Bridging Minds: Navigating Mental Health in a Digitally Evolved Workplace
The Interplay of Mental Health, Public Speaking Fears, and New Work Dynamics in the Post-Pandemic Era
In March of 2020, the entire world was put on pause. Something unprecedented happened, and we were all forced to move into our homes 24/7 due to a worldwide health emergency. It was a source of great anxiety due to job uncertainty, anticipatory grief, and increased depressive episodes. Even before the pandemic hit, at least 500,000 Canadians were missing work due to mental illness each week, and it was the leading cause of disability in the country.
The prevalence of the two most common mental health issues (anxiety and depression) continues as of 2023. Specific populations felt the sting more, such as those experiencing job loss, who reported symptoms of anxiety/depression at a 53% increase. An unpredictable future brought on a new wave of mental health issues, for both adults and children alike. The COVID-19 sickness and accompanying strains also gave people psychological symptoms, such as brain fog, anxiety, and depression, and are on rare occasions, seizures and suicidal behaviour. This also goes for long-term health complications from COVID-19 (long COVID) and post-traumatic symptoms of dealing with COVID-19 in hospital settings.
With mental health issues having steadily risen since 2020, the workforce continues to be altered and affected we are left with one crucial question: what now? And what kind of impact will these mental health issues have on the workplace?
It is vital now to realize that when it comes to the workplace and mental health during the pandemic, everyone carries a heavy burden of personal memories associated with it. It is an aspect of a worker’s life that can no longer be ignored. All organizations must approach a mental health policy with empathy, flexibility, and support. New mental health challenges compounded by the turmoil of COVID-19 have “rewritten the rules about how, where, and when we work” writes Christina McCarthy, executive director at One Mind at Work in a recent Medium article. “There can be no “back to normal” that disregards employee mental health.”
What that will look like for each industry and organization depends upon many factors. Experts encourage companies, whether remote, entirely in the office, or a hybrid of the two, to embrace the challenges that life after COVID will present. Start with mental health initiatives and open a dialogue with your workers, allowing them to feel more comfortable expressing themselves when anxiety and depression arise.
And, all of these post-pandemic anxiety and mental health issues will connect to one of the most common fears worldwide: the fear of public speaking.
Many jobs will ask you to present information and/or findings, whether it be in person or over Zoom. For many people, being the sole person speaking and presenting ideas is a massive source of anxiety. A study posted in September of 2023 in fact, stated that around 15 million people deal with glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. 75% of the population of the United States has some kind of fear of public speaking, which means that nearly 200 million people in the US feel nervous when speaking in front of others. And those with social anxiety, which is 89.4$ of the population, report some kind of fear of public speaking.
These numbers are relatively high, and it is safe to hypothesize that one of the most common fears in the world increased due to the pandemic. Not only do most workers have new expectations about remote vs. in-person work and have adopted a different work-life balance, but they have also experienced acute mental and behavioural problems. Employers simply have no choice but to respond with empathy, thus altering decades of stigma.
Before 2020, public speaking skills were largely centered around the physical elements of delivery–maintaining eye contact with your audience, taking up space on the stage, and adapting your content in accordance with the response of the listeners. The physical space became, quite literally, virtually stolen away from us once the pandemic hit. We could no longer physically reply to the cues of those listening to us. We were forced to adapt to a world of meetings that were virtual; the entire landscape of public speaking changed right before our eyes.
Now, three years later, we find ourselves having to do presentations physically once again, or, continuing to adjust to a more hybrid working lifestyle, where presentations are continuously done through Zoom or other online platforms. Having to return to work in person has caused an increase in social anxiety for many people, some of whom had the disorder before the pandemic, and many of whom did not.
Let’s talk about the difference between in-person presentations and Zoom presentations. As we have stated, and you likely know personally yourself, being able to present information from the comfort of your own home, versus needing to do it in front of people in person is vastly different. Let’s explore the ways that each can manifest in presentation anxiety.
Zoom Performance Anxiety: A Modern Anxiety Problem
According to Eleni Kelakos, who wrote an article about the growing commonality of Zoom Performance Anxiety (ZPA), several presentations and executive presence leadership coaching clients, old and new, confessed to the off-putting fear of speaking while using online platforms like Zoom. Most clients will say that they experience ZPA when they are given virtual training and featured as the main speaker. They also say that they are hit with anxiety like a ton of bricks when they are asked to unmute themselves to answer a question. All eyes, virtually, are on them; they tend to freeze in the face of it; shutting down emotionally and physically.
All of this makes sense, because Zoom, and communicating virtually, isn’t very natural. Think about it, remember it—most of us have had an experience where technology goes awry while adjusting to communication through a screen or felt strange about speaking to a collection of thumbnail faces, all silent in their responses and challenging to read, any body language. We typically sit at our desks, kitchen tables, and beds, shoo away our children or pets, and try to interact with people who aren’t in the room. That can sound off-putting, even to the most confident person you have ever known.
