Updated: Feb 21
Do office parties make you incredibly anxious? Perhaps the mere thought of team-building drains you out? Or do you simply cringe at the idea of networking events?
Guess what, Greg from accounting and Lindsey from consulting feel it too. Feeling anxiety over workplace events isn’t uncommon. A 2019 study from the University of Sydney found that many working adults dislike being forced to make friends and having fun (1). More so when they’re already faced with a stressful job or dysfunctional environment.
What differs between individuals is that some handle it better than others. So if you find yourself in constant dread, or if you’re struggling with pre-existing social anxiety, here’s a guide on how to survive small talk and actually have some fun.
Why Do Workplace Events Make Us Anxious?
Every day at work, we’re subjected to interventions that constantly alter our working relationships. Departments and teams are formed, restructured, and merged. Employees come and go, office spaces are redesigned, Zoom presentations are scheduled only to be postponed.
Upon all of the above, we’re expected to act like social butterflies in team-building events and after-work drinks. Implicitly or explicitly, work can feel like a never-ending social flux. This can be overwhelming for the average Joe, and more so for those with social anxiety.
Many people resort to skipping these events as a crutch to avoid feeling anxious and awkward. But unfortunately, avoidance only relieves the anxiety in the short-term. It also reinforces the fact that you can’t handle these events if you actually attended them. With that said, it’s important to identify and work on the issue to reap both personal and professional benefits in the long run.
How Do We Stop Being Anxious About Workplace Events?
We’re often told to just “relax and have fun”. But as we know, it’s often easier said than done.
According to Reid Wilson, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, many of us dread social events because we have a fear of negative judgment (2). This fear makes it difficult for us to relax, which further impacts our social, emotional, and physical responses in these highly social situations. The key to surviving this is therefore to formulate a game plan before stepping foot into any party. Here’s how:
1) Prime and prep
Prime yourself into a relaxed state before any event. If possible, ensure that you have some downtime for you to prepare. This could include exercising, meditating, taking a bath, having some tea, or putting on an outfit that’s comfortable but presentable.
It’s also recommended to arrive early so that you can meet people gradually as they enter instead of walking into a large crowd.
2) Find your tribe
You likely have people in the workplace you’re close to, even if it’s that one lunchtime buddy. Finding your tribe doesn’t mean forming exclusive cliques and sticking with them the whole time. Rather, familiar people help soothe frayed nerves and help warm your social muscles before you venture out.
If you’re at an event where you don’t know anyone, try approaching someone with a friendly face. You can also approach someone who appears to be alone as they’re likely in the same position as you. Don’t know what to say? Feel free to start with something as simple as commenting on the food or the ambiance of the event.
3) Plan conversations in advance
Planning potential discussion topics in advance can help you feel more prepared. Starting with a hand-shake and a smile helps you make a good impression too. While it’s great to follow up with the projects you’re working on, bringing up non-work conversations helps make things more casual too. For example, you could:
Bring up current events or trends
Share a couple of funny stories
Ask questions and listen intently
4) Exit gracefully
Remember, you don’t have to stay for the entire event. Set yourself a time limit or even schedule another event so that you have a reason to leave. Of course, thank your colleagues for their company as you exit gracefully. Doing so helps reduce anxiety by ensuring that you don’t drain your social batteries.
Most importantly, be proud of yourself for showing up despite your fears. On the other hand, if you find yourself having fun, go ahead and stick around longer!
Workplace events can be both intimidating and exciting. That’s why it’s all about learning how to manage distress rather than eliminating it. Because undeniably, these events are golden opportunities for making friends and building social skills. But if you’re struggling with anxiety with severe repercussions, it’s helpful to work out a more specific plan with a health professional before showing up.
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