Alexis believes her social anxiety started when she was a child. The 21-year-old, who lives in North Carolina, US, moved around often, and always found herself struggling to fit in. When she entered the working world, her social struggles were amplified – she often found herself so anxious she would stay in her cubicle all day to avoid interactions with colleagues.
Lockdown offered some respite for Alexis. She even started a new remote job in publishing. But her employer has now ordered a return to the office next month, and Alexis is worried.
“When I received that email, my stomach just dropped to the floor,” she says. “Not only because I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon, but because I remember how low-performing I was when I was in the office. People can just come up and start talking, or see what you’re doing on your computer. There’s no door to close so that you can have a moment to yourself.”
Alexis is one of many struggling with social anxiety after two years of limited social interaction and periods of enforced isolation. Experts say anxiety has rocketed among young people during the pandemic, and although there’s little data on exactly how many people are dealing with it, it’s estimated that 12.1% of US adults experience social anxiety at some point in their lives.
Employees are just starting to trickle back into the workplace, so we’re still in the early stages of understanding how in-office work will affect people who are coping. However, European schools are already reporting a spike in school-return refusals among children due to mental-health and anxiety problems exacerbated by the pandemic. If kids’ behaviours are the harbinger – especially because social anxiety affects younger people more – it’s possible we may see a similar trend manifest in the workplace.
‘I was struggling to leave the house’
Concern about being in the office is a familiar feeling for Meg. The 24-year-old from London was diagnosed with social anxiety after experiencing a breakdown at university, and she struggles with travelling on public transport, being in busy areas, meeting new people and maintaining friendships. This means that many aspects of her project-management job – from commuting to networking – can be a trial.
Before I knew it, I was struggling to leave the house, or feeling extreme terror of being picked on in virtual meetings – Meg
Pre-pandemic, Meg had many coping mechanisms in place for handling her anxiety. But multiple lockdowns and a long period of working from home have left her terrified of going back to the office.
“Lockdown decreased my comfort zone,” she says. “For years, I had worked on my social anxiety. Pre-pandemic, I had reached a point where I was able to put my hand up in team meetings, or share my opinions in groups without a second thought. During Covid, I found comfort in avoiding crowded spaces, and this set my social-anxiety habits back in motion. Before I knew it, I was struggling to leave the house, or feeling extreme terror of being picked on in virtual meetings.”
Like Alexis and Meg, many of the people most impacted by social anxiety are young adults, with 18-to-29 year olds most likely to suffer. Dr Eileen Anderson-Fye, the director of education, bioethics and medical humanities at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, US, says this is because adolescence and young adulthood is a time when peer-group socialisation is incredibly important.
Developmentally, younger people are still building stable identities, which depend upon interaction with and feedback from others. When this is taken away, people experience intense worries about the things that they say and do in social situations, and how they are perceived. Although for some people this means already existing fears have been exacerbated, it also means some people who had never experienced social anxiety pre-pandemic are now struggling. Anderson-Fye says more people than ever are being diagnosed with the disorder.
Particularly impacted have been young people who entered the workplace during the pandemic. With their only experiences of the working world having taken place via Zoom calls and within their own home, a widespread return to the physical office could be disorienting.
While many experienced workers might not be fazed by the return to the office, a new wave have spent their first months or years in the workforce on their own. For some, this inexperience and isolation has also turned to anticipatory anxiety around situations like water cooler chats or participating in a face-to-face meeting.
Why mental health gets missed
The pandemic has reshaped our society in a multitude of ways – many workplaces have accepted their employees have different needs and preferences, and can work effectively from home should they need to do so.
Yet Dr Caroline Leaf, a US-based neuroscientist and mental-health expert, and author of Clean Up Your Mental Mess, believes there is still little space for employees to discuss how their mental health might impact on their ability to do their job in person. “Even though there’s been some improvement, being open about your mental health in the workplace is still not as stress-free as it should be,” she says.
