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Short version: I currently have an intern with rather severe anxiety issues. this makes her nearly unable to speak to me or coworkers. Is there something I can do to help her mitigate this? (it's all about oral communication seeing chatting is not an issue).

Long version: I work for an organization that helps (IT) students prepare for real jobs by having them team up for real projects for real companies in a controlled environment where I can guide them and there is always a teacher on call to help them. (3 half days a week, the rest of the time they attend classes at their college)

One of the students has a form of anxiety which leaves her nearly unable to speak, when she speaks she whispers and mostly it's either yes or no. And although she has started speaking to me full sentences it took about half a year to get her this far and it's still only me. (Students follow this procedure the last half of their second year and the first half of their third year).

Is there a way I can help her with her oral communication skills on the work floor? In a while she will have to do a real internship and go job hunting, but I fear her anxiety will get in the way, which is a real shame seeing she is one of the brightest students I have working there.

(If the question doesn't fit here I would love to hear where it would belong.)

She already has professional help from the school she is with. And I have no illusions that I am able to fix the problem. I just want to know if there is anything I could do to help her out dealing with a professional situation :)

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    I don't think this question fits here because basically the intern needs a shrink. This goes way beyond job training and unless you are a licensed therapist you are in no way qualified to help her enough. If someone's a little shy or a little rough you can help them develop skills but in cases like this you need to understand where OJT ends and you need to refer people to other life specialists.
    – mxyzplk
    Sep 30, 2021 at 17:27
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    @mxyzplk i know i won't be able to fix it, just looking for ways to help. Perhaps others here have has similar situations with coworkers :)
    – A.bakker
    Sep 30, 2021 at 17:29
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    One student at my school was like that. And when we left school, we had to do three written and one verbal exams, and everyone was afraid because she had zero chance to pass the verbal exams. On the day, she was sitting outside the exam room waiting for the previous candidate to come out, when a teacher set down besides her. Started talking to her, just a normal conversation, she could handle that. Asked her if she had prepared well. Yes, she had. He says he was always interested in that subject himself. Had she learned about X? She tells him what she learned. And he found Y very interesting..
    – gnasher729
    Oct 1, 2021 at 11:24
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    ... did she learn about that? And she did. And he goes on for a while. Then he asks "Are you afraid about your exam?", she says "absolutely, I have no idea how to pass it." He says "No need to be afraid, you just passed". When people need a shrink, you can often help them in other ways as well.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 1, 2021 at 11:26
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    It may be that the underlying problem is that the intern is in completely the wrong type of job. For example, we once hired an engineer with excellent academic grades to do technical work, and after a few months he developed similar problems, apparently being "terrified of making mistakes". After professional counselling, and a few years later, he was managing a manufacturing center with about 30 employees who were generally considered the most "bolshie" department in the company (almost the entire union leadership worked there), doing a great job, and loving every minute of it. Go figure!
    – alephzero
    Oct 1, 2021 at 11:33

8 Answers 8

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Basically, the intern needs a mental health professional, not your advice.

This goes way beyond job training and unless you are a licensed therapist you are in no way qualified to help her enough. If someone's a little shy or a little rough you can help them develop communication skills but in severe cases like this you need to understand where on-the-job training ends and you need to refer people to other life specialists.

As a manager over time I've had people with life problems, mental problems, and health problems. You can and should try to give people time and accommodations to improve but you can not confuse yourself with a lawyer, doctor, psychologist, or other life counselor, you are not qualified to do that.

So the way to help her is to make it clear to her that this is a severely career compromising problem and that she should seek professional help to overcome it.

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    Also worth pointing out that a manager should advise that they will do what they can upon the advice of a therapist. So the employee will get the support they need at work. Oct 1, 2021 at 4:21
  • TIL another meaning for the word shrink
    – justhalf
    Oct 1, 2021 at 9:49
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    I would only add that OP should work with the school she's attending to coordinate efforts. Talk to the school supervisor to get buy in and support for this. I'd imagine that her advisor has also seen this behavior, and if not, definitely needs to be made aware of it! The advisor may be ready to write a glowing recommendation and be totally unaware that a problem exists, much like the child who is a perfect little angel at home and an unholy terror at school/friend's houses.
    – FreeMan
    Oct 1, 2021 at 14:18
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    Dunno ...is it always a good idea to paint every weakness that needs training as a medical problem that needs a doctor, unless the person in question clearly sees it the second way? Oct 1, 2021 at 22:38
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    I don't think you need to point out to someone that their anxiety is career limiting, they probably know that and won't take the feedback well just saying.
    – bakalolo
    Oct 2, 2021 at 3:03
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You say that the intern is already receiving help from a qualified professional. So I won't go into that side too much (aside from saying that perhaps she may benefit from more professional help than she is currently receiving, e.g. if she is currently receiving therapy, but has not explored medication, or vice versa).

