After two years of working from home, companies are starting to discuss returning to the office.
But while most people may prefer working from home or doing a 50/50 split, some of you may be more worried about socialising with colleagues.
How will you talk to people again? How will you cope with the commute? What if your boss doesn't like you anymore? What if the quality of your work dwindles in the office?
Diagnosed with social anxiety in 2011, Claire Eastham has been battling those same feelings since joining the working world. Claire is one of the 5% of the population diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in the UK, and she worked hard to address her worries.
But the end of lockdown brought some of those frightening thoughts back to the surface. After analysing her mindset, Claire wants to share her 4 top tips for managing social anxiety at work.
I sense it before I even sit down at my desk - a sudden jolt in my gut. I feel off-balance, unnerved and exposed.
I’ve gone back to the workplace after almost two years working from home. My boss smiles at me warmly, and I try to return in kind... but I'm studying her face for any sign that she's judging me negatively. My heart is pounding, my palms are sweating, and my mouth is like sandpaper.
I want to reach for the glass of water in front of me, but I know my hands will shake and draw attention to my unusual behaviour. I can't make eye contact, and my mind goes blank.
"Why are you being so weird?" a voice hisses in my mind. "Be professional - or at least stop being so blimming strange!"
This is my first face-to-face meeting in over a year. One in the office, rather than over the safety of video chat. I make it through in great discomfort, my muscles bunching and tense, speaking only when necessary. I leave feeling exhausted and frustrated.
What the heck just happened?
But, deep down, I know. My "old friend", social anxiety, had clearly decided to pay a call.
Related: Anxiety in the Workplace – Breaking the Silence
Returning to the workplace made my social anxiety flare up again
I was first diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in 2011. Since then, I like to think I've become a bit of an expert, even writing a book about my experiences.
So, when social anxiety targets me at work, it comes as a bit of a shock. I always seem to forget that anxiety acts like eczema or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): it can pop up out of nowhere and cause all sorts of chaos.
See, like the rest of the world, I was tucked away in my home, on and off until very recently. In the lockdown or long work-from-home periods, interactions were reduced to phone calls or online video chats. My social anxiety was incredibly happy with this arrangement – even telling me that it was the only friend I needed.
"See?" my social anxiety whispered to me, "I've been telling you to avoid people for decades. Look how much happier I am now!"
Related: How to Manage Intrusive Thoughts
And then... it went to sleep. Like a curled up snake, it lay dormant, un-agitated and un-triggered. I thought I was better.
Instead, I was being blissfully naive - of course, my social anxiety wouldn't let me ditch her without a fight.
A friend of mine (a real friend, not a manifestation of my own fears) once used an analogy when training for a London marathon:
"You need to train yourself," they said sternly, "I wouldn't dream of waking up one morning and expect to run 26 miles! It's something you do slowly and build up to it. Give your brain the same respect."
It's true - we expect so much from our brains and have little tolerance when they don't work the way we want. After my first meeting back at work, I knew I had slipped back into some bad habits.
But, this time, instead of chastising myself, I would take some steps and make sure I felt as comfortable as possible moving forward.
4 tips for returning to work with social anxiety
1. Try a staged return to work, if you can
Remember that marathon analogy?
It's better to build yourself up slowly than forcing everything on yourself at once. Social anxiety at work won’t just “go away” – you need to allow yourself to adapt without strain, and build your confidence.
It depends on your boss, but the worst that can happen is "no". Ask if you can do half a day in the office, half a day at home.
If that's not possible, perhaps you can start with one day a week in the office, with four days at home. Slowly work your way up until you can do a full week again.
Related: I Reduced My Working Hours to Protect My Mental Health
Lots of offices haven't returned to five days a week yet. If everyone else is doing two or three, ask if you can start with one.
If your boss doesn't allow you to work from home, you can still control meetings on your social calendar. I've been very strict about how many meetings I allow myself to have each week - even with close friends. It can be frustrating, but I am determined to build the right foundations for social integration in my brain. That means being patient.
2. Be honest about the help you need
That's with your friends, family, managers, and everybody.
I know honesty can be much more difficult with your employer than with your friends.
Arrange a meeting with your boss one-on-one, or ask for a member of HR to attend. Explain how social anxiety affects you at work and how your employer can support your return to the workplace as concisely as you can.
If you need to write a list to remember, do so! Here are some of the things you could write on that list:
- Working half days in the office
- Having a door half-open during meetings
- Going for short walks throughout the day
The idea isn't to avoid the parts of the job you don't like. Instead, you're trying to build up to them until you're completely comfortable.
Remember, you being healthy = you doing a better job.
3. Equip yourself with some self-soothing techniques
Social anxiety at work may feel impossible to self-soothe, but you just need to be patient and practice.
I've picked up tons of self-soothing techniques over the years, from online or in books or reading articles by people I admire.
For example, Sheryl Ankrom, a licensed clinical professional counsellor, shares this advice:
Diaphragmatic or deep breathing… stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of the peripheral nervous system responsible for regulating heartbeat, blood flow, and digestion.
In everyday language? Breathing in and out from the belly can signal to your nervous system to calm down. Basically, it stops you from freaking out!
Related: 17 (Small) Ways to Brighten Dark Days
Another self-soothing technique is finding a distraction. When I'm expected to sit still, my go-to is to think of girls' names that begin with the letter A. Like Andrea, Amy, Amelia, Ariana, etc.
Counsellor Katharina Star explains it like this:
Instead of putting all your energy into the upsetting emotion, you reset your attention to something else. When you distract yourself, you can manage your strong emotions by bringing your focus elsewhere.
4. Be kind to yourself!
I can't emphasise that enough - be kind to yourself!
Nobody ever got better through criticism or self-berating. These are trying times for us all, and it's important to trust that your brain and body are doing the best they can.
In their book, Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It, Kamal Ravikant writes: "Remember, love heals."
Related: Self-Kindness and Anxiety - Fake it ‘til You Make It
Working from home then returning to the office has been tough on everyone.
My social anxiety aside - for the last two years, we've been told that the outside world is dangerous. We were told to stop mixing with other people, isolate, and follow a list of rules that chopped and changed like the wind.
It's natural to feel apprehensive when re-engaging with activities and people that we've previously avoided.
So, I'll say it again: be kind to yourself!
If you continue to struggle with social anxiety at work, it may be best to look into therapy. I know: talking face-to-face about your social anxiety? That doesn't make sense!
Related: My 5 Biggest Misconceptions about Therapy
Thankfully, there are now many more therapy options than sitting and talking to a stranger in an office. You can receive help via video call, telephone, email, or text. It may be difficult at first, but the results are absolutely worth it.
NPS-IE-NP-00380 February 2022