Recently my department at work has been on a “get to know everyone” kick. Which is at its core a good thing — it’s important to know who you work with, what they do, and how their jobs fit into the company along with yours.
But here’s the thing: anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. More than 40 million working-age Americans, or 18 percent of the US population, deals with one of these every day. The many types of anxiety disorders include General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder (panic attacks), Social Anxiety Disorder, and even Major Depressive Disorder (which I thought was its own thing). And anxiety disorders often come along with other disorders — for example, I have depression (and double-depression) and a side of social anxiety to go along with it. I manage it with medication, but medication can’t do everything.
So when you have a department of 100 people, you’re probably going to have 18 of them who are dealing with some form of anxiety — or at the very least a mental illness of some sort, as one in five adults in the US experiences a mental illness in a given year. Not necessarily anxiety, but still, a mental illness of some sort.
As I write this*, I’m about 45 minutes away from going to a quarterly all-staff meeting, and all I can think of is what happened to me at a company Christmas party 18 months ago. More on that later. In the meantime, here are six of the worst things your company can do if you have anxiety. The list, by the way, isn’t all-inclusive. It’s really just stuff that activates my mental illnesses — but I know I’m not alone, as other employees have mentioned theirs to me at times.
6. Introductions in a large group setting. — Recently we did a thing with my department where we had to stand up and say our name, our role, and our favorite movie. My all-time favorite movie is Clue, and I had no trouble making that decision, but the whole time we were going around the room all I could think of was “Josh Roseman, (title goes here), and my favorite movie is Clue“. It’s a similar thing that happens when a roll call occurs — you know you’re just going to say “here” or “present”, but you keep practicing it in your head over and over and it starts to weigh on you. Then by the time it’s your turn you’re so spaced out that you can barely answer when your name comes up. And, once the roll-caller moves on, you berate yourself for how poorly you did. I’ve gotten over the “berating” part — it’s a form of l’esprit de l’escalier, possibly my favorite French phrase of all time — but I still worry when I’m in a large group setting and I have to introduce myself.
5. Assigned seating. — I have a thing about meetings: I like to sit near the end of the table (but not at the end), facing the door but far away from it. Everyone I work with knows that I have a preferred seat in every conference room, and they respect that. But as I write this, I’m staring at a wristband — one of those ones they use at bars and concerts — which indicates where I have to sit at our upcoming department meeting. I happen to know that my boss also has a yellow one, so at least I’ll know someone at my table, but I won’t be able to actually choose where I sit. At our all-staff meetings, I prefer to be on an aisle with no seats on my left side — ostensibly because I have a bad left knee and I need to have the freedom to stretch it, but really because it gives me the reassurance that I could easily escape. Once I know that, I worry less about actually getting out of there.
4. Changing seats after they’re selected. — We had a smaller meeting recently with all the teams my boss’s boss oversees. I chose an aisle seat in the third row and was quite comfortable there. And then my boss’s boss says “everyone get up, find someone in the room you don’t know, and sit next to them.” I did not get up because I had chosen where I sat, and I’d gotten to the meeting room early enough to pick my seat in a location where I felt comfortable and secure. There was no way I was giving it up. I wasn’t anxious about meeting someone new — I only had to talk to one person if I participated in this exercise — but I wasn’t moving.
We have a fairly large group, but in our room of ten ten-seat rows, no one was in the four seats to my left at that meeting. And then, when a colleague sat next to me (one who I work with fairly often, but I don’t think anyone really cared), no one sat in the two seats next to her. That can really have an effect on a person who is constantly worrying. (I personally found it amusing.)
