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Stressed about attending holiday parties? Opting in may help ease social anxiety

Teams build bicycles for children in need as part of The Apprentice team-building activity in this undated handout photo from Canadian Outback Events & Adventures.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Canadian Outback Adventures & Events

TORONTO - For some, just thinking about making small talk at parties induces stomach-churning anxiety.

For Piers Steel, his concerns stem from his memory.

"I'm absolutely terrible with names," says Steel, professor of human resources and organizational dynamics at the University of Calgary and author of "The Procrastination Equation."

"I can remember the conversations we've had. It's whatever that little space in the brain (is) where names are recorded (that) needs to be reformatted," he adds with a laugh.

End-of-year parties are customary at many workplaces. But the festive fetes can be stressful for those who are averse to socializing, or feel uneasy about mingling with colleagues outside of the office.

"People might be afraid they won't have anything to say.... They may be worried about coming across as boring or incompetent or uninteresting in some way," says Martin Antony, author of "The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook."

"They may be worried about saying the wrong thing or offending others or looking stupid, making a mistake of some kind."

As a result, they may avoid eye contact, talk quietly or stand far away from others, which may give off the impression they aren't interested in taking part, Antony says. In other cases, some who are excessively anxious may drink too much, he adds.

While those with severe social anxiety may be inclined to steer clear of parties, Antony says actually attending may be the antidote.

"We know that exposure to feared situations is one of the most powerful tools that we have for overcoming fear," says Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University.

"People learn the situation isn't as bad as they think it's going to be, and they also learn that these feared consequences don't come true. Their fear starts to improve as a result of that."

Despite his admitted social anxiety over memorizing names, Steel says he sees real value in get-togethers, particularly annual holiday parties.

"Any venue that you can use to create a little more camaraderie, a little bit more of a sense of belonging is just a good thing. Christmas is perfect for that. It's good from a mental health (perspective) but also performance.... So why would you not want to encourage that?"

Workopolis business editor Elizabeth Bromstein says efforts should be made to help shy employees feel at ease, perhaps by having them engage with a few of their more outgoing colleagues.

Regardless of who opts in to the holiday party, Bromstein says all staffers attending should make the most of the event.

"You need to stick around, you need to speak to people and make your presence known. Get in a couple of pictures, speak to your bosses, make some friends and then you can go.... It's not a good idea to show up, have a drink and sneak out."

Some companies are opting to combine holiday parties with team-building events as a way to help foster rapport.

Bryan McWilliams of Canadian Outback Adventures & Events says a positive trend that's emerged in recent years sees organizations using their year-end celebrations as a way to give back to their communities.

Employees are able to combine their various skills and strengths in a variety of efforts, including building famed landmarks out of cans destined for food banks, or assembling a child's bike to donate to charity, he notes.

"With these philanthropic events, you're not really leaving the socializing and the camaraderie and getting to know your colleagues up to chance like you might at, say, a dinner event where everybody's going to sit at the same dinner table as they have done for the last 10 years," says McWilliams.

— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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