Do you have a colleague who tends to worry excessively about social situations at work — whether it’s giving a presentation to the boss, meeting a client or simply joining a conversation at lunch? You might find that person is anxious about being judged negatively by others or being seen as inept or inferior. This colleague might frequently do things to avoid facing such anxiety-provoking social situations, such as avoiding get-togethers, shifting responsibility to others, minimizing interactions or remaining in the background as much as possible.
If you’ve noticed social situations hampering your colleague’s day-to-day functioning, that person may be suffering from social anxiety disorder, or SAD. Globally, approximately 1 in 14 people suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point, and SAD is a common one. How can you support a colleague who struggles with social interactions at work? Here are six suggestions:
— CREATE A SAFE SPACE FOR YOUR COLLEAGUE TO SHARE FEELINGS WITH YOU: Make your colleague feel comfortable to open up to you at an appropriate time. You can do this by asking open-ended questions like, “You seem to be tense and worried about something. Would you like to talk about it?”
— BE EMPATHETIC: Try to understand your colleague’s perspective rather than trivialize it. Sometimes we tend to offer reassurance by making statements such as, “It’s really nothing to worry about.” This can be perceived as invalidating the person’s experience. Instead, say, “This must be making things difficult for you.”
— OFFER REALISTIC POSITIVE FEEDBACK: People with social anxiety often feel very self-conscious during social situations and tend to undervalue their performance or make exaggerated inferences about others’ negative judgments of them. So, it’s helpful to provide nonjudgmental feedback to relay how they performed in a given social situation.
— POINT OUT THEIR NEGATIVE THOUGHTS: You can also help by correcting your colleague’s unrealistic self-judgments. Help that person refocus the attention on the task during a given social situation and selfcare practices, such as mindfulness exercises and relaxation techniques, to decrease social anxiety.
— BE PATIENT AND START SMALL: Gently encourage your colleague to stop gradually avoiding situations they fear. Different people with SAD may find different social situations to be more difficult for them than others. Help your colleague choose a comfortable situation that o start with.
— ENCOURAGE THEM TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP: If your colleague is trying his best and the avoidance behavior is not reducing, it would be best to encourage him to seek professional help for evaluation and management. Cognitive behavior therapy is one effective approach for people with SAD.
Workplaces can create struggles for someone with social anxiety, because of an abundance of social situations that need to be faced. But these situations also present opportunities to learn effective ways of dealing with social anxiety through gradual practice and mastery in an environment wherein one feels supported by others.
Janhavi Devdutt is senior research officer in the department of clinical psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bengaluru, India. Seema Mehrotra is a professor of clinical psychology there.; (Art note: A photo and an illustration accompany this article.)