Social Anxiety in the Workplace

Work is stressful. We all have had jobs that, as a matter of course, caused our anxiety levels to spike and brought a general sense of being overwhelmed. But in the workplace, there are several things that can be ameliorating factors: one of which is our peers, co-workers, and managers. The literature seems to suggest that the relationships that we have with our bosses, managers, coworkers, and fellow colleagues can help to minimize the stress and anxiety that comes as a normal and natural part of the workplace. But with someone struggling with social anxiety, this process can be highjacked and the normal socializing that is to help ameliorate stress only serves to increase it. Think about how this compounds: when one is affected by social anxiety the very mediating factors that come with relationships within the workplace turn against you. The stress-relief that comes from social exchange is thwarted by the fear and anxiety that comes from the very exchange itself!

Because social anxiety places an excessively high standard for oneself within a social situation, those struggling with social anxiety tend to become more acutely aware of how they think people are going to react to them. Couple this also with the tendency of those struggling with social anxiety to feel inferior because of a perceived lack of academic achievement, work seniority or even general achievements within the workplace. In the workplace, the culture of “small talk”, or even interacting with clients/customers, can create an even graver challenge to the normal workplace environment. As employees, there are certain roles that are expected to be filled, and social anxiety can usurp these roles, especially when they are full to the brim of unrealistic/false beliefs about that role. A perfect example would be the belief that one has to be the best at everything, either because of previous work experience or else high seniority in the company. When an individual struggling with social anxiety fails (in their mind) to live up to the role expectations that they have (falsely) placed on themselves, anxiety can spiral out of control.

If social anxiety can be conceptualized as an excessively high standard for oneself that does not necessarily apply to others, how does this affect someone struggling with this at the workplace? With the higher demands that are placed on the individual in terms of juggling work, family, and leisure time, many look to their peers as ostentatious examples of the perfect life that cannot be obtained. With social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram taking highly biased snapshots of people’s lives (and only offering the highlight reels) it is no wonder that anxiety around social situations increases. Inundated with media, pictures, and posts about all the amazing things our peers, colleagues, and coworkers are involved in can become very overwhelming, triggering a cascade effect of social anxiety around not being able to perform at life itself. Social anxiety is all about social standards and role expectations; when one is surrounded (on social media) by nothing but the very best examples of what American culture dictates, how can one not help but feel unable to live up to all these standards and expectations of what one’s life is supposed to look like?

The Clark and Wells’ model of social anxiety looks at four psychopathological processes that prevent the individual struggling with social anxiety from interacting with peers. First, in a social situation, the individuals shifts attention to detailed monitoring and observations of themselves. This produces an enhanced awareness of the feared anxiety response as well as producing a self-constructed negative image of the situation. Second, this detailed monitoring distorts the entire situation and does not allow for the individual with the social anxiety to process correctly other people’s behavior.   This further leads to the individual engaging in safety behaviors to reduce the risk of rejection. Third, the individual then overestimates how negatively the others in the situation are evaluating their “performance”. Finally, past perceived failures will be brought to mind and enhance the distortion of the current situation. In other words, and for the sake of example, imagine all of these things occurring while trying to perform one’s job, interact with clients/customers/patients, speaking with one’s boss, or communicating with co-workers. Normal and productive functioning is severely curtailed.

Workplace anxiety, and the social anxiety that can affect it or trigger it, has been estimated to cost the American economy over 40$ billion annually. This anxiety can affect higher levels of job satisfaction, have ethical implications, and can leech organizational effectiveness and economic success, not only for the individual, but also for the company as well. Much of what goes on in our emotional lives is a type of hoarding of emotional energy: gathering it and then storing it for later use; the continual depletion of emotional resources in dealing with social anxiety leaves little left for work-related stress management. Trying to constantly refill the emotional energy exhausted by being hyper-vigilant in social situations and minutely observing people’s perceived reactions to one’s actions is a dangerous cocktail of anxiety and stress that will inevitably lead to burnout.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) attempts to counteract these distorted thoughts and false perceptions of social situations in a variety of ways. First, therapy will allow the individual struggling with social anxiety to see that it is more difficult for people to observe our anxiety than we think. People, for the most part, are not focusing in on the minute details of others while engaged in social interaction. In the workplace, this is even more so the case since both co-workers, clients, and bosses are usually trying to focus on the job/task at hand. The social interaction that happens as a byproduct of the task is not taking up as much of their attention as those struggling with social anxiety seem to think is occurring.. Another way CBT can begin to correct some of the distortions inherent in social anxiety is by helping the individual recognize that, although disagreeing with someone in a conversation can seem anxiety-ridden and stressful, by disagreeing one can make the conversation richer. CBT helps the individual struggling with social anxiety that disagreement in a conversation will not capsize the whole effort. Finally, consider, again, how perceived discrepancies between one’s level of education, seniority, or general sense of competence is a factor of stress and anxiety when constantly compared to co-workers. CBT can help by allowing the individual to realize that one’s role within the work environment does not necessarily have to be dependent on any of these factors: one’s work can stand on its own without having to be compared to others.

Overall, the work environment is a place filled with anxiety-inducing stress. As a normal and natural part of the job process, this anxiety can be ameliorated by the social interaction that occurs between members of an organization. This process can be usurped by social anxiety, which brings a whole other realm of anxiety to the already anxiety-filled workplace environment. Because of a perceived sense of inferiority, and other multiple factors, those with social anxiety will heighten a situation by the (false) sense of what other think about social interaction. CBT helps ameliorate these by getting to the root of the cognitive distortion behind the social anxiety and helping the individual come to a healthier place where the normal social interactions that occur at the workplace can be used for its stress-reducing capacity. At the end of the day, we all need less stress in our lives and the workplace should not have to be more stressful than it already is. CBT can clear the air of distortion and allow for social interaction to be what it was meant to be: healing instead of hurting.

Author, Angel Dalton

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