Social anxiety disorder, and all other anxiety disorders, really offer no breaks to the individuals they affect. Social anxiety, while it may begin as only affecting a person in certain circumstances, can affect every last part of a person’s life if left unchecked, and this includes a person’s work life. The vast majority of people do not have social anxiety disorder and therefore do not have a solid understanding of what social anxiety is like in the workplace. Employers, however, would be wise to give immediate attention to anyone affected by work anxiety, as it can severely damage employee productivity and correspondingly, the employer’s bottom line.
How does social anxiety operate at the workplace? If one takes a fairly generic look at the world and thinks of the “office cubicle” as the most common place where people work, one can quickly learn how terrifyingly disabling work anxiety can be. The first part of the office that will terrify a social anxiety sufferer is the number of people. One interesting thing about work anxiety is that different social anxiety sufferers can tolerate different numbers of people. For example, one person might be completely terrified by the fact that there is only one other person at the workplace, while another social anxiety sufferer might be able to tolerate that, but become petrified once he or she works with five people. Work anxiety caused by social anxiety disorder falls on a continuum from severe to mild (see ASN’s The Nature of Anxiety for more on this) just like anything else, so it is simply the responsibility of the employee to be aware of the amount of people with which he or she can work and for the employer to be reasonably accommodating for that employee. A reasonable accommodation may be giving the employee enclosed work space so that he or she feels that people are not able to observe and possibly criticize him or her. Or, this person might work a more isolated job that is simply not physically located near others. However, it is simultaneously the responsibility of the employee to continue working on his or her work anxiety so that he or she can work in front of larger numbers of people; the seclusion or isolation from others at work should only be viewed as a temporary solution to the problems work anxiety presents. Additionally, it is important for the employer to be patient while this person works on his or her anxiety because recovery from anxiety to the point where one can perform to an acceptable level in front of many other people can take several years’ worth of hard work.
Aside from the sheer number of people causing difficulties for the social anxiety sufferer, the next biggest difficulty that work anxiety sufferers face is interactions with other employees and supervisors. The best way to interact with a work anxiety sufferer, and if employers and coworkers take away one thing from this article about work anxiety this should be it, is to be encouraging and supportive. Social anxiety sufferers have typically faced intense criticism from their parents, friends, classmates, and virtually every other person in their lives; as a result, they have internalized this criticism and take it personally, as though the things other people were saying were true. Even the slightest and seemingly most benign comment could be taken very personally by a social anxiety sufferer, even to the point where this benign comment could ruin that person’s entire day. A comment like, “I told you that already,” indicates to the sufferer of work anxiety that he or she is an “idiot” and “should have known better,” when in reality everyone needs reminders regarding certain details and tasks at work, including the person who makes such statements. A much better way to respond to such a situation would be to say, “Yeah, I forget that kind of stuff too.” When someone says this instead of the previous response, the social anxiety sufferer will feel validated and as though he or she is an acceptable member of the human race who merely makes mistakes like anyone else; conversely, the previous statement makes the social anxiety sufferer feel like a moron, and as though he or she is separated and isolated from the human race, and that possibly he or she is not as worthwhile or as valuable as most people. My experience has been that the seemingly benign statement of, “I told you that already,” is on the very mild side of things that are said at workplaces. Very many times, the office climate is much more competitive and cut-throat and people make incredibly harsh statements in an attempt to make themselves appear as more valuable than others. In reality, this only serves to the detriment of the workplace and also to the detriment of the person who is making such statements. A supportive and collaborative work environment where people are united in their pursuit of a particular goal is the most productive and effective place for sufferers of work anxiety and also for everyone else.
Aside from the work anxiety caused by social interactions, the anxiety also spills over into one’s performance capabilities. For example, a social anxiety sufferer will think that, “If I mess up on this report, then my boss will be mad. If my boss is mad, he will yell at me and criticize me.” The fear of that criticism can be so intense that it is literally immobilizing and the social anxiety sufferer will experience intense anxiety when performing the task, especially if the boss has actually yelled at the person in the past. And the anxiety does not stop there. The work anxiety sufferer will also begin to conjure up other wild scenarios in his or her mind that might happen. Since he or she has made a mistake on the report and the boss has yelled at him or her, then maybe it is possible that he or she will mess up on a phone call and someone will yell at him or her for that. And then, what if he or she forgets how to log onto his or her computer? One anxious thought can be like a snowball rolling down on a hill; once it’s started, it can turn very quickly into a massive builder with an intense momentum that is almost impossible to stop. The worry and anxiety will seep into literally every last aspect of that person’s confidence, until it finally reaches the point where it is literally destroyed. This is why it is important that people are supportive, validating, and uplifting because that is the only thing that can stop the snowball from becoming a boulder.
In my personal life, I can recall all of my bosses and what they did or did not do that increased or reduced my work anxiety. In the computer profession, the bosses I had were huge anxiety-producers. One job that I had was such an anxiety producer that I would literally dread going to work two to three days before I actually had to work that job! The anxiety was so intense that I would pace or talk to friends for hours at a time. I would fill the tingling and tension throughout my back and neck and a huge void would form inside of my stomach. At the time, it seemed that there was little else that could be any worse.
It is important for those that are in power to remember that they wield tremendous influence on the culture of the workplace over which they preside. This power, like anything else, can be wielded for good or bad. The best thing for those in power to do is to create a supportive and confidence-building environment for those who suffer from work anxiety, as that enhances the productivity of the anxious workers, and also the overall productivity of the organization. Organizations that are very negative in attitude not only increase the anxiety of work anxiety sufferers and all coworkers in general, but they also ruin the bottom line productivity of the entire organization. Therefore, it is very important for those who are in charge to set a positive tone for others to follow.
From the point of view of the work anxiety sufferer, this is obviously an awful way to live life. However, some employers may be wondering why they should care; after all, they could simply fire the employee and find someone else to do the job. The point to keep in mind when employers find this argument appealing is that very often social anxiety sufferers, though sometimes barely even noticeable, have incredible talents lying hidden inside that people are simply not aware of because the social anxiety prevents these people from the self-promotion often found in society. Just because someone is quiet and sometimes awkward does not mean that they are untalented; it just means that they are quiet and awkward. It is important to not forget that great leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln were fairly shy and quiet people. Gandhi himself was an unsuccessful lawyer who could barely speak in front of a judge, and this continued until his early thirties when he began his campaign to rid South Africa of apartheid and free India from British rule. Shy people, while somewhat unconfident in public situations, very often have hidden talents that can be of great value to organizations; they simply have a harder time putting themselves in the limelight and making those talents known to others.
One important thing to remember is that the entire world does not have to accommodate the work anxiety sufferer. While it is the responsibility of management and other coworkers to create an environment that allows the social anxiety sufferer to have success, it is simultaneously the responsibility of the work anxiety sufferer to move out into the world of work and take risks so that his or her anxiety will reduce. Once the person who suffers from work anxiety is able to do the things in a particular job that need to be done without reasonable accommodations being made, he or she will realize how truly wonderful life is, and simultaneously the employer will note a positive impact in the workplace as well as a healthier bottom line.
Overall, work anxiety is not only something that can entirely ruin a particular person’s mental health, but it can ruin the productivity of the organization as a whole. Wise organizations will create a work culture that allows everyone to thrive and succeed, while those organizations who choose not too will find themselves lagging far behind in terms of overall productivity and growth.