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Your Return to Office Plan: 5 Strategies to Help Employees Overcome Social Anxiety

As employees return to physical workplaces, social anxiety is mounting. Here’s what you can do to support the people struggling—or get help yourself.

The Calm Team

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A fairly common but often overlooked challenge many employees struggle with is social anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says nearly 15 million adults in the United States have diagnosed social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety is a mental health condition that can result in avoiding social situations. On top of that, there are countless people who will experience occasional or mild socialization-related anxiety at some point in their lives. 

For a lot of people, that time is right now. More companies are requiring their employees to return to onsite work—and social anxiety could increase as a result. In a recent Calm for Business survey of employees who were asked to return to the office after temporarily working from home during the pandemic, 84% said they’re feeling anxious about going back to the workplace.  

First, what exactly is social anxiety and how does it manifest itself in the workplace? And how can HR leaders help address social anxiety in your workforce?

What is social anxiety?

The ADAA defines social anxiety as an intense fear of being judged, rejected, or negatively evaluated in a social or performance situation. This fear causes extreme anxiety and self-consciousness in everyday situations, like introducing yourself in a client meeting or making small talk with a colleague. Like regular anxiety, social anxiety can cause physical sensations like trembling, sweating, chest discomfort, nausea, and heart palpitations, as well as feelings of dread and shame.

Social anxiety vs. stress

Though stress and anxiety have similar symptoms (irritability, disturbed sleep, and trouble concentrating, to name a few), they’re not the same. Stress is an emotional response to an external trigger, like a looming project deadline or work conflict. Stress can become a problem when stressors continue without a period of relief or relaxation.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a persistent state of worry that doesn’t go away even if the stressor has disappeared. Social anxiety in particular is a persistent state of excessive worry specifically about social or performance situations. 

Social anxiety vs. introversion

Experiencing social anxiety isn’t the same thing as being introverted. Introversion is a personality trait largely characterized by the need to recharge alone, whereas social anxiety is a mental health condition that can result in avoidance of social situations.

What does social anxiety look like in a workplace? 

Social anxiety can take on a handful of different forms in a work setting, including:

  • Overachieving or overworking
  • Avoidance of social interactions and gatherings
  • Nervousness when making calls or public speaking
  • Difficulty talking in meetings
  • Difficulty forming connections in the workplace

Everyone is different, though. Some employees might breeze through sales calls with customers but feel anxious about having a one-on-one chat with their manager. Others might feel completely comfortable amongst their colleagues but get terrified about talking to clients. 

It’s important to note that social anxiety isn’t always visible to others, nor does it automatically hinder someone’s job performance. Many employees with social anxiety continue to fulfill their work duties and meet goals while struggling internally. 

However, if someone is dealing with debilitating social anxiety, their work performance and mental health may start to decline. If companies don’t take action to support employees with persistent social anxiety, bigger problems might arise, like decreased job satisfaction, higher employee turnover, and ultimately lost revenue. 

What’s causing workplace social anxiety right now?

There are several key factors contributing to social anxiety in the workplace right now:

Employees are out of practice in social settings

Many employees' social skills have gotten rusty over the past two years working from home. People traded in-person meetings for Zoom catch-ups and water cooler chat for solitary work days. With the changes came less perceived judgment from coworkers and less pressure to be “on” around others, but also fewer opportunities to hone critical soft skills like listening, public speaking, and collaborating. 

Getting used to regularly socializing in the workplace again can feel overwhelming and disorienting at best—and terrifying at worst. For employees who started new jobs remotely during the pandemic, these feelings could be heightened. If an employee spent their first several months—or even first year—working alone at home, going to a physical workplace and meeting coworkers in person might feel especially intimidating.  

Uncertainty breeds anxiety

A big change like returning to the office can trigger or exacerbate feelings of anxiety for many people. Employees might be thinking: What if I’m put on the spot during a meeting or forced to participate in team lunches? How much daily social interaction will be required of me? Not knowing how an experience will play out can feel unnerving. 

People are struggling with their mental health overall

More people are experiencing mental health issues since the start of the pandemic—and those issues have the potential to prompt or worsen social anxiety. Here are just a few stats: 

Employees in marginalized groups may feel especially vulnerable 

Black and Indigenous employees, employees of color, and employees who are part of the LGBTQIA community may be dealing with social anxiety related to workplace inclusion and belonging. Research shows, for example, that only 3% of Black workers in the US want to return to full-time in-person work (compared to 21% of white workers). A large part of the reason is workplace microaggressions. People in historically marginalized groups may have substantial anxiety around interacting with their coworkers and potentially witnessing or experiencing microaggressions.