Leaf believes this is because many people still see mental-health issues as a character flaw, and those suffering still experience stigma, embarrassment and shame. When someone is already intensely aware of how they come across to others, the idea of broaching their mental health with colleagues or bosses can seem almost impossible.
Meg believes there is greater space for discussion around staff who want to work remotely due to caregiving duties or a long commute, but that speaking out about social anxiety is still off-limits. “Conversations around mental health are still closed behind a door, leaving individuals to have to tiptoe around the topic,” she says.
Her workplace has now asked her to come back to the office two days a week, something Meg believes she will be able to handle on days when her social anxiety is under control – but says could be “terrifying” when her anxiety is at its worst.
How employers can help
Similar to the rise in school avoidance among children since lockdowns lifted, the pattern of social anxiety holding people back is finding its way into the workplace. “We have been seeing resistance to re-entering the workplace in person,” says Anderson-Fye. “Thankfully, we are seeing improvements in many workplaces in supporting people who deal with mental-health challenges, but some are refusing to budge, holding onto an outdated one-size-fits-all model.”
When someone is already intensely aware of how they come across to others, the idea of broaching their mental health with colleagues or bosses can seem almost impossible
Anderson-Fye says people with social anxiety tend to thrive in workplaces with flexible options, such as remote or hybrid set-ups. Although there’s little hard data on how people with social anxiety coped during lockdown, she notes she’s heard countless stories of sufferers blossoming when working remotely – both in terms of wellbeing and job performance – and argues offering a flexible approach to in-person and remote working that allows for different types of interaction is the best way to accommodate human and mental diversity.
This is an idea echoed by Vanessa Matsis-McCready, the associate general counsel at HR consultancy Engage. She points out that in many countries, mental-health concerns including social anxiety could require reasonable accommodation by law, and so it’s important for employers to consider how they can support sufferers by providing mental health assistance or flexible models of work.
But even if an employer is understanding, requesting extra accommodation can be complicated. For one, people with social anxiety will almost certainly choose to work remotely as much as possible. Because many mental-health professionals recommend that fears such as social anxiety are best treated with exposure, this could only exacerbate people’s fears about being in the office, creating deeper divides between themselves and their colleagues.
There’s also the problem of requesting flexible work in the first place. When a person is already worried about how other people perceive them, going against the grain when others are choosing to head back to the office or disclosing a mental health condition can be even more anxiety-inducing.
“I don’t think that my workplace has taken into account mental health when asking for a return to the office,” says Meg. “Even when flexible working is available, people are encouraged to come back by management. It makes it even more awkward if everyone else is returning, but you don’t want to.”
A vicious cycle of anxiety
For both Alexis and Meg, the future is still uncertain as to how they’ll manage their social anxiety when returning to the office.
Meg remains optimistic – her experience has prompted her to start her own mental-health consultancy on the side, working with schools and universities to provide support for teenagers and students. She hopes the pandemic will prompt workplaces to realise they can build community and culture without demanding a return to the office.
But Alexis remains worried. She has been offered hybrid working, but fears that this is just a step on the way to a full-time return. “I believe that my company has this idea that they have a work culture, and that they want to return in order to build this culture,” she says. “They want us to engage more with our co-workers, but I don’t want to make friends with my co-workers on the level that they suggest.”
For people like Alexis, a return to the office is daunting, and the offer of hybrid work is a double-edged sword. Although it provides some respite from anxiety-inducing interactions, it also creates increased worries and even more alienation from colleagues who are more comfortable with returning to the office – a vicious circle of anxiety.
Ultimately, Alexis still hopes that she will be able to continue to avoid the office as much as possible. “Working from home has provided me with a sense of control that we don’t get to experience in the office,” she says. “In the office, we don’t have moments of the day where we can check out and tell ourselves it’s OK. Once you sit down at your desk, it’s an entirely different feeling. It’s a pressure that you don’t experience within our homes.”
Alexis and Meg’s last names are being withheld for job security reasons