A wellbeing expert unpacks the signs, symptoms and triggers of social anxiety in the workplace, and the steps employers can take to manage it.
For employees experiencing social anxiety, navigating any interaction at work can feel like an uphill battle.
According to research published by the ABS last year, anxiety is the most common form of mental illness impacting Australians, with one in six (16.8 per cent) reporting having experienced anxiety at some point in the previous 12 months.
The findings also indicate that anxiety disorders disproportionately impact women and younger generations. Almost one third (31.5 per cent) of people aged 16-24 years said they’d experienced anxiety in the past year. For women in this cohort, that number rose to 41.3 per cent.
See the graph below for a breakdown of anxiety prevalence in Australia by age and gender.
Social anxiety disorder is a form of anxiety characterised by a fear of scrutiny in social situations. It differs from generalised anxiety disorder, which causes excessive worry about various aspects of life as well as physical symptoms like restlessness and sleep disturbances.
For those living with social anxiety disorder, everyday interactions can trigger intense feelings of fear, self-consciousness and embarrassment.
According to Audrey McGibbon, chartered occupational psychologist, executive coach and wellbeing expert, certain work settings can be particularly stressful for people with social anxiety.
“It consumes more energy for them to do things like a turn up to a meeting, particularly where there are going to be people there who they don’t already know or have an established relationship with – or, they do know them, and their brain is telling them that is an individual that is going to judge them harshly or unfairly,” she says.
Spotting the signs of social anxiety
One of the challenges employers face in managing social anxiety among employees is the difficulty of identifying it.
McGibbon points to some physical symptoms to look out for, including visible fear, sweating, blushing or trembling during certain social interactions. With that said, some of the key indicators of anxiety are harder to spot.
For instance, while we tend to associate social anxiety with introverted, shy personality types, outgoing personalities are by no means immune to the disorder.
“There is a relationship between extraversion and being less socially anxious,” says McGibbon. “But the corporate world is full of people who’ve got an extraverted energy, but it’s a learned extraversion – they force themselves to do this. You can learn the veneer of an extravert while retaining acute crises in social confidence and self-confidence.”
See HRM’s infographic on managing anxiety and stress in the workplace.
She also points out that anxiety is not an indicator of performance. In fact, personality types prone to anxiety often exhibit highly productive and perfectionist work styles that make them high performers.
Social anxiety can be particularly difficult to identify in male employees, she says; given that women generally find it easier to talk about their mental health, it’s difficult for both employers and statisticians to paint an accurate picture of the prevalence of mental disorders among men.
“Men tend to do more externalising [of symptoms] via their behaviours rather than discussions. So the anxiety rates may be just as high, but what it gets recorded as is aggression or [something else]. But underlying a lot of that behaviour is anxiety.”
In McGibbon’s experience, one of the most common subtle signs of social anxiety at work is when an employee tends to be conspicuously absent during socially taxing situations. For example, they may make excuses or call in sick on the day of a networking session or a meeting where they need to make a presentation.
This is likely to be more apparent in a hybrid working environment, where anxious employees may seem more inclined to stay at home as much as possible to avoid interactions with their colleagues.
On the spectrum of mental health disorders, McGibbon says that social anxiety is comparatively very treatable. Therefore, educated interventions from employers and HR when they observe these behaviours can make a huge difference in improving employees’ mental health.
Supporting employees with social anxiety
In her work as an executive coach in the wellbeing space, one of the most common questions McGibbon is asked is, ‘How can I support a person with anxiety without being intrusive or making it worse?’
To help their people manage anxiety in everyday settings, she says it’s crucial that leaders know them well enough as individuals to understand what might trigger their symptoms.
“[For example], they would have to be extra aware of not picking on someone who might be feeling social anxiety in a meeting by saying, ‘Come on, what do you think?’ If they’re socially anxious, that would be the moment they’d dread.
“But, you’ve also got to try and find the balance between not making them feel uncomfortable and not ignoring them, which might feel like you’re excluding or ostracising them.”
Nonverbal behaviour can be hugely effective in achieving this, she says – eye contact or a simple nod or acknowledgement can include the employee without putting them in the spotlight.
“Without the fun and the pleasure and the enjoyment of our colleagues, the brain is going to build up a view that being in front of people is hard work.” – Audrey McGibbon, Chartered Occupational Psychologist, executive coach and wellbeing expert
Leaders should also look at preventive measures to protect employee mental health. According to McGibbon, employers’ first port of call in doing this should be examining their company culture.
“It’s very closely related to psychological safety,” she says. “Because, at its heart, social anxiety is the fear of other people judging you harshly or [making you feel] humiliated. And psychological safety [is] about leaders building a culture and team dynamics where people feel it is safe and easy to speak out without feeling judged.”
One way to cultivate a more psychologically safe environment for employees with social anxiety is by encouraging open discussions about mental health so employees feel safe to seek support.
Another important step is facilitating healthy and enjoyable social interactions. These dropped off during COVID-19 lockdown periods, says McGibbon, and the negative impact this had on employee mental health is palpable.
“Without the fun and the pleasure and the enjoyment of our colleagues, the brain is going to build up a view that being in front of people is hard work, and is something to be feared,” she says.
Employers should also establish initiatives designed to equip employees with the tools to nurture their own mental health, she adds.
“Everybody’s got mental health. It’s the most inclusive concept there is. And we should be talking about it more,” she says. “I’d be building it into every sort of early career talent program – ‘Mastering social anxiety’.”
By taking steps like this to support employees experiencing social anxiety, leaders not only enhance the wellbeing of their workforce but also contribute to the overall success of their organisations.
“If [one in six] people are going to self-limit their opportunities because they’re [worried about] putting themselves out there for fear of harsh judgement, it’s really worth getting on top of that.”
Learn how to develop a practical, evidence-based action plan to address mental health challenges in the workplace by booking your place at AHRI’s mental health first aid course.