How to Navigate the Workplace When You Have Social Anxiety

Social anxiety affects many people and can make employment challenging. Learn about techniques that can teach you how to deal with social anxiety at work.

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by Anessa Kemna

Published on May 19, 2022

Reviewed by Tracey Burrell, Ph.D.

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How to Navigate the Workplace When You Have Social Anxiety
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Most people experience some stress at work. There may be a lot happening, and results impact an entire company. For someone who has social anxiety, working with people can become a harrowing experience.

For many, human interaction can make work more fulfilling. But if you deal with social anxiety, interactions with management and co-workers can often be stressful events you want to avoid.

It's possible to make social anxiety more manageable. Read on to learn some tips that may help people with social anxiety and their co-workers have a better workplace experience.

What Is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is defined as a "persistent fear of being watched and judged." It can begin in childhood. And, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, it affects 12.1% of U.S. adults at some point in their lifetime.

People with social anxiety aren't just shy, they fear being scrutinized or judged. This can create significant challenges at work, where meetings, evaluations, and socialization occur regularly.

In these situations, a person with social anxiety may experience an elevated heart rate, nausea, uncontrollable shaking or sweating, and the inability to form coherent thoughts. They may have a desperate need to avoid situations that make them anxious.

These reactions and feelings affect a person's ability to communicate with bosses, co-workers, and clients. And it can make it difficult to form professional connections.

Techniques to Manage Social Anxiety at Work

Dealing with social anxiety is hard, but coping techniques can help make it easier.

1 Take breaks

Marriage and family therapist Kristel Roper suggests taking periodic breaks to reset. If possible, find somewhere to be alone.

"Take a short walk outside or sit in your car; just breathe and be present. If this isn't possible, take a few minutes in the bathroom to decompress."

Roper also advises using grounding exercises to regulate, including the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise. Find five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can touch, two you can smell, and one you can taste. Breathe and relax your muscles while doing this.

Roper says physically relaxing tells your nervous system that you are safe, reducing the impact of anxiety.

2 Set small goals

Coping with anxiety is possible, but finding helpful strategies takes time. Erica Cramer, a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy, says, "Identifying small, behavioral changes that are easy to implement can be a good way to start."

Cramer suggests setting small goals like initiating conversation with one co-worker each day or making a little eye contact with colleagues as you pass. Over time, these small changes will build. And your resilience will likely increase.

3 Plan around anxiety

If possible, try reducing time in the office. Career coach Nadia Ibrahim-Taney suggests starting with one day a week and increasing from there.

"If you have to make a RTO (return to office) work, make a plan that looks out for you. Go into the office early to avoid time with those extra-social co-workers."

Dr. Alejandro Alva from Pacific Neuropsychiatric Specialists also suggests working early while the office is empty.

4 Create a support system

If there are co-workers you feel comfortable opening up to, use them as a support system. They can offer encouragement, provide a safe space during mandatory social events, and help you advocate for your needs.

Alva says it's equally important to have this support outside work. Having people who understand your anxiety and can offer support will help you de-stress at home. You can also do physical activity and mindfulness exercises like journaling.

5 Practice positive self-talk

Speaking positively to yourself has many well-documented benefits for coping with anxiety. Mental health counselor Brenda Delmonte suggests offering "yourself kind words when you're anxious in social situations. For example, 'I feel nervous right now, but I will do my best.'"

Alexander Burgemeester of The Narcissistic Life suggests pushing yourself to use more positive self-talk.

"Many people with social anxiety talk themselves out of a situation or think negatively about how they contribute to a conversation. Hyping yourself up internally can help."

These techniques won't fix social anxiety. But they can make it much easier to deal with, so work isn't an unpleasant experience.

How Can Co-workers Support Those With Social Anxiety?

If a co-worker has social anxiety, they may have their own coping strategies. But colleagues can still support them.

Remember that social anxiety is a legitimate mental health condition that should be accommodated. You can often help by simply being supportive and empathetic to their struggles.

Other ways to help include respecting their boundaries. If they ask to be left alone when wearing headphones, listen. If they request notice before a meeting, don't drop by to talk to them without warning.

If they seem increasingly stressed, or if other co-workers disrespect their boundaries, intervene. Ask permission to make sure you are advocating in a way they're comfortable. But if you've offered to be a part of their support system, then follow through.

Frequently Asked Questions About Social Anxiety

true Can social anxiety stop you from working?

Social anxiety can keep people from working. Interviews can trigger a lot of anxiety — even for applicants without a diagnosed anxiety condition. They can be major hurdles to employment for people with severe social anxiety.

Fear of interacting with co-workers, or using public spaces like restrooms, can also prevent someone from working.

Severe cases of social anxiety that are well-documented by medical professionals count as disabilities under Social Security. And someone dealing with the condition could be eligible for disability benefits because working causes too much mental distress.

true Can you get fired for having social anxiety?

Your employer cannot fire you specifically for having social anxiety. It is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that it is illegal to fire someone because of this disability status.

Unfortunately, this doesn't mean social anxiety can't get someone fired. People with social anxiety are more likely to struggle with certain performance metrics. They may experience challenges dealing with colleagues or customers, and they could get let go for not taking initiative or communicating well. Employers can't cite social anxiety as the reason, but it can still have the same consequences.

true Should I tell my boss about social anxiety?

This depends on your workplace environment.

Burgemeester and Ibrahim-Taney both suggest informing those at your job about social anxiety so you can request accommodations. This also affords you the protection of a declared disability, protecting you from being fired for it.

However, it can also bring unwanted attention. Evaluate the supportiveness of your workplace, what benefits disclosing would offer, and decide whether it feels like a safe environment for you.

You don't have to disclose your anxiety. Your mental health is your business, and you get to decide the benefits versus risks for your situation.

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