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How to deal with social anxiety in a work environment if you’re heading back to the office

Posted by for Mental Health

Is the idea of speaking to people in the office stressing you out? Here’s how to make things easier, according to a psychologist.

One of the biggest differences between working from home and working in the office is the social aspect of it all. 

While you may have had daily Zooms to contend with over the last year, no amount of video calls can emulate the face-to-face interactions of an office environment. 

So, as you return to a working environment – whether that’s full time or as part of a hybrid arrangement – you might be feeling a little out of practice when it comes to socialising with your colleagues. And while some won’t be too worried about this, others might be feeling a little anxious about the prospect of holding a conversation again after so long spent at home.  

If that’s you, don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. Whether you’ve suffered from social anxiety before or are struggling with this for the first time, it’s entirely normal to feel a little nervous in this kind of situation – and there are things you can do to ease your nerves and make the transition a little easier.

To find out more about the steps you can take to manage your social anxiety around going back to the office, we spoke to Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist on behalf of Healthspan. Here’s what she had to say.  

Challenge catastrophic thoughts

When you’re feeling anxious, it’s really easy to slip into what psychologists call ‘catastrophic thinking’ – that is, imagining the worst-case scenario and obsessing over everything that could go wrong. This kind of thinking will only fuel your anxiety – so it’s important to challenge it.

“Catastrophizing is a common thought distortion where you might be thinking ‘oh no, I haven’t had to speak up in a real-life meeting for so long I just know I’m going to mess it up completely and then my boss will see that I’m not good at my job and I’ll probably get the sack – I wish I could just stay home!’,” Arroll explains.

“Challenge thoughts like this with evidence by thinking back to all the meetings you have attended in your life and remember how the vast majority, if not all, were completely fine and utterly uneventful.” 

Two women talking in the office
Speaking to a trusted colleague about how you're feeling will help you to feel less alone.

Remember you’re not the only one

It’s all too easy to assume that you’re the only one feeling anxious about socialising at work again, but the reality is likely anything but. Reminding yourself of this can help you to feel less alone and boost your confidence.

“Social anxiety can make people feel extremely isolated and that everyone else swims along in social situations with ease, but this is not the case,” Dr Arroll highlights.

“There’s no doubt that some of your colleagues will be feeling the same way so have a chat with one or two trusted workmates and share your concerns,” she says. “Chances are, they will be having similar thoughts and fears after such a long period out of the office.”

Focus on the positives

The idea of seeing your colleagues again may be sending you into an anxious spiral, but it’s likely there are good things about going back to the office, too. 

“Take some time and write down all the things you’re looking forward to about going back to work – even simple things like not having to prepare three meals a day at home!” Dr Arroll suggests.

“Creating a sense of excitement will help you to overcome the sensation of fear.” 

Schedule some downtime

If you’re feeling anxious and unsure about socialising with colleagues again, it’s important to ease yourself into it one step at a time – and treat yourself to breaks along the way.

“We’ve all lost a bit of our social muscle during lockdown so think about going back to work a bit like starting a new sport – you wouldn’t try to do a 10k run in one day after not working out for months, and it’s exactly the same for your social stamina,” Dr Arroll explains.

“Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to rebuild social strength by making sure you have breaks in the day,” she continues. “Perhaps go for a short walk outside and take in some fresh air – it can be quite draining for those with social anxiety to be around others without some downtime.” 

A woman walking through a park
Getting outside at lunchtime is a great way to give yourself some downtime during the day.

Ease yourself into ‘work mode’

Alongside making sure you schedule in some downtime, another great way to ease yourself back into the office environment is to take the pressure off.

“Organise some easy wins for your first few days back at work,” Dr Arroll suggests.

“Avoid tackling a huge task on your return, or if you have to, chunk your work into short bursts of 15 minutes (without interruptions if possible), followed by a five-minute break.”

Talk to someone

It’s all well and good trying to manage your anxiety on your own, but if you’re feeling extremely anxious, then it’s a good idea to talk to your line manager about how they can help. 

“There may be some adjustments that can be made or further assistance that you can access,” Dr Arroll explains. 

“Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health and employers have a responsibility to support you in the workplace.” 

If adapting to the new world of work is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of relying on technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Stylist’s Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health at work. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of work-related wellbeing, whether you’re working from home, adopting a hybrid arrangement or planning on going back to the office full-time. 

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.