Social anxiety (previously known as social phobia) is one of the most common mental health problems, with 9.4% of New Zealand adults estimated to meet criteria for a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime. Social anxiety often has its onset in early adolescence but affects people of all ages.

People with social anxiety might find it harder to manage at work where social demands are greater and there can be plenty of situations that trigger it: meetings, presentations, talking on the phone, being assertive, and connecting with co-workers. Individuals in authority, such as team leaders, might be more anxiety-provoking than peers at the same level for a person with social anxiety (and for most of us!).

Many people get nervous on occasion (e.g., giving a speech, interviewing for a new role). However, social anxiety is more than just nerves or shyness. It is a long-term, overwhelming fear of social situations. People with social anxiety worry about being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated and the result is significant distress that can get in the way of them doing important things that they want or need to do in life.

Anxiety manifests in different ways and whether a colleague has social anxiety may not be obvious. In our clinical experience, individuals who have social anxiety often find ways to compensate for their difficulties so that they perform at the level expected of them. We’ve heard stories about clever ways of coping that have included overpreparing for presentations, communicating via email to avoid face-to-face interactions, and scrupulously checking work in case of mistakes. Unfortunately, the extra effort takes time and energy on the part of the sufferer and has the potential to impede occupational success. It’s not uncommon for people with social anxiety to avoid the situations that make them anxious altogether (e.g., not applying for promotions).

As a manager or colleague, there’s a good chance you work alongside someone with some level of social anxiety. So, what can you do to help alleviate stress for these individuals?

  • Talk about mental health to encourage open communication in the workplace, reduce stigma, and show your support. Check-in with the person if you’re concerned about them and ask what assistance they might need. 
  • Educate yourself. Basic training can help to better understand mental health and mental illness and to learn how to have supportive conversations with colleagues.
  • Make reasonable accommodations. Some flexibility around workload, schedule, or working environment might help. These accommodations can be temporary or permanent. Empower the person who is having the problem and work together to find solutions that could help them.
  • Offer your support in the workplace and suggest the person access support outside of the workplace too (i.e., GP, psychologist). The person may not take up the offer at that time, but it’s important they know help is readily available.
  • Look after yourself. Helping others can be physically and emotionally demanding. You’ll be able to do a better job of supporting others and model healthy behaviours if you do things to maintain your own mental health. The Mental Health Foundation has some ideas to get you started, using the five ways to wellbeing.

For more on anxiety: