In an age of constant connectivity, it’s easy to give the illusion of confidence and sociability. With a few posts on social media, or messages on WhatsApp, we can interact and engage with crowds of people and create our dream persona.
The reality, however, is that a subsection of us really struggle when it comes to taking things offline - the very idea of striking up a conversation with someone striking fear in our hearts.
Now couple that with the rise in remote working - a great revolution and one I frequently take advantage of, but a set-up that also makes it all too easy to avoid social situations if you’re so inclined. You can effectively get on with the day without any face-to-face or telephone interaction, which could exacerbate existing phobias or even trigger new ones.
Flexible working is not the enemy - in fact, an international study by Vodafone found that 83 per cent of companies who adopted the practice saw improvements in productivity. And according to conference calling company Powwownow, 70 per cent of workers say having the option makes a job more attractive. Companies should instead turn their attentions to ensuring that mental health is something that’s looked after beyond the office walls.
What does social anxiety look like?
It’s important to note that social anxiety does not equal shyness or being an introvert. A person who’s socially anxious might appear nervous or awkward, but you can equally have extroverts who feel the need to be around people and get anxious analysing their ‘performance’ later on.
What you should instead be looking out for is the focus of their attention. Those suffering from social anxiety will be extremely sensitive to social cues, constantly feeling like they’re being monitored and judged, leading to an acute fear of embarrassment. Where possible, they’ll likely avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable.
In the workplace, this might manifest itself in many ways, such as:
- Regular need for reassurance
- A fear of making requests, such as for time off work or help on a project
- Avoiding your calls, preferring to respond on email
- Delays in important tasks
- Difficulty accepting constructive criticism
How should the company address this?
Every company can and should promote wellbeing among staff - according to research by charity Mind, 60 per cent of employees feel more motivated and are more likely to recommend their organisation as a good place to work if their employer takes action to support their mental health.
The first port of call is encouraging discussion so that staff - working remotely or otherwise - feel comfortable talking about their mental health. For those outside the office, opening up to managers who they don’t see face-to-face on a regular basis might prove difficult, so consider instead providing company-wide cover for third-party services such as anonymous helplines and therapy.
Helping them to 'avoid the avoiding' is also key. If, for example, they find phone calls particularly challenging, start small by calling them with easy questions like 'Could you forward me XX email?' or 'Could you find out the price for XX?'. Try to avoid the temptation of quickly firing off an email where they can hide away from interaction. Similarly, if there’s a large task they need to complete, help them break it down into smaller tasks so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming - for example, if there’s a report to be done, split it into sections and stagger deadlines for each part.
Also, if you notice patterns emerging such as a desperate need for reassurance, set some limits. Intense reassurance seeking only helps anxiety snowball so while it’s important to offer praise and allay fears, you should ensure you don’t become trapped in a cycle.
It can be challenging to ensure staff you don’t see every day feel supported when they’re experiencing mental health problems, but making a few simple changes can go a long way to enhancing morale, loyalty, commitment and productivity. Out of sight must never mean out of mind, or you could miss out on some brilliant talent.