With that in mind, what you have is a member of your team who suffers from a disabling medical condition. As with other instances of disability, your job is to make any reasonable adjustments to enable her to perform her role better, and it is not your job to make sure fewer adjustments are needed in any future job. She is certainly well aware of how her anxiety will limit her access to the job market, and without proper training, any attempts you make to improve her mental health will, in the long term, most likely be ineffective, or may even backfire.

The best you are able to do for her is being proactive in making reasonable adjustments. In most jurisdictions you are only required to make adjustments that are specifically requested and only if they are directly related to a proven disability. Seeing as her specific disability is anxiety, it seems unlikely that she will ask you, and she may or may not be formally diagnosed or have any proof of it being disabling.

If you go to her offering some suggestions, and asking if there are any other adjustments she might want that you haven't thought of (give her some time to think about that, it's often hard to think of things on the fly, especially if you're an anxious person), you can hopefully make the environment one where she's best able to perform her role, and from that (together with the clear and consistent feedback you ought to give any team member) build her confidence. It will also give her a chance to work out what adjustments she needs so that she can go into any future role knowing what adjustments to request.

I'm not sure if you're primarily in person or remote, but the following adjustments may be useful:

  • Having the option of more remote work. Being around people can be anxiety-inducing, working from home in a familiar, comfy environment can therefore help some people be less anxious.
  • Having her camera off in video calls. Just because her anxiety manifests in struggling to speak doesn't necessarily mean her talking is the cause of the anxiety, it's possible that knowing that other people can't see her might make speaking up a little less daunting.
  • Communicating through text rather than speech wherever possible. A lot of anxious people find it much easier to get thoughts out through a keyboard than by speaking, so this could be a big one. An IM service like Slack is likely preferable over email for most conversations that would otherwise be over phone or in person.
  • Being explicitly allowed to use certain fidget toys in meetings. There is a balancing act here between allowing her to work out any nervous energy and not wanting to distract other people in the meeting though, so it may be best combined with having the camera off in video calls, and/or training for all staff explaining that some people are better able to concentrate on meetings when engaging their hands and so people fidgeting are not necessarily ignoring the speaker, but may in fact be doing so to help themself concentrate (doing this in a way that is general rather than specific to this intern would obviously be preferable, as she would likely not want to feel singled out).

Lastly I would say that whatever reasonable adjustments you do make, or have already made, make sure that before she leaves she knows what those were, and that any future employer is legally required to make reasonable adjustments she requests in relation to a disability (this is true under both federal US law, and in the UK, as well as most Western jurisdictions, although I'm not sure of the specifics), and to encourage her to take advantage of that, and to make that request.

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    I think one of the most important parts of your answer here is talking to the intern to see what she thinks would help. I am surprised I did not see that in the other answers. People with disabilities usually know best what accommodations they need. Sometimes, they might be afraid to ask for those accommodations, so suggesting things to let them know what's on the table can be good. But at the end of the day, asking the person with the disability for what they want is how you need to go about it. Assuming what would be best is kind of paternalistic.
    – 2rs2ts
    Oct 1, 2021 at 18:36
  • Thank you for posting the only real answer here. Making an environment where they're less likely to be anxious is the best solution. Oct 2, 2021 at 13:51
  • This is the only real answer here
    – Stilez
    Oct 3, 2021 at 19:11
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The best thing you can do for her is refer her to a professional. Severe anxiety disorder is a disability, and though she shows promise, she needs professional help and possibly medication. This is way above your pay grade.

Begin in a positive way, and tell her all the progress she has made, tell her that you are concerned that she needs more than you can do for her. Direct her towards a psychiatrist or psychologist. But that's all you can do. Her problems go well beyond simple shyness.

