Social anxiety at work

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Health Assured team

16 January 2020

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.


Is social anxiety a mental illness?


However, simply being a bit shy, or not enjoying the company of others for long isn’t itself a mental illness—you may just be introverted.

But if the above symptoms seem familiar, then you may be suffering from social anxiety disorder. And that is absolutely a mental illness, which can be diagnosed by your doctor.


Is social anxiety considered a disability?

The Equality Act 2010 states that:

“A person (P) has a disability if—

(a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and

(b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

Social anxiety disorder can certainly cause adverse effects. In more serious cases, it can mean being unable to leave the house at all—and even milder cases can greatly affect someone’s ability to live and work comfortably.


Are there different levels of social anxiety?

Yes, there are three rough categories of signs of social anxiety:

  1. Physical—e.g. blushing, trembling
  2. Behavioural—e.g. avoidance and coping mechanisms
  3. Cognitive—e.g. thought, beliefs and obsessions

Within these categories, people feel the effects in different ways—some might just occasionally feel embarrassed to walk into a new place alone, whereas others are literally paralysed with fear.

As with many mood disorders, there’re different levels to it. But still, all levels of the disorder are important.


Can social anxiety cause depression?

Yes, this is very likely to occur when it’s left unchecked.

Through severe isolation and stress, a social anxiety disorder can cause depression, certainly. Research shows a very strong relationship between social anxiety and developing depression later in life—but not in everyone.


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 some apparent 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 can cause catastrophic chain reactions of worry in those that suffer from anxiousness. Take care to watch for these signs, and when you spot them.

  • Respond appropriately—don’t barrel in by 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. Call us now on 0844 892 2493.

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