Social Anxiety and the Office Environment

March 23, 2019

Anxious woman fears her coworkers are criticizing her
John Rossheim

If you aren't close to someone with social anxiety, you might not immediately see why it's such a common disorder related to mental health in the workplace. After all, work is work; it's not primarily an arena for socializing.

But think about some typical work situations: You frequently meet new people, whether customers or new hires, and worry about what they think of you — that's the hallmark of social anxiety. You may speak in front of sizable groups. You're supervised closely and evaluated regularly. You occasionally attend office parties, where people with structured workday relationships suddenly find themselves informally gathered around chips and dip as social equals — but not really. You may randomly encounter executives of much higher rank and find yourself speechless or stammering.

Yes, the workplace can be a hall of horrors for people with social anxiety disorder. The good news is, there are effective ways to cope with social anxiety at work, whether this debilitating, distracting condition afflicts you or a coworker.

What's the Difference Between Social Anxiety and Generalized Anxiety?

Social anxiety and generalized anxiety are distinguished primarily by the sorts of situations that trigger these two disorders, which can manifest in physical symptoms as well as emotional distress.

"Socialanxiety disorder involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations," according to the Cleveland Clinic. "The worry often centers on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule. Generalized anxiety disorder, by contrast, "involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety," and can afflict people in almost any life situation.

How Can Someone With Social Anxiety More Comfortably Navigate the Workplace?

It may never be easy for people with social anxiety to work face-to-face with others, but various techniques can reduce stress and emotional disturbance while improving personal productivity. Here are five tactics to try:

  • Control your breathing; try slow, deep breaths.
  • Identify negative thoughts about yourself. Challenge those thoughts.
  • Shift your mental focus from yourself to your coworkers and how you can help each other.
  • Face your fears about what people think of you, starting with the smallest things and working your way up.
  • Consider seeking treatment. Ask your primary care physician, psychologist or psychiatrist where to start. Know that social anxiety is common — and that a good practitioner will be glad you recognize your need for help.

What Treatments Are Available?

At least three types of treatment have proven to help people whose lives and work are significantly affected by social anxiety: cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction and medication.

"The best way to treat social anxiety is through cognitive behavioral therapy or medication – and often both," according to WebMD. "The goal is to build confidence, learn skills that help you manage the situations that scare you most, and then get out into the world."

A 2016 article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology reports that both cognitive behavioral group therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction both produced improvements in people with social anxiety disorder.

How Can Coworkers and Organizations Support Workers Living With Social Anxiety?

Supervisors, coworkers, human resources managers and disability officers can come to the aid of colleagues with social anxiety at work.

The Job Accommodation Network suggests these workplace accommodations, among others:

  • Move the afflicted worker to a workstation with more privacy and fewer random contacts with others in the office.
  • Offer phone or email communication, if the employee believes that this would be less stressful than face-to-face.
  • Offer workers with social anxiety a modified schedule so that they can attend therapy sessions or medical appointments.

Finally, managers of people with social anxiety should keep in mind these wise words from Boston University's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation regarding mental health in the workplace: "Each actual situation must be considered on an individual basis to determine the best accommodation that does not pose undue hardship."

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