Managing Social Anxiety Disorder at Work

Social Anxiety Disorder Can Be a Real Issue in the Workplace

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Managing social anxiety disorder (SAD) at work involves recognizing the day-to-day impact of the disorder on your career and identifying solutions. Receiving a diagnosis and entering treatment is the first step toward managing your anxiety symptoms. Telling your employer may also help in that you may receive accommodations to help you better do your job.

At the same time, people with SAD may face specific problems in the workplace, including the inability to network effectively, fear of attending business social events, problems developing relationships with coworkers, lack of self-confidence, and difficulty speaking up in meetings.

Bernardo Carducci, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana University, head of the Shyness Research Institute, and author of Shyness: A Bold New Approach and The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk, argues that when shyness is properly managed, there is no limit to the achievement of shy people in the business world.

Carducci points to the success of notably shy Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, one of the world’s richest and most successful people, and also a shy person.

While shyness is not the same as social anxiety disorder, ideas to help shy people adapt to the business world may also be useful for managing social anxiety in the workplace—particularly if you struggle with social skills.

If you are in a competitive workplace and feel that your anxiety is interfering with your career advancement, or if you simply want to feel more comfortable in the workplace, it is worth investing time in developing a comfort level with the social aspects of your work.

Let's consider a number of these areas and how you might cope.

Job Interviews

If you are new to the workforce or looking for work after a long period of unemployment or time spent in the same job, the prospect of going on job interviews may be intimidating. Although job interviews can be more challenging for those with social anxiety disorder, proper preparation and use of coping strategies can help.

For example, you could have a friend conduct a mock interview with you so that you get practice answering questions or engage in deep breathing to calm yourself about the entire process.

Job Duties

Some aspects of work itself can be challenging for those with social anxiety. For example, if you are in sales, you might find yourself needing to engage in cold calling clients. You may need to give presentations or speeches as part of your role. It can feel doubly difficult to manage your anxiety when excellent social skills or the ability to perform under pressure are part of your job.

However, if you choose a job that suits your interests and personality—anxiety is an issue that can be worked on. Social skills training (or even reading self-help books about social skills) or groups such as Toastmasters (for public speaking) might be good options to boost your performance at work.

Connecting with Coworkers

Networking is an important part of being successful in your career. If you aren’t able to build relationships with the people that you work with, it will be much more difficult to advance at work. In addition, since you spend most of your waking hours at work, wouldn’t you like to have friends there?

To become more comfortable with coworkers, constantly strive to expand your comfort zone. Engage in small talk with people whom you see throughout the day, such as in the lunchroom, in the elevator, or at the water cooler. Greet people with general comments or compliments and start brief conversations.

Gradually, other people will see that you are the kind of person who is approachable and with whom conversation is easy. It's less important that you say the right thing, and more important that you just keep showing up and being present. People are generally more comfortable around others the more times that they see them.

Speaking to Supervisors

Speaking to your supervisor can be challenging if you live with a social anxiety disorder. You might agonize over the smallest contact, such as needing to ask a question about your work or clarifying an issue. Unfortunately, avoiding your supervisor in this way can affect your job performance.

If you find casually speaking with your supervisor anxiety-provoking, see if you can make an appointment. Practice what you are going to say in advance so you have your ideas clear in your head (don't over-practice as this is a safety behavior and counter-productive).

If you still find this hard, try communicating in a less threatening way, such as through email. Or, always prepare a list of points when you go into a meeting. Your anxiety will be reduced because you can focus on your notes and you will also come across as more prepared.

Finally, gradually work up to asking harder questions. Make a list of things you need to talk to your supervisor about, and then start with the one that feels least anxiety-provoking, such as asking for clarification on some aspect of your work. From there, you can work your way up to harder topics, such as asking for a raise or a promotion.

Business Meetings

If you feel uncomfortable in meetings, try arriving 10 to 15 minutes early so that you can meet people as they arrive. This is the opposite of what you probably do now; you likely tend to show up late so that you don’t have to engage in small talk with others in the meeting. However, this will actually make you feel more isolated.

During meetings, remember that others also may feel uncomfortable about speaking up. Likely about half the people in your meeting are also nervous about voicing their opinion. Usually, they will be relieved if you are the first to speak and will admire you for doing so.

Finally, if you find your anxiety overwhelmingly uncomfortable during meetings, try examining the thoughts that you have while in a meeting. If you usually think, "I am terrible in meetings. I always make a fool of myself," ask yourself whether that thought is helpful and realistic.

Could you replace it with a more helpful thought? Try something like "I am trying hard to do better in meetings" or "I think most people are okay with how I come across." Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, over time these positive affirmations will help to build your confidence.

Business Social Functions

Depending on your place of employment, there may a variety of social functions that you are expected to attend: the company picnic, annual holiday party, retirement gatherings, business conferences, or business lunches. Make sure you have something to talk about on these occasions. Read the newspaper, visit an online news source, or read current magazines.

In addition, avoid using alcohol to overcome your inhibitions. Often staying in a situation long enough will have the same effect on reducing your inhibitions as drinking alcohol. The next time you are at a social event, have flavored water instead and notice how your anxiety level decreases over time even when you are not drinking alcohol.

A Word From Verywell

If you continue to struggle with social anxiety at work, consider visiting a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. Social anxiety disorder is a mental illness that requires professional intervention for a full recovery.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."