Some Australian workers returning to the office following challenging lockdowns will struggle to communicate feelings of anxiety that might be triggered after many months of isolation from managers and colleagues.
Social Anxiety Disorder is experienced in varying degrees by more than 10% of the Australian population and can be exacerbated by extended lockdown periods.
With restrictions easing around the country, it is timely for managers to work with their teams in preparation for business-as-usual, keeping in mind the possibility that some staff members may return to work experiencing mild or severe symptoms of social anxiety.
“You might find that you were fine before, and you’ve lost confidence now,” says Catherine Madigan, clinical psychologist at Anxiety Treatment Australia.
“It’s one of the most important things after depression and alcoholism.”
As restrictions in NSW ease, The Guardian describes re-entering society as ‘relearning’ social norms previously taken for granted by many Australians, and other states will face similar challenges as they exit lockdowns. The world’s most locked-down state is particularly at risk and the mental repercussions of ongoing lockdowns are now of greater concern for many Victorians than the risk of catching COVID-19.
Social media and an array of other digital tools have made workers more reliant on technologies to communicate so returning to face-to-face contact with managers and colleagues at the office can cause social anxiety in some workers and intensify symptoms for those already suffering mild to serious forms of the condition.
“You can hide a bit on zoom,” Madigan says, “by turning the camera off, so when workers return to the office, they may be anxious about presentations, participating in meetings or even having a conversation in the tearoom.
“They could be sitting in a meeting just dreading the boss asking them a question.”
While many workers around the country have not returned to the workplace yet, workers in some states have already begun an incremental transition back to the office, prompting feelings of apprehension for those experiencing social anxiety.
“These anxious people will be worrying now,” Madigan says.
“Better to start doing something about it before you land back at work”.
But she says it needs to be done with sensitivity.
“A lot of people with social anxiety have amassed a fear of being negatively judged or evaluated so if you go up and raise the issue with them, they’re probably going to be pretty upset that it’s being noticed. “
Madigan says managers and team leaders can identify staff members experiencing the condition if they observe symptoms including blushing, sweating, shaking, avoiding eye contact, giving very short answers to questions, speaking only when spoken to, not initiating conversation, and being afraid to contribute at meetings.
The staff at Services Australia, which includes Centrelink and Medicare, has continued to provide essential services for Australians during the pandemic. Delivering a range of vital support services, Medicare staff have powered through the crisis providing Australians with access to medical services.
Centrelink staff have been a lifeline for thousands who lost their jobs, rolling out new government schemes on little notice and adjusting to numerous updates and changes over the last eighteen months. Their roles in assisting Australians during the pandemic cannot be overstated.
But along with most government departments, complying with public health orders meant a proportion of their workforce has had to work remotely during lockdown periods.
“Some staff have worked from the workplace under COVID-Safe protocols to maintain business continuity, to ensure we can maintain services to Australians,” says Hank Jongen, general manager at Services Australia. “Staff have been enabled to work from home where it has been reasonably practicable to do so”.
Staff working remotely are at risk of developing aspects of social anxiety that can affect the well-being of the rest of the team as well as productivity when they return to the office.
“Sometimes it can be quite challenging as colleagues when you’re working with someone that’s very shy. It might be that they’re not talking about their needs, or they might not even feel confident or comfortable saying when they can get a task done or not” says Dr Jill Newby, a clinical psychologist at Black Dog Institute.
“That can be quite challenging, particularly when you’re working in a group or when you’re working towards a deadline.”
Social anxiety can also create conflict in the workplace and reinforce some of the person’s defeatist beliefs.
“When someone’s feeling really anxious, and they might be a bit distant and standoffish or even unfocused in a conversation because they’re so nervous about how they’re coming across,” says Newby.
That can be perceived as arrogance, or as rudeness or that they don’t like the other person.
“That will create that negative feedback loop, where the person will perceive that negativity and take it on board and further see that as a sign that they’ve been criticised and judged and disliked, which further makes them feel anxious, and sort of, perpetuates that vicious cycle,” says Newby.
The symptoms of social anxiety can also be detrimental to the careers of people with social anxiety, from impeding their performance at job interviews to hampering their ability to function in high-pressure situations.
“It can be debilitating,” says Newby, because it can hinder them from putting themselves forward for opportunities.
“Being assertive and communicating their needs to their managers or their colleagues can be very distressing and can prevent their career progression as well.”
Eliminating the stigma around mental health is a useful first step towards encouraging staff to seek help. Beyond Blue warns: “For people experiencing anxiety, the perception that ‘most people’ will have a negative attitude towards their condition reduces the chance they will seek support.”
Madigan. agrees. “Normalise it in the first meeting back at work as a group,” she says.
“Flag the issue to the whole group rather than singling anyone out and invite them to make an appointment to discuss the issue or for guidance to further resources if required.”
Giving managers the heads up about a social anxiety condition can help them provide practical support like reducing or postponing presentations or not requiring staff to speak at meetings until they have settled back into office life.
“People will come good. The main thing is we don’t want the person pressured to do something that’s too difficult and then they have a major panic attack. They [managers] need to be a bit sensitive to letting people settle in, and just raising the issue,” she says.
Management at Services Australia has helped its teams stay connected throughout the lockdowns in an effort to reduce adverse impacts on remote workers.
“Where staff have worked from home, managers have maintained contact through regular communication and videoconferencing,” says Jorgen.
“Additional support has also been provided to staff when and where required.”
The department has measures in place to help workers reintegrate smoothly back into the workplace, Jorgen says.
“Staff will be provided with support from their managers, through the various tools and guides available to them and, where required, through the Employee Assistance Provider (EAP). The well-being of our staff and customers is our top priority.”