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Social anxiety or reluctance?

Since the end of the first lockdown, I have noticed that I have been increasingly reticent about attending social gatherings and generally being amongst large groups of people. The best phrase I can think of to describe this feeling is social anxiety, although I would say the true feeling hovers somewhere between that and social reluctance.

For me, in truth, it’s always been there in some shape or form. I am naturally introverted. I can be animated and the centre of attention in a group, but I find it a daunting prospect and rather tiring. Even before lockdown I generally avoided large social gatherings outside of work where possible, preferring my own company or that of only a few close friends or family, and have done so ever more acutely since. Very few people who know me would think I am an introvert, but this is because I, like many others, am good at hiding it. I find it interesting listening to interviews of famous entertainers speaking of their introversion and fear of social interaction. To most this wouldn’t seem congruous, yet, in my own small way, I can relate to this as I love the feeling of exhilaration when playing the piano or speaking in front of large audiences, as, despite being on show, there is an element of feeling complete solitude at the same time and I am usually looking for a quick exit as soon as I have finished!

The reasons for it of course, were tragic, but for me one of the by-products of the lockdowns during the pandemic was something of a gift. My own space, all the time and no need to come up with excuses as to why I couldn’t attend this party or that social event. I knew it wouldn’t last. We all knew that. But little did I know how heightened my social anxiety or social reluctance (whatever it is) would be as we emerged out of lockdown. It had nothing to do with catching covid by the way – I didn’t want it of course, but that wasn’t the root cause. I don’t know what the true cause is in all honesty. In truth I don’t mind being more introverted, it is who I am. I enjoy my own company and solitude, but of course this then makes those occasions when I must be socially energetic, more daunting and exhausting.

Working practices have undergone a seismic paradigmatic shift because of the pandemic. I completely understand the desires of those who want to work from home more than they do in the office. I also understand why senior managers and company leaders want people back in the office more of the time, particularly where human interaction and communications are key to the success of the endeavour. Both are reasonable standpoints from their respective perspectives, so it can create a conundrum. However, to overlook the impact of social anxiety, or even merely social reluctance, of some workers and just tell them to brush it off and get back to the office full-time would be a mistake and would consciously disregard key aspects and subtleties of what we have been taught about good management and the benefits of treating people like humans and not simply as ‘resource’. Likewise, strictly enforcing common blanket percentages of time in which all staff need to be in the office is unnuanced, blunt policy at best, and at worse a potential lack of understanding of the multifarious characteristics, needs and requirements of a workforce and the heightened anxieties that many people have, particularly following covid (I say ‘following’, at the time of writing there have been 89,000 new daily infections recorded).

Flexibility and local interpretation of overall organisational policy is key, and time for re-adjustment should be factored in where required. Certainly to force someone back to the office full-time whose job doesn’t technically require them to be there all the time and is concerned at the prospect, will almost certainly diminish their performance, general happiness, and overall commitment to that organisation, which will almost certainly find that talent is drawn elsewhere to more flexible employers and increasingly find recruitment a challenge.

Presently, for me the prospect of five consecutive full days in the office each week seems daunting and makes me wonder how on earth I ever managed to do it before lockdown. It also seems counterproductive. I will perform better with the ability to work at home for some element of each working week. Luckily, I work somewhere with a flexible approach to hybrid working with the ability for local management to apply the overarching policy as it fits best with teams and individual staff members. Long may this continue.

My final thought is that I am wary of coming across as dogmatic on these issues as I am conscious that I am expressing my feelings and preferences at this moment in time. They could very easily change in the future as we’ve all been through a rollercoaster of a journey for the past two years, and though it may be less hellraising now, it certainly isn’t all over just yet despite all the laws relating to covid now fading away.

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