a performance, those in senior or leadership positions can benefit from making small but powerful shifts in their behaviour before facing a situation that triggers communication anxiety. This could involve grounding themselves through changes in their body language and stance, improving their physical presence and gravitas, or controlling their breath to create greater vocal power.”

However, apart from those behavioural fixes, what kind of organisational strategies can leaders implement to control their anxieties?

“I think we will probably see a generational shift on this issue,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James. “One of the positive aspects of young people’s preoccupation with social networking – and with the reams of feedback that their posts generate – is that they may join the workforce with a much less self-conscious attitude to how they present themselves.

“But for older generations who have more established footholds in the world of work, I think the most tangible source of anxiety stems from a fear or dislike of being judged. And that’s one of the major reasons why some leaders find it more comfortable not to be open and transparent; to make decisions behind closed doors; to communicate as little information as possible. Because then you are not held to account – you don’t have to explain what you’re doing.”

James notes: “it’s also important to spare a thought for those working in customer-facing jobs, which are extremely stressful. There’s significant scope for uncertainty and volatility in those relationships, because of the constant potential for clients to throw out curveballs – whether in terms of complex new-business requests, or unexpected complaints. You’re in the full glare of the client’s scrutiny, and may not always be able to tell exactly where the conversation is going – so that whole experience is hugely exposing.”

On the point of what organisations can do to help their employees combat their anxieties, James says: “create a climate in which feedback is provided in a strictly constructive way – in other words, where it’s given kindly and helpfully. When you are critiquing someone to help them improve their communication, highlight areas where they have been doing a great job, too, and they will instinctively aim to accentuate the qualities that have enabled them to make positive impacts.”

James adds: “It’s very much about building a nurturing environment in which it is okay to be human, and to make mistakes. And which encourages people’s self-improvement efforts. Even the most experienced actors freeze up, so it should be no surprise that the same applies to experienced leaders and junior staff. If you’re called upon to speak to a group of people that you’ve either never met before – or know only as workplace acquaintances – then it’s entirely understandable why that would provoke anxiety.

“As an individual, then, prepare as best you can. Be resilient in the face of any nerves that do emerge – and debrief yourself after you’ve spoken. Write down the parts of the experience that you felt worked, and the areas where perhaps anxiety crept in. Think about what happened within your body during those moments, and how you could limit those reactions in subsequent speeches.”

 For further thoughts on positive psychology, check out this learning item from the Institute