How to help an employee with social anxiety

Social anxiety isn’t easy to deal with.

We’re all familiar with anxiety—that sense of nervousness and unease that we feel when we’re uncertain—but what about people who are nervous when faced with meeting, talking to and being around others?

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety disorder, also known as ‘social phobia,’ is estimated to affect 12% of people, and often occurs alongside other issues such as depression, panic disorder and PTSD. It’s an overwhelming fear of social situations.

Social anxiety symptoms include:

  • Intense fear of interacting with others, enough to cause avoidance.
  • Nervousness when faced with ordinary everyday activities like meeting people, sharing small talk, or speaking on the phone.
  • A sense of sickness, trembling or increased heart rate when faced with social situations.
  • A sense of being judged or watched constantly.
  • Avoiding eye contact, or staying quiet.

It’s more than just being shy, or not wanting to talk to others. It’s a debilitating, often irrational fear, and causes mental health to suffer.

Are there different levels of social anxiety?

There are three rough categories of signs of social anxiety:

  • Physical: E.g. blushing, trembling.
  • Behavioural: E.g. avoidance and coping mechanisms.
  • Cognitive: E.g. thought, beliefs and obsessions.

Within these categories, people feel the effects in different ways—some might occasionally feel embarrassed to walk into a new place alone, whereas others are paralysed with fear. As with many mood disorders, it’s a spectrum. But still, all levels of the disorder are important.

What can I do to ease social anxiety at work?

If you suspect an employee is suffering from social anxiety, there are some sensitive ways to address this. Remember, everyone is different, and the spectrum of social anxiety causes is vast, including:

  • Experiences: Past trauma, childhood fears.
  • Negative beliefs: Deeply-held convictions about self-worth.
  • Genetics: There's believed to be a link between mood disorders and family.
  • Neurology: There are certain patterns of brain activity common in those with anxiety.

Bearing this in mind, it’s a good idea to take a wide approach when considering how to help someone with social anxiety, rather than trying to drill down to their specific triggers.

  • Make the workplace as inviting as possible: Cluttered space and loud people can be triggering to someone with social anxiety. That’s not to say everyone should work in silence, but politeness, appropriate volume and tidy desks make a more welcoming space for everybody.
  • Watch for and identify behaviours: Does an employee consistently wriggle out of presenting reports to others, picking up the phone or heading to other offices to talk to people? It’s likely they’re anxious. Sometimes, this is interpreted as laziness or unwillingness to work—and this can cause catastrophic chain reactions of worry in the anxious. Take care to watch for these signs, and when you spot them…
  • Respond appropriately: Don’t barrel in, asking sharp questions and demanding answers. Have a quiet conversation in a private place, and ask calm questions. Try to find out what causes the anxiety, and then you can…
  • Provide managed solutions: Work with the person to make the work environment easier for them to navigate. Find a quieter desk, let them wear headphones, be open to different working hours.

Social anxiety disorder at work can be hard to deal with, but Health Assured can help. Talk to our wellbeing experts any time 24/7/365 to find out how to better work with those suffering mood disorders.

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