Overcoming Workplace Social Anxiety

Awkward. Shy. Withdrawn. Unfriendly. Disinterested. Nervous. Quiet. Aloof.

These are all words that some of us may intensely identify with when social anxiety strikes. The good news is that these words, are just words! They do not define us as people, but are mere perceptions of ourselves that can be actively changed.

Recently, Neil Strauss wrote an article on Ten Truths to Overcome Social Anxiety. What I found interesting was his perspective on the concept of an 'enemy.' He provides insight from Kobo Abe, the Japanese writer who stated, “the city is the place where people first had to deal with a stranger who is not an enemy … I think they still have not succeeded completely." In response, Strauss suggests that we need to begin succeeding by getting to know the fellow human beings whom we share this earth with. “The people you brush past every day are not your enemies, nor are they your judges or critics. They are potential friends, lovers, collaborators, teachers, or employers who you are missing out on” (Neil Strauss, 2016). 


Take a minute to reflect on the following questions: In the last month, were you fearful or embarrassed about being the center of attention or fearful of being humiliated? This includes things such as speaking in public, using public bathrooms, writing while someone watches, or being in social situations. Do you fear these situations so much that you tend to avoid them, or endure them with marked distress?

Workplace-related anxieties such as social phobias are often connected with sick leave (Linden & Muschalla, 2007). In the context of the workplace, social phobia refers to avoiding contact with colleagues, clients, or superiors whenever possible. “Indiscriminate social phobia” means that this occurs everywhere and with everyone, while “discriminate social phobia” is restricted to a selected person of designate groups of persons (Linden & Muschalla, 2007). These work-related anxiety disorders deserve plenty of attention as they impair social integration, productivity, and participation.


Performing well at your job is obviously an integral component to a successful career. However,  "soft skills", such as being a team player, facilitating conversation in a meeting, networking, and getting the most out of your colleagues through good relationships, are becoming increasingly important (MacDonald, 2014). People with social anxiety may therefore be placed at a disadvantage, and can be passed over for promotion when they are just as capable as their coworkers. So how can we address social anxiety if our goal is to progress professionally or connect with our colleagues on a deeper level? The key is to start small:  

  • Try to find colleagues on their own by the coffee maker, water cooler, or photocopy machine, and start a brief conversation
  • Ask them how they are, how their work is going, if they are busy, etc. 
  • As you receive positive responses, and realize that nothing awful is happening, you will find it easier to talk to more people


It may be the case that your social anxiety manifests itself on a certain component of your job. For example, some people may find it difficult to make phone calls, as an absence of body language triggers a latent phobia (MacDonald, 2014). In this case, consider the following tips:

  • Try making notes about what you want to say - this will help you feel calmer
  • Practice at home - make phone calls that are gradually more challenging, such as calling a business with a simple request e.g. asking about opening-closing hours, then progress to a more complex issue like questions about stock, return policies, etc.
  • Practice anxiety provoking duties in front of one person, than gradually increase your exposure to a group of people


Your instinctive response may be to show up fashionably late so that you can avoid talking to people. What you may not realize is that by then, groups will have naturally formed making it much harder to join in. The trick is to show up 10-15 minutes early. It is much easier to start a conversation and blend in a unit that will grow when more people arrive (MacDonald, 2014). Consider these additional tips:

  • Watch the news in the preceding days, and memorize a few interesting stories so that you can contribute to conversation - stay clear of controversial topics!
  • Don't drink to calm your nerves! Drinking too much alcohol is frowned upon in a business environment, and could lead to developing a reliance on alcohol as a coping mechanism.
  • You shouldn't feel the need to be talking all the time - everybody likes a good listener!


Lastly, finding times during the day to regroup is incredibly important. When you are on your lunch break, feel free to wander and be by yourself so that you can re-energize and feel better. A small break could be enough to help you feel more secure and sociable throughout the day (Wormuth, 2014). 

How do you cope with social anxiety at work? How could you support a colleague who has social anxiety? Let us know in the comments below!



Linden, M., & Muschalla, B. (2007). Anxiety disorders and workplace-related anxieties. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21: 467-747. Doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.06.006

MacDonald, K. (2014). Tips on How to Manage Social Anxiety at Work and in Meetings. Overcoming Social Anxiety. Retrieved from http://overcomingsocialanxiety.com/how-to-manage-social-anxiety-at-work/

Strauss, N. (2016). Ten Truths to Overcome Social Anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.neilstrauss.com/

Wormuth, M. (2014). Coping with Social Anxiety in the Workplace. Retrieved from http://www.theravive.com/blog/post/2014/09/18/Dealing-with-Social-Anxiety-in-the-Workplace.aspx

Photo Credit: http://blog.hreonline.com/2015/09/30/anxiety-disorders-and-the-ada/