3. Breaking the ice. — Companies love to do icebreaker exercises, or get-to-know-you exercises, and to a person with anxiety, this is terrifying. In situations like this, the best thing to do is arrive early and be comfortable so that you have time to deal with it… but you might not know it’s coming, and there’s a lot of traffic so you slide in just at the time the meeting starts, and, well… here comes that icebreaker. My company requires all employees to do diversity training, and of course there was an icebreaker: we had to pick which generation (baby boomer, gen-x, etc) we identified most with and write down characteristics of it on a large piece of paper, as a group. As icebreakers go, it wasn’t that bad, but I still trudged over to my spot and it took a while for me to really get into the activity. Problem is, a lot of icebreakers are short (this one was about ten minutes, but most are closer to five) and people with anxiety often take a while to get comfortable. Five minutes might not be enough.
2. Parties. — I had a depressive attack at my work holiday party in 2015. It came out of nowhere; I was standing with a couple of work-friends, listening to our VP speak, and I started to get sad. It sounds like a small thing, but to me it was like the world was closing in around me and reminding me that I wasn’t nearly as good as all these other people. I held on until the VP was done, set down my drink, and left as if I was just going to the men’s room. But I actually just left the building (we were at a venue), walked to my car, texted my boss that I was feeling ill and had to leave (he was totally okay with this), and cried all the way home. Then I put on loud music (in situations like this, I get a lot of mileage out of Everything in Transit by Jack’s Mannequin), listened to the album twice through, went to the gym, worked out, and by the time I came home I was feeling a little better.
Why did this happen? I have no idea. It just happened. But now I avoid large work parties; I don’t go to happy hours, I bow out of holiday parties, and I work from home on days when we have to do “fun” things together as a department. It’s okay when it’s just my team — it’s a small group that I work with daily and am comfortable with — but large groups of coworkers? I turn into the nopetopus.
1. Required attendance at group events. — Last week we had a fundraiser at work. I didn’t participate, and honestly I really just like my lunch hour to be my quiet time where I eat, watch Youtube, and surf the internet. I was just finishing my lunch when someone said “(boss’s boss) wants everyone to be down there.” So I went, sat quietly at a table, and talked to the two people who sat with me. It wasn’t anxiety per se, but it was a disruption to my planned routine and it just didn’t sit well with me.
What did I get out of the event? Nothing. I mostly sat there and played a game on my phone. I didn’t socialize with new people; I didn’t play the party games that were set up; I didn’t eat the free food (except for a popsicle, because there was a flavor that looked interesting). My takeaway was “I am now going to be required to attend more events, and I’d better learn to deal with it.” People with anxiety often need to deal with things on their own terms. Those are not my terms.
A common thread running through the above six items is that one of the best ways to prepare for an anxiety-inducing event is to have foreknowledge of what’s going on and make sure to arrive early enough to scope out the venue and choose a comfortable location. I actually wrote a paper about stage fright back in college and those were two of my points. (Some people suggest eating a banana, and I do happen to have one on my desk right now, so I guess I could try that too.)
But really what companies need to do is be sensitive not just to individuals with physical disabilities but also those with mental illnesses. Unfortunately, mental illness often goes undiagnosed in men because of the idiotic stigma many men think it carries. For women there’s less of a stigma but still if you go to your boss or HR with a note that says “my patient has depression and anxiety; please make allowances for this,” some uninformed managers might not care enough to do anything about it. I’m not saying my company is like that — I haven’t actually officially notified them; I’ve just told my boss so that he knows — but while most companies have made allowances for physical disabilities (which is the law), how many of them have done so for mental illnesses? How many have chillout rooms? How many allow people to work different schedules, or in different ways? How many will let employees with anxiety use their coping mechanisms and nope out of things that activate their disorders? I imagine the number is a lot smaller.
So, if you’re in a position to do so, be cognizant of your employees’ needs — physical and mental. Allow them their coping mechanisms and don’t force them into things that may not be comfortable for them. And remember: about one in five of your employees has a mental illness — treated or not — and they would really appreciate it if you helped them out (preferably without telling them — I know I for one hate being singled out in any way).
And now it’s time to put on my wristband and go to the meeting. Wish me luck.
(Update: it went fine. But still, I was a little anxious.)
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* I wrote this about two weeks ago. I like to get ahead of my deadlines when I can.