Social Anxiety Disorder in the workplace
Chances are, no matter where you work, someone in your company has the intelligence and skills to advance professionally but is not productive or getting promoted because of a condition called Social Anxiety Disorder.
Across industries, companies include employees such as Tripp Hammett. Before he began treatment for social anxiety, he turned down leadership roles and virtually all involvement beyond his basic job description.
"When I was young in my career, I remember wanting someone else to talk in meetings so I wouldn't have to," he said. "I was afraid of screwing up. I was afraid everyone would stare at me."
Experts describe social anxiety as complex and often far more debilitating than shyness and fear of public speaking. It can range from an all-consuming phobia to anxious thoughts and behaviors that only surface during specific situations.
New research shows social anxiety costs companies money and causes many workers to be less successful than HR departments expected upon hiring. A University of Michigan study shows that about 12 percent of the population will meet criteria for social anxiety in their lifetime. This cuts across all demographic lines and can have a profound impact on the workplace.
Researchers found that Social Anxiety Disorder can lead to:
- Less productivity - symptoms force some workers to avoid assignments or keep quiet rather than participating fully.
- More absences - workers with social anxiety are often too anxious to attend work, especially when potentially stressful situations are expected to occur.
- Less advancement - otherwise talented employees are not advancing into leadership roles because of anxiety over increased visibility and/or responsibility.
According to Joseph Himmler, who led the Michigan research, awareness of the disorder should become a priority for companies of all sizes, in all industries. The transformation of U.S. business to a service-based economy makes this even more of an imperative.
Once upon a time, when manufacturing dominated the economy, a worker could get by just doing the job and remaining in the shadows. Now, Himmler explains, "a company's best hope is to get the best contribution from every employee. They want the best ideas from every employee. Those employees need to get into leadership. People with social anxiety turn down positions of leadership or they are often passed over because of the performance pressure or the fear of contributing in meetings."
Too often, the research shows, employees with this are more likely to be terminated by companies.
"It's easier to get rid of somebody who nobody knows very well. They don't play on the softball team or don't eat lunch with their co-workers," according to Himmler. "It's hard for them to demonstrate value because people with Social Anxiety Disorder have trouble sharing their accomplishments. And when they make mistakes, it's very difficult for them to tell others about them. So mistakes get repeated."
His research shows that employees who leave the workforce because of social anxiety have a more difficult time returning to work than people with alcoholism or depression.
Himmler advises that HR departments and top executives need to be aware of how this may be affecting business. The good news is that treatment is available, both individual and group-based.
Tripp Hammett, who has worked to overcome the disorder and take the reins of a family business, recommends that supervisors "approach the employee in private to offer help."
For Hammett, it has taken years of therapy to manage it. He thinks often about the next time he has to present to a group. Now, "I just take that anxiety feeling and make it my friend. I go with it and gear my mind up to handle the pressure."
He wants businesses to know this: "It's very possible with the right help for employees to overcome fears. There's no quick fix. It takes time and work."
For more information, visit www.akfsa.org.
Connie Glaser is an author and expert on workplace communications and leadership. www.connieglaser.com.