An anxious employee wearing a mask stands outside a meeting room and tries to compose himself while his coworkers gather inside. Our expert tips can help anyone overcome anxiety.

The Great Return: How to Help Employees Overcome Back to Work Anxiety

By Anna Mittag, SVP, Product and Services August 13, 2021

As lockdown restrictions continue to ease, your organization may already be inviting employees back to the workplace. Or perhaps you’re in the planning stage, trying to decide between a full-time return and a hybrid model.

Whichever decision is implemented in your organization, the transition from our homes back to shared spaces may be fraught with emotional turbulence for many employees. Studies indicate that at any given time about 7% of the US population struggles with social anxiety, and 1 in 8 people—or 12% of the population—report experiencing social anxiety at some point in their lifetime.

In addition to that, a US study recently published in Psychiatry Research indicates that feelings of social anxiety may have risen at least 13% during the pandemic. Many of those who struggled with social anxiety prior to the pandemic have been isolated for over a year and will feel uncomfortable returning to offices to interact face-to-face with other people. After not flexing their social muscles for over a year, they’re out of social practice.

As a result, managers and the Human Resource teams that support them have a new challenge to navigate: helping employees and managers ease back into the workplace while keeping everyone happy, healthy and productive. Doing so effectively may be the difference between retaining top talent and losing those individuals to organizations that invest in a range of mental health and wellbeing support options for their employees.

Here are highlights taken from some of our micro-learning videos that provide guidance to help employees deal with anxiety head-on.  The full videos are available to employees, family members, and customers of LifeSpeak clients with access to the anxiety and mindfulness categories of content.

1. Mindfulness with clinical psychologist Dr. Russell Kolts from “How Mindfulness Creates Space for Helpful Action”

“Don’t believe everything you think”

Dr. Kolts tells LifeSpeak that this is one of his favorite bumper stickers. According to Dr. Kolts, we don’t have to believe all the thoughts that pop up in our minds; instead of getting caught up in them and the other thoughts or emotions they evoke, we can notice what we’re thinking and feeling, step back, and make an educated and thoughtful decision about what we’re going to do. He says the easiest way for us to bring mindfulness into our lives is to ask ourselves questions throughout the day like “What am I feeling?”, “What am I thinking?” or “What are the words and images going through my mind?”

This is an easy way to take stock of where we are during the pandemic—some of us might be experiencing more anxiety than we realize.

2. Reframing with physician Dr. David Posen from “Stress and the Mind-Body Connection”

According to Dr. Posen, most of our stress comes from the way we think about what happens, or could happen, and not from what actually happens. As we become more mindful of our emotions and thoughts, we can reduce our stress by changing the way we think. The technique he recommends for accomplishing this goal is called reframing. When we reframe a situation, we change our approach to it; so, instead of thinking, for example, “I’m going to have to be around other people and I’m going to embarrass myself,” we can choose to say to ourselves, “I’m going to enjoy a conversation in person with someone, maybe someone I haven’t spoken to in a long time.” Dr. Posen’s technique is a really simple way to take any situation that scares us or that we want to avoid as we return to the office and look at the benefits that situation might bring instead.

3. Control, or lack thereof, with leadership coach Keith Edwards from “How to Set Goals and Priorities to Get What You Want”

As we reframe, we can begin to set new goals for ourselves in post-pandemic life. Mr. Edwards encourages us to focus on the actions that we can take ourselves, rather than the ones we need to rely on other people’s permission or approval to do. He says part of the reason we experience suffering is that we obsess over things outside of our control, like other people’s decisions or even the weather—and today that extends to the fluctuating lockdowns and swings of the pandemic. But when we stop trying to control everything, we can set realistic goals and work toward accomplishing them. For example, we might not be able to magically wish away our social anxiety, but we can choose not to let it define us by tackling it head-on.

4. Managing social anxiety with psychologist Dr. Deborah Ledley from “Anxiety Disorders: Social Anxiety/Shyness”

Dr. Ledley also has some great advice for anyone whose social skills atrophied while they were stuck at home. Her biggest tip for socially anxious people is this: do the opposite of what you want to do or would usually do. Instead of looking away from someone you meet in the office upon returning, force yourself to look at them and see how they respond to you. With practice in reframing, mindfulness, and choosing what to control, this should be an easier action to complete than it was before. As we force ourselves to look at people or talk to them, we tackle situations that we fear head-on and practice being social; and get better at it in the process. She encourages us to think of a conversation as a tennis match. If we listen to what another person is saying, we’re stressing less about what we’re going to say; once we know what’s being said to us, it’s easier for us to respond and send the ball back to their side of the court.

Another big tip she shares is not to fear small talk. Many who struggle with social anxiety believe that other people will think they are stupid or boring if they engage in small talk. But she shares that small talk is actually a great way to get to know people and make connections. If we take a moment to be mindful of our thoughts, we can reframe how we see small talk and social interactions in general, and then choose to engage with others in healthy ways.

This is just a snapshot of the advice that our clients can find in our micro-learning videos on how to manage social anxiety. Want to find out more about this important topic? Here’s how:

If you’re already a LifeSpeak client, your employees can access your library of micro-learning videos and blog posts on a wide range of wellness topics with experts like these by logging into the LifeSpeak platform.

Just hearing about LifeSpeak? We invite you to find out how our mental health and wellbeing platform can help you take care of the people who take care of your business by booking a demo today.

Anna Mittag is SVP, Product and Services, and has been with the Company since 2005. Bilingual, Ms. Mittag is based in Montreal and oversees several portfolios and teams: product innovation, content creation and curation, client services, and sales and partnership support. Prior to joining the Company, Ms. Mittag practiced insurance litigation law with Lavery de Billy LLP, and was in-house counsel for Cirque du Soleil. She holds a BA in English Literature, as well as JD and BCL degrees, from McGill University.
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