How HR leaders can support employees with social anxiety

Helping employees manage their social anxiety in the workplace comes down to offering compassion and practical support. Here are five strategies to try:

1. Train managers on how to navigate social anxiety on their teams  

Your managers are the frontline for both detecting and addressing social anxiety in your workforce. As you return to work, the first step is to set up a workshop to train managers on how to identify social anxiety in themselves and their team, and how to coach their team to mitigate this anxiety. Here are five tips to teach managers: 

  1. Don’t make assumptions: Remind managers to be careful not to make assumptions about someone’s social anxiety or call out their behavior (unless it’s a problem); instead, they should work on making space for employees to open up and share if they’re comfortable. 
  2. Ask about employee needs: Encourage managers to ask specific questions about someone’s job duties or work experience. For example, managers could hold 1:1s or create a survey to ask questions like: How are you feeling about being back in the workplace? How do you feel about having to lead team meetings or conduct cold calls? Is there anything you need help with right now? Download the Mental Health Literacy Guide to learn how to train your managers and organization.
  3. Champion employee goals: Teach managers how to create opportunities for employees to confront their anxiety triggers at work. That means finding ways to help them practice their coping skills in low-stakes situations. For example, if an employee feels anxious giving presentations, managers could ask them to kick off a meeting by introducing one of their teammates. That way, they can practice speaking in front of a group without having to command everyone’s attention for too long.  
  4. Set clear expectations for job duties and workplace processes: Providing clarity and predictability in the workplace can help employees who experience social anxiety. Encourage managers and leaders to establish clear expectations and guidelines around job duties, company policies, and workplace rules or systems.
  5. Avoid surprises: Remind managers to avoid surprises or last-minute asks if possible. Instead, managers should aim to give employees notice of requests or events that might trigger social anxiety. Think: one-on-one check-ins, team meetings, customer calls, client presentations, and social events.

2. Be flexible with workplace communication

Communication is a big component of social anxiety. The more flexible your company can be with its communication methods, the easier it is on employees who deal with social anxiety. Here are some ways to do that: 

  • Give employees different tools for communicating. Some people might prefer to ask questions or share news over messaging platforms like Slack, while others might want the option to request a call with a coworker. 
  • Encourage managers and employees to minimize meetings when possible. 
  • Relax the rules and expectations around meetings. Encourage managers to give people the option to do what’s comfortable for them, whether that means turning their video off during a Zoom call or taking a listening role instead of speaking up in a group setting. 

3. Create a welcoming, non-judgmental workplace environment

Social anxiety can be draining and isolating. One of the most impactful ways to support people experiencing it is to give them the freedom to take care of themselves at work. Here’s how that might look:

  1. Don’t pressure people to attend social events in the workplace. Make sure managers and leaders let employees know that happy hours and celebrations are optional and open-ended. 
  2. Give employees flexibility during the work day. Someone might need to take a long lunch to decompress after an anxious moment, or carve out time for a 10-minute afternoon meditation to prepare for a meeting. 
  3. Encourage managers and leaders to praise employees for their strengths and skills. 
  4. Normalize mental health conversations. Consider hosting a mental health education seminar that discusses social anxiety, or enroll employees in a mandatory mental health awareness training course using Calm as a resource. In a recent survey of employees who had opportunities to use Calm with their team members showed that employees were 30% less likely to feel isolated from others at work and 21% more likely to report that Calm improved their mental health.  

4. Ease people back into the workplace

For employees who have social anxiety, going from full-time remote work to in-person interactions overnight can be overwhelming and exhausting. As an HR leader, you can help mitigate social anxiety among employees by easing them into the transition. 

Here are just a few solutions to discuss with C-suite execs and employers:

  • Offer flex days: Encourage employees to come in one or two days a week to start, then build up gradually to the normal schedule.
  • Re-train employees on office etiquette: Hold a virtual training to remind employees of your workplace etiquette and policies. For example, maybe you encourage employees to hold meetings only during certain hours of the day, or maybe you discourage employees from popping by each other’s desks.
  • Create workplace quiet zones: Designate one or two areas of the workplace as quiet zones where employees who need a break can reset and recharge. 

5. Provide a mental health wellness benefit to help reduce anxiety

Another way to support employees is to give them practical tools to manage and reduce their social anxiety. Benefits like paid mental health days, retreats, and counseling are helpful, as is access to a mental wellness platform like Calm. 

With Calm, employees can take advantage of guided meditations, breathing exercises, and educational resources to help manage their anxiety in the workplace—and increase their confidence. In a sample of 192 employees at a large retail company, we found that using Calm for 10 minutes a day for eight weeks was effective in reducing employee stress. On average, employees using Calm reported a 38% decrease in stress.

Supporting people through social anxiety

For socially anxious employees, navigating a return to the physical workplace can be intimidating. That's why it's crucial to step up as an HR leader. With compassion, flexibility, and extra mental health resources, you can help support employees through the transition. 

Every employee—whether they experience social anxiety or not—can benefit from more support at work. If you’re curious about how you can improve employee well-being in your company, check out our Mental Health Literacy Guide or book a demo to learn more about Calm’s benefits for employees. 

How to Build Mental Health Literacy at Your Organization

As an HR leader, mental health is likely one of your top priorities. But where do you start? Building Mental Health Literacy is the first step.

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