4 Ways to Deal With an Employee’s Social Anxiety

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Aug 24, 2017

It’s relatively easy to manage the charismatic, sociable employee who gets along with her co-workers and clients. But what about the perpetually uncomfortable, quiet worker who clashes with colleagues and keeps to himself? Many employers might consider cutting their losses and bringing in a less neurotic worker, but it’s important to not judge a book by its cover.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports 15 million Americans have social anxiety disorder, making it one of the most common mental health disorders in the nation. While some might liken social anxiety to introversion, the National Institute of Mental Health defines social anxiety as “a disabling anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday…situations.

Considering how closely mental health is tied to the workplace —the American Institute of Stress reports nearly two-thirds of stressors are job-related — it might seem problematic to have an employee who’s struggling with mental health remain in a high-pressure situation. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Some may be top performers

In my experience, the same employees who exhibit signs of social anxiety are often some of the top performers. I have one team member who fails to connect with his colleagues, largely keeping to himself around the workplace. But the second you put him on the phone with a potential customer, he blossoms into a charming salesman.

Another colleague is an emotional Venus flytrap — the slightest provocation can lead him to tears and threats of quitting. Similar to my first example, that fragile demeanor disappears when he’s talking with sales leads. He’s a selling machine.

Still not convinced? Take a look at the entertainment world. A 2012 study found that numerous actors, musicians, and other performers who experience anxiety continue to deliver stellar performances. Prominent names such as Adele and Jennifer Lawrence claim they’ve struggled with social anxiety, but it didn’t stop them from achieving incredible success.

Instead of pigeonholing these folks into a corner of failures and wallflowers, human resources teams and managers must find a way to help these talented team members overcome anxiety issues.

What you can do

Employees who have social anxiety don’t typically struggle with work performance. The main issue is how their self-induced solitude can hold back a culture of teamwork and cohesion. Considering how difficult it is to find — or replace — a star performer, it’s worth the extra time and effort to design office policies that help them feel like part of the team.

Your office environment should be nurturing, but it also shouldn’t enable employees who have anxiety to avoid underlying issues such as fear of public speaking or aversion to confrontation. Work should never become a coping mechanism, but it can offer a constructive outlet for anxiety. Managers can create workplaces that accept and support all employees through four easy steps:


1. Encourage open communication

Inspire team members to make small talk with employees who have social anxiety. Nobody should overcompensate or try too hard, but these small gestures ensure everyone feels like a part of the group.

When socially anxious team members feel like they have to hide their condition, it fuels shame and reinforces their anxiety. If you can find a way to encourage these employees to share their stories and acknowledge their social anxiety to the team, it can be an incredibly powerful bonding experience. Knowledge and education reduce stigmas, which can help your employees feel like they can be themselves at work.

2. Avoid surprises

People who have social anxiety don’t do well with surprises or uncertainty. If you need to chat with them about something — especially something new or critical — don’t just call them in out of the blue and start talking about the matter at hand. Give them advance warning that you’d like to talk with them either later that day or the following morning. When possible, provide them with a brief overview of what you’d like to discuss. These small steps will help them feel more comfortable and less anxious.

3. Meet them where they are

Think about the common symptoms of social anxiety and the hardships your employees face every day. They often struggle to make friends, are unable to talk to others, and constantly fear judgment.

Don’t put them in situations where they might fail or feel threatened. For instance, if you’d like them to help train others, ask first whether they’d feel comfortable doing that. I wouldn’t suggest making special rules for every employee, but a little accommodation can go a long way.

4. Allow for self-time

Employees who have social anxiety disorder might be seeing a therapist or following a self-help routine. Give them time during the workday to do their homework. If they need to step outside to calm down or practice mindfulness exercises in the midst of a stressful task, be understanding. These are incredibly useful tools for people who have anxiety, and these exercises will help them deliver better performance for your company.

Stress is a given in the modern workplace, but there’s no reason your star salesperson and adept account manager can’t overcome social anxiety to achieve incredible success. While anxiety disorders tend to be stigmatized, they’re far more common than most people realize. Instead of letting high-achieving employees slip between the cracks, meet your employees where they are to find ways to help them thrive in the workplace.