anxiety, Autism, Strategies, Challenges, Personal Stories

Social Anxiety in the Workplace

As an autistic management consultant, I often find myself juggling the demands of my role with the complexities of social anxiety. I am confident in the workplace, can drive team and client meetings with ease, am happy to stand on a stage and speak to an audience of thousands, but ask me to attend a small gathering with a group of people that I don't know well and I freeze. Just the thought of it as I type, is enough to bring up the panic.

It is a challenge that I hide and most people don't realise just how much of a challenge this can be for me, especially when meeting new clients or in more social settings where small talk is required. In truth these situations can feel overwhelming, especially as a senior leader in a job that revolves around constant social interactions with an expectation of being able to engage with a wide range of people as part of my daily job.

Here’s a personal glimpse into the challenges and the strategies that help me navigate this path.

The Challenges

  1. Social Interactions and Networking: I'm often need to engage in meetings with new clients, socialise at team/ work events, and attend conferences/ networking events. The expectations of engaging people in these situations fills me with fear and dread. I can spend days trying to plan what I am going to say to people and how I might respond to different questions, and then when I am in the situation my mouth goes dry and my mind goes blank. It is hard to initiate or keep a conversation going when I literally can't think of anything to say and every fibre of my being is screaming at me to run - to escape.
  2. Sensory Overload: I struggle to keep up with conversations at the best of times, as I struggle to take in and remember what people are saying, but in these scenarios it is even more difficult. The constant noise and movement of crowds can lead to sensory overload which affects my concentration, and adds to the challenges as I internally try to quell the panic inside of me. This overstimulation not only affects my concentration but also heightens my anxiety.
  3. Unstructured Social Situations: In workplace meetings I often have a script or am focused on questioning people to understand a specific topic, which means that I am able to rely on a body of knowledge, various strategies for gathering information from people, and insights gained over the years to facilitate conversations. In social scenarios, conversations are less predicable and you need to rely much more on small talk. This is what triggers my intense anxiety, especially with people I don't know all that well. I've had moments where I’ve had to excuse myself from social events and have fleed from events when I have been confronted by ice-breakers (I particularly dislike these as it is like speed socialising which is one of my biggest fears). It is like handing me a blank canvas and asking me to paint a masterpiece - I don't even know where to start. With people I know, or in structured conversations iwth a specific purpose, it is more like paint by numbers where i have some guidelines to follow. It still might not rival master painters, but it will resemble the intended picture.
  4. Professional Image and Perception: Balancing the need for accommodations with the desire to maintain a professional image can be tricky. The worry about being misunderstood or judged adds to the anxiety. A management consultant who is afraid of talking to people, a leader who is overwhelmed by team social gatherings, a person who has nothing interesting to say and is not worth staying around to talk to. This internal conflict and the fear of being the person standing alone in the middle of a crowd while everyone gets on so easily adds another layer of stress.

Misunderstandings About Social Anxiety

All through school and through much of my life I didn't realise that the fear I faced had a name. I am not shy in any way and love to be around people in familiar situations, and believe that my social anxiety is a barrier preventing me from being myself around others which means that that they don't get to know the real me.

I have come to realise that social anxiety is often misunderstood by others, which complicates interactions further:

  • Perceived Shyness or Rudeness: My hesitation to speak up or engage can be misinterpreted as shyness or disinterest. In reality, it’s my social anxiety causing me to retreat inwardly, battling fears of saying the wrong thing or not being able to think of what to say.
  • Underestimating the Impact: People sometimes see social anxiety as mere nervousness. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me "just give it time, you will be fine". They don't realise that it’s a profound fear of social situations that can be debilitating, impacting my ability to perform and connect with others.
  • Context Specific: Not all social situations impact me in the same way, I don't struggle in most of my day-to-day interactions and I am confident of my abilities in the workplace. As such most people can't imagine me struggling in a social situation (until they have seen me become overwhelmed with panic), and so are not able to comprehend the support I might need even when I tell them that these are situations that I find difficult.
  • Lack of Visible Symptoms: Unlike physical conditions, the symptoms of social anxiety aren’t visible, making it harder for others to understand the severity of the struggle. Very rarely do they get a glimpse of the underlying panic that can completely consume me.

Coping Strategies

I have tried counselling and coaching, but I have not been able to find someone that truly understands and is able to help me deal with these situations. In the past I have have been told to challenge myself and put myself into unfamiliar situations - however this has not helped in terms of desensitising me. I still struggle on a regular basis with my social anxiety but there are some strategies that I rely on to try reduce the impact of the struggles that I face in these situations.

  1. Social allies: My go to approach is to find people I know that can accompany me, so that I am able to stick with them and leverage them to help facilitate conversations with others. Ideally they are people who are confident in talking to strangers, so that they can help facilitate conversations with new people
  2. Observing others in new client meetings: One of the challenges in meetings with new clients, is not having a script on how to conduct these meetings as this has been something I didn't have much experience of. By observing others and looking at how others handle these type of meetings, I have been able develop my own script for these type of conversations which has been an enormous help in navigating through these types of meetings.
  3. Asking questions ahead of time: As much as possible, I will trying to find out as much as possible ahead of time. What will happen during the event, are there any planned ice-breakers or expectations of talking with other people in the event, who am I likely to be sitting with / talking to, are there any quiet areas where I can get away from the crowd. If we are meeting with specific people, then I will try to find out more about them ahead of time - what are their interests, what are they involved in and what is important to them (from a work perspective), how have they come across to other people they have previously met
  4. Asking for support: Quite often I will ask for some level of support ahead of time, ie. being met at an event on arrival and having someone to make initial introductions so that I don't feel the pressure to go to people myself on arrival, or having a buddy who can accompany me throughout the event if I can't find someone to go with me.
  5. Being upfront: I have recently started to try an be upfront with people about feeling overwhelmed and needing some time to overcome my panic. Some people don't quite know how to deal with this, but many have responded positively and have been understanding as I stumble over answers to questions. In many cases they have shared that they too are feeling overwhelmed, and that has given us a common ground.
  6. Time for social decompression: These social interactions require a great deal of energy for me, and I need time to decompress and re-energise after such encounters. I schedule downtime after social-intensive tasks and space out these types of events, so that I don't risk becoming overwhelmed over time.

By implementing these strategies, I am trying to limit the impact of my social anxiety. With the support of those around me and an ongoing discussion in the workplace about the need to embrace neurodiversity, and supporting those with challenges such as social anxiety, not only enhances my well-being but also contributes to a more inclusive and supportive workplace environment. My journey is ongoing, but each step forward brings greater self-acceptance and empowerment.

What strategies have helped you manage social anxiety, especially in a workplace context? Share your experiences in the comments below and let’s support each other on this journey.

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About Helen Needham

Helen is the originator and founder of Me.Decoded. A passionate advocate for Neurodiversity, - diagnosed as autistic in her 40's after a lifetime of feeling like she was on the outside looking in.
  • England