CareerCommunication

The hidden challenge of social anxiety in the workplace

To mark the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, a panel discussion bringing together professionals from the field of health and wellbeing in Cornwall was held at The Museum of Cornish Life in Helston as part of the “I was, I am, I will be” exhibition that Quiet Connections developed in collaboration with the museum, Portheden and Joining Dots.

Who was on the panel? Dr Ellen Wilkinson -Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust; Dr Whitney CurryAdvanced Public Health Practitioner at Cornwall Council; Michelle West –Registered Nurse with personal experience as a service user; PC Del Allerton-Baldwin –Cornwall’s mental health focused police constable (co-funded by Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and Devon and Cornwall Police); Dave Chaisty –Founder of Portheden; Donovan GardinerCamborne Pool Redruth Foodbank Manager; and Patrick Aubrey-Fletcher -National Farmers’​ Union County Adviser for Cornwall. The discussion was chaired by BBC Radio Cornwall’s Laurence Reed.

The panel were exploring the topic of “Stress, how are we coping in Cornwall?” and audience members had the opportunity to ask questions either during the discussion or anonymously in writing before the discussion started. We were particularly interested in one of the anonymous questions put to the panel:

“How do we deal with social anxiety in the workplace?”

Watch the panel discussing this question at 30:45:

What immediately strikes me is that some of the panel members don’t seem to know what social anxiety is or how it might affect someone in the workplace, with a number of their responses veering off topic. Despite starting with a short definition of social anxiety from Ellen Wilkinson, the conversation initially turns to work-life balance before Laurence Reed brings the discussion back to the question of ‘social anxiety’.

Ultimately, the panel’s answer to the question “How do we deal with social anxiety in the workplace?” is that it’s important to have an honest conversation with your employer so they can make reasonable adjustments in your workplace. Of course, having a conversation with your employer about experiencing social anxiety isn’t an easy thing to do for anyone feeling socially anxious. In her own response, Whitney Curry acknowledged how difficult it can be to have these conversations about mental health.

Social anxiety is rarely spoken about

Social anxiety is a topic that is rarely spoken about despite being so common. Studies suggest over 1 in 10 people experience social anxiety -that’s around 6.6 million adults in the UK. As Ellen explains, it’s something that affects most workplaces. However, when we feel socially anxious, the very last thing we want to do is to talk about our challenges and draw attention to ourselves. We think we should be able to do certain things, like talk to strangers, answer the phone in public and speak up in meetings, just because other people seem to manage with ease. It can feel like we’re the only person struggling.

With this sense of isolation, comes a tendency to view ourselves as ‘different’ or ‘defective’ in some way. Not good enough. Of course we don’t want to highlight what we see as our flaws. We’re feeling ashamed of who we are and believe we’re not worthy of belonging; protecting ourselves the best we can by avoiding situations in which our ‘flaws’ might be seen by other people. This avoidance can be quite hard to detect. In the workplace, this could look like getting into work early to find a desk space before it gets busy; making phone calls privately from your mobile instead of the office phone; taking a sick day instead of attending a meeting; avoiding tough conversations and colleagues you might have a challenging relationship with; staying quiet about bullying at work, and so on…

Revealing our perceived flaws (and the strategies we’ve been using to cope) to our employer feels like one of the most vulnerable conversations we can ever have. There’s a lot on the line here. In our minds, we’re opening ourselves up to -and often, expecting– judgement, criticism and rejection. What will they think of me? Will they see me as incompetent? Weak? Think I’m making excuses or being lazy? Will I be fired? What if they don’t understand?

A hidden issue is hard to understand

For anyone who doesn’t have experience of social anxiety, it isn’t always easy to understand this irrational fear of social situations. Everyone’s experience is slightly different too. Some people can’t leave their home; while some people function well in some situations, or with specific support, and not so well in other situations that you might consider similar. Take the young man who can go out drinking with friends, but he can’t take a bus to work by himself yet. What might his employer think if they saw the photos on Facebook? Then there’s the woman who can make phone calls at home, but she can’t take a call in an open plan office right now. Would her employer assume she’s lazy or not committed? And what about that person who can stand up and deliver a well-prepared speech but is struggling with the impromptu nature of everyday conversations and speaking up in meetings. Would they be seen as disinterested, rude or antisocial?

The sad truth is that the nuances of social anxiety and the way we do our best to hide our experiences, combined with the way that as human beings, we naturally ‘fill in the blanks’ and make assumptions about other people’s stories, do leave us open to judgement from people who don’t have awareness of social anxiety. And how can anyone improve a situation they don’t really understand?

Talking about social anxiety in the workplace

As employees, we have a responsibility to make sure we’re not leaving too many ‘blanks’ for our employers. They can’t understand our experience or do anything to help improve our situation in the workplace until they have more information about what’s going on for you. They need to hear about the tasks you’re finding challenging right now, and your suggestions for making it easier. Yes, that means having conversations that feel vulnerable, but you can do that. If you find your employer struggling to understand, you could compare your experiences to something that they can relate to. So, if they’re afraid of heights, you might ask how they would feel if they had to take their phone calls while rock climbing at the office. Find what works for you –maybe a breathing technique, a self-compassion exercise, or affirming your values beforehand. You could take notes into a discussion with you, or write a letter for your employer to read first. 

As employers, we have a responsibility to all our employees to get curious and question the automatic assumptions we make about their behaviours; asking ourselves ‘what else could be true?’. What difference would it make if our primary intention was to seek to understand our employees’ experiences, creating safe space for them to share the unspoken with us. What if we were practising responding with empathy and compassion; seeing from the employees’ perspective and being sensitive to the shame that they’re feeling? And as social anxiety is the third most common mental health issue (behind depression and alcohol dependence), and we are highly likely to come across it in our workplace, perhaps we all have a duty to at least have an awareness of the signs and impact of social anxiety too? 

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