How to Support an Employee with Social Anxiety

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Fostering an inclusive and supportive environment in the workplace is crucial for the mental well-being of employees. One often overlooked aspect of creating such an environment is providing support for those who may be silently struggling with anxiety. In this blog post we shall detail what social anxiety is, how to recognize it in the workplace and most importantly how to ensure those afflicted have as stress-free an experience as possible.

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety refers to a disorder whereby the afflicted fear in social situations. This fear is persistent (lasting for 6 or more months) and marked, meaning the fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the threat posed by the social situation. The disorder is a continuum and so the degree of fear felt may vary case by case. Some may experience overwhelming fears, others may experience fear that is more manageable. Those afflicted oftentimes experience overwhelming self-consciousness and fear of judgement which may manifest itself physically: sweating, trembling, and an increased heart rate. These symptoms can be triggered by an array of different social settings. Some may experience social anxiety through everyday situations such as speaking to people and others may only experience social anxiety whilst they’re speaking in front of a large group of people. There are various causes of social anxiety, some of which are innate, however others may have experienced something traumatic which has left them with the condition. For some, the effects of social anxiety lessen as they age, and unfortunately for others it is a condition which does not go away without treatment.

How to Recognize Social Anxiety in the Workplace?

Given that those with the condition may encounter difficulties voicing their social vulnerabilities to someone it’s of the utmost importance that you can identify it and attempt to provide support. Approaching them with empathy goes without saying. High levels of criticism tend to accompany social anxiety. They may be overly concerned with how others view them or the criticisms of others which may hint at them suffering with social anxiety. Socially anxious individuals may actively avoid social situations with seemingly plausible reasons, while in reality they just have social anxiety. In such a case, consider offering them an opportunity to be a part of any social event remotely. Limited eye contact is also a sign of those with this condition. Interestingly, striving for perfection in their work may simply be a way of avoiding criticism which is also a symptom of social anxiety. Social anxiety manifests itself in various guises, including some ways that we may not expect. One of the more obvious signs is when employees tend to isolate themselves excessively from others. This may take form as physically isolating themselves by using a remote desk, rarely initiating social conversations or declining social invitations. Now one must reserve judgement, in the case that an employee exhibits any of these behaviours it is not an a priori case of social anxiety. Other factors such as introversion may play a role. Nonetheless, if you feel an employee has social anxiety, approach the situation with empathy and care.

How Can You Support Socially Anxious Employees?

Each and every case of social anxiety is unique, and so there are nuances attached to each. In order to adequately support employees a one-size-fits all resolution simply will not cut it. First and foremost, ask your employees how you can provide them with support and more importantly actively listen and empathise with their troubles. Once that has been established, act on it, if it can’t be acted on swiftly inform your employee that you are working on providing that accommodation. Avoiding judgement, being patient and encouraging professional help are some of the ways you can support employees with social anxiety.

Education and Awareness

As stated above, each case of social anxiety is different. The condition is a continuum, and therefore the best way to educate yourself on the condition in a way helpful to your employees is to simply ask them. Take caution to do so in a way which is gentle and doesn’t inadvertently trigger their social anxiety. If an employee is acting peculiar in social situations, acknowledge that they may have social anxiety rather than judging them. The DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Model or Mental Disorders) clearly details social anxiety and the problems those afflicted with it may face.

Open Communication

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I believe open communication to be the single most effective principle to effect in the workplace to make those who are socially anxious feel as though they belong and are comfortable. Socially anxious employees may find it challenging to express how they’re feeling, which makes it even harder to accommodate their difficulties. Create a culture where people feel comfortable voicing their vulnerabilities. There are various approaches your company can take to create this type of culture, namely: actually listening to the troubles your employees/colleagues encounter; conducting regular check ins with your employees whereby they can voice any issues with you; establish clear communication channels for your employees and providing communication workshops are another viable route (list is illustrative not exhaustive).

Accommodation and Flexibility

As an employer it doesn’t suffice to simply read this blog and not take any action to ensure those with social anxiety are accommodated. This is not a clarion call, demanding that you invest thousands, there are many other cost-effective accommodations you can put in place. Seriously consider allowing those with social anxiety the option to work from home should they need to. Have a supportive and empathetic conversation with an employee you suspect to be dealing with social anxiety. Resolutions need not be expensive.

In conclusion, fostering a workplace which ensures those with social anxiety feel comfortable renders benefits that extend to the company. By understanding the nature of social anxiety, recognizing the signs, implementing education channels, fostering open education, and building accommodations, you can empower your team to feel their best and contribute to the wider success of the company.

Useful links

What are anxiety tics?
Anxiety test
Is anxiety neurodivergent?
Differences between social anxiety and autism

Blog Author

Nathan Brown