Adrian could feel his throat tightening on the subway ride home from work. Earlier that day, he had started visibly shaking when a coworker tried to talk to him. In the moment, he tried to apologize for all the things his coworker couldn’t have known. That he had grown up with cerebellar ataxia.
Cerebellar ataxia is a condition that affects motor skills and coordination. Holding onto objects helped Adrian maintain his balance, but his condition had caused him to develop agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, as an adult.
Later, as he reflected on that encounter, it was all so overwhelming. His anxiety had partly been triggered by recent layoffs at his company, a stressor that many tech workers may feel in today’s down market. He decided it was time to find a workplace better suited to his needs. “I realized that I could either change myself… or I could focus on changing my surroundings."
Open floor layouts and mandatory group activities that perhaps inspired camaraderie in his coworkers instead left him in a constant state of stress. Adrian often felt like his anxiety held him back — and he isn’t alone, social anxiety is increasingly common and has been proven to present obstacles in the workplace.
Over a third of participants in a 2020 study met the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, significantly higher than previous rates that historically hovered around 12%. Research has also shown that social anxiety has a particularly negative impact on occupational attainment and performance compared to other mental disorders.
Those struggling with social anxiety find different ways to cope. Some best practices for employees looking to improve their workplace health include searching for workplaces that…
- Encourage async communication, reducing unnecessary meetings and over-stimulation from notifications.
- Allow flexible schedules, understanding that different people work better at different times, and promoting individual agency in prioritizing how and when work gets done.
- Involve meaningful tasks, allowing workers to feel like they have pride, agency, and purpose in their work, as opposed to repetitive or tedious tasks that seem to have little impact.
Shifting to a Remote Workplace
For Adrian, shifting to a remote job allowed him to interact with his coworkers from a setting he felt comfortable in. Although such positions were scarce before COVID-19, he intentionally applied to as many positions as possible before accepting a position with G2i five years ago.
Since making that change, Adrian says his social life has thrived, with his improved professional life fueling a more vibrant social and personal life as well.
“I used to feel very exhausted and very tired after work. Now I’m willing to go out and socialize,” Adrian says. “I’m still an introvert at heart, but after work, I actually get very extroverted because I literally haven’t seen anyone all day. So it gives me that kind of energy that I need to have a fuller life.”
Working remotely has also helped Adrian overcome the fears that used to hold him back.
“I don’t have the same fears I used to have,” Adrian says, adding that his fear of open spaces has decreased dramatically. “I don’t have that anymore because my surroundings have changed, so I don’t think about that everyday.”
There are certainly some disadvantages that can come with remote work, such as neck or back pain from sitting at the computer. After developing some chronic aches and pains while pushing himself to the brink hoping to impress clients, Adrian had to adjust — he gave up gaming, uses a standing desk and now swims regularly.
Embracing a Change in Mindset
Perhaps the most important thing Adrian has done for his mental and physical wellbeing is changing his mindset. “In a job, they can always find a replacement for you,” he says, “but you can’t really replace your body once it’s destroyed.”
Realizing that, Adrian now makes more of an effort to rest and reflect. When he is feeling burnt out, he doesn’t hesitate to ask for the space and resources he needs. Last summer he requested a two-month sabbatical after working with a particularly stressful client.
When Adrian returned to G2i, he felt ready to work again with renewed energy. His experiences in negative work environments have taught him that everyone is impacted by the workplace in distinct ways: while mandatory social events might not concern others, they are a challenge for him, and recognizing that makes him better at his job, not worse.
“Everyone has to figure out the red flags for themselves,” Adrian says. “There’s no set identifiers. It’s not fixed, it’s varied.”
Employers should also recognize that people feel supported in different ways, and it can take time to discover the best way to approach each person. Effective listening to colleagues’ needs is critical to supporting them in times of high stress and preventing burnout.
Adrian’s early career challenges have given him deep insight into what others are going through. While his social anxiety once prevented him from interacting with his coworkers, now it helps him take pride in the way he watches out for his colleagues.
“A lot of the time, I can’t take action on things, but I can listen. I think that’s a big thing, making sure that they feel supported in what they’re doing,” he says.
G2i provides tools for creating healthy and ideal work experiences for both the developers that join our platform and the clients they work with. Learn more about best practices for avoiding and addressing burnout or subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Developer Health Insights.