So, if you are someone who works from home, or occasionally works from home and still has to do presentations via Zoom, here are five ways you can beat your Zoom Performance Anxiety:
- Get Loose: It’s easy to get self-conscious when the camera is on us. And our bodies are more likely to freeze up once we become aware of ourselves being looked at in a way, that as we said before, isn’t natural. It takes work to communicate in a body that is shut down, so you must ensure your body is relaxed before you even begin. Try playing music, dancing around, doing yoga, or stretching. Shake your arms and hands, roll your head around your neck, and tense and release your feet, hands, and hips. Once this is finished, commit to staying loose through the session—some things you can do that are out of the camera frame are tensing and releasing your feet, and gently rotating your hips.
- Use your Breath to Stay Centered: Your breath is the primary tool to keep your mind from worrying. Mindfulness is one of the best ways to keep yourself centered, through the simple act of breathing. You can start before the Zoom call, after loosening up your body, by closing your eyes and watching (mentally) your belly rise and fall. Mentally, or even aloud, say, ‘breathe in, breathe out.’ Do this until you feel settled. You can also do this during the Zoom call, by pausing and taking a deep breath.
- The Camera is Your Friend: We feel that whatever we say or do is being overly analyzed when we speak into a camera, in a very robotic way. To counter this, practice when you aren’t on a call, and look into the camera; not at the screen where you can see yourself, but at the camera itself. Talking to it, like it is your best friend. If you talk to the camera as if it is one person, the entire audience will feel intimate, and at home with your presentation. The more you practice, the more comfortable you are going to become.
- Invite Active Interaction: This may feel counterproductive, but try it out for one session. Encourage people to stay unmuted and visible. That makes it feel more like an in-person conversation. Break down the fourth wall of the screen by keeping people talking, so you don’t feel like you’re talking to yourself the whole time.
- Let go Of the Need to Be Perfect: Many anxious people think they must be perfect, especially when presenting. It is nearly an impossible task to be utterly flawless in every single thing that we do. So, if you want less performance anxiety, know it will be easier to let go of trying to be perfect. It is always going to be a little strange. It feels different, because it is, different. The more authentic you are, the more people are likely to listen.
Now, let’s talk about improving your public speaking in person after years of doing it over Zoom. It is an extreme change, so give yourself some wiggle room. Employers will likely know about your fears, as most, if not all, will feel it as they adjust to an in-person setting (or a hybrid version of it). Stay open and honest with them about it, and you will surely start to feel better about your new reality:
- Shift your Mindset: The way that we think is going to affect how we feel. That is a proven, scientific fact. Thoughts about how terrible you feel about the presentation, and how uncomfortable you are, will only snowball the anxious feeling. Try to replace these thoughts with more positive affirmations, like “I know what I’m talking about,” “I’m more capable than I think,” etc. Physical power poses in conjunction with this self-talk have proven effects as well. (A power pose is a certain stance that athletes and professional presenters take that changes one’s body chemistry, inhibits cortisol, the stress hormone, and releases testosterone, which increases confidence.)
- Practice Positive Visualization: Visualization is a mindfulness method of seeing the entire presentation going well from start to finish. See yourself entering the room with confidence, taking some time to pause before you start speaking, greeting your audience with firm handshakes, warm eyes, and smiles, and speaking with articulation and passion. When you visualize how things should go in your mind, you are setting up a neural network in your brain that will trigger the moment you step into the situation physically. Practice settling your nerves with deep breathing as you imagine the situation. Then, you can easily apply it when you have to do the real thing.
- Take up Space: Get your body feeling confident if you feel small and subdued. There’s a part of your brain called Broca’s area that helps formulate speech and lights up when you use gestures. So start freeing your body, and you will encourage your brain to think of the right words. You can try holding your hands at the start near your navel, rather than by your sides; this will allow the gestures to flow more freely and naturally from the outset.
- Read the Room: Reading the room is easier in person than over Zoom. You can see people’s body language when you are in the room, and it can help build rapport. Apply active listening by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and responding with enthusiasm and curiosity. This will show that you care, and if you show you care, they will show they care about you.
- Record Yourself Speaking: Practicing for a speech will help you get into the rhythm easier than if you don’t practice. Practice aloud, and stick to a timeframe. Watch yourself back if you can, so you can see the reality of how you look, rather than how you perceive how you look. This may mean slowing down, moving around more, or taking more pauses when you need to.
The bottom line is that mental health needs are at an all-time high, and there are good reasons for that. Don’t feel alone in your suffering or anxiety about presentations; make it known, and expect more from your employers. Your mental health deserves it!
At The Professional Centre (TPC), we prioritize creating an environment where mental health is acknowledged and nurtured. Our facilities are equipped with serene mindfulness zones and state-of-the-art digital communication tools to ease the anxiety around public speaking and foster mental well-being.
Nestled in the bustling downtown Toronto core, TPC offers a sanctuary for professionals to tackle the challenges posed by the digital evolution of the workplace. With the provision to avail tax deductions on rental fees, we provide a financially viable solution for companies and self-employed professionals alike.
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