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    This answer is not 100% correct. Employers are bound (at least where I reside) to make accommodations where possible for medical conditions of their employees. If the employee receives medical advice that indicates there is something that the employer can do to assist, the employer should certainly consider it. Oct 1, 2021 at 4:25
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    @GregoryCurrie While I agree with you in principle, in practice, the intern needs to go to the professional first and the professional needs to tell the employer what kind of accommodations are required (especially in the EU) and even then it will be above OP's pay grade - they need to involve at least HR. As EHS, I've also had cases in which the accommodations required made it impossible for the person to work on the position - and they didn't have the skills for the positions that they physically could work in (i.e. a desk job) so we had to get Legal involved Oct 1, 2021 at 7:44
  • @JulianaKarasawaSouza Yep. That's why I said the employee should get the medical advice, and then the employer needs to look at what they can do based on that medical advice. Oct 1, 2021 at 7:55
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    @danak I have SEVERE panic disorder. There are a myriad of therapies available. The singular form of data is not "anecdotal" Oct 1, 2021 at 15:53
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I'll say that this used to be me. I was never confident enough to speak up and really talk to my coworkers for while and when I did my heart would race and I would stutter.

It turned out that I was having problems outside of work that was causing me to be really anxious in all aspects of life, especially work.

The issue didn't get better until I fixed those personal issues that were causing me to be anxious. No matter how many pep talks I had from close coworkers or managers. I will still anxious.

I would suggest you do your best to keep her involved and give her praise when she does speak up but it is ultimately up to her to solve this problem.

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The level of anxiety you have expressed could be explained if she was autistic. Autistic girls tend to be harder to identify than boys and have different symptoms. I'm not sure what support your organization has or if she is a student at a college that would be better placed to evaluate her. You might be able to discreetly find options for her.

It would be sad if a very bright woman was limited in her life because she didn't find the right support.

To repeat what others have said there is a vast difference between providing subject support and providing support for special educational needs or medical support so manage your own expectations with regards to what you can do to help.

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    Not your place to assume a mental health diagnoais, especially when its not been stated by a professional. Bad, bad, idea. Right how all you know is she seems extremely anxious and shy, and cannot communicate orally much at work. You dont need to do amateur diagnostics, and should not do.that.
    – Stilez
    Oct 3, 2021 at 19:13
  • @Stilez i did not make a diagnosis, i have a hunch and i suggested to the OP, IF the organisation or college has the facilities to evaluate e.g. make a diagnoses, then they should ask them if she should be evaluated. Please also know that in order to get a diagnoses somebody that is not a professional almost always has to ask for help first. Do not discourage people for seeking help just because they are not a professional.
    – Robert
    Oct 5, 2021 at 5:16
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    "I had a hunch". - verbally, its the same thing. "Sounds like you/they have X condition". The problem here is, it could be explained by Y condition, Z condition, or no condition at all. Straight off the tpp, PTSD, GAD, social anxiety, selective muteness (or something similar), cultural issues, or perhaps more than one condition overlapping, could all possibly explain it. By diagnosing autism, you are going to impose that as a thought in someone's mind. They may well blind themselves to other ideas, or be convinced because you said it and its plausible. ....
    – Stilez
    Oct 5, 2021 at 6:04
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    ...They may tell the subject or ask them pointedly, tell a colleague and make it sound closer to confirmed, or put notes like "probably autistic" that may be totally wrong on their records that have no place there, with consequences you just can't tell. DO NOT DO THIS. EVER, EVER, EVER!! Whether you call it a "hunch" or anything else, leave MH bingo and your diagnostic " hunches" to the MH professionals.
    – Stilez
    Oct 5, 2021 at 6:07
  • We are going to have to disagree on this ... that said i like your point about making it clearer this is not a diagnosis and it should be disregarded without a expert in the field to validate it.
    – Robert
    Oct 6, 2021 at 5:33
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If, and only if, the intern agrees:

Involve them in activities where speaking is part of the professional activities (and largely NOT involving their private thoughts) - standup meetings, other audio conferences, customer visits and bridgelines. Make and keep it VERY clear this is because you are NOT disqualifying them from the activity, NOT to set them up for failure. Signal that you are having their back, and make sure you ARE having it.

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  • First sentence is key, well done.
    – Stilez
    Oct 3, 2021 at 19:13
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I would assume that there's some sort of evaluation that happens. This is something that should be brought up at that time. You could do interim evaluations if you think that's necessary, but I think it's important to let her know that this is an issue and what impacts you see from it.

For a real work situation, this would impact end of year performance and raises. That should be communicated professionally. Ideally, she would then ask what to do to work on it from there. Since the issue is communication, that might need to come from you as the supervisor/manager.

The path forward is mostly outlined in the the other answers and comments: Seek outside professional help, and possibly provide more frequent feedback at work to try to help judge progress.

In summary, the only thing you can really do is to provide professional feedback on performance.

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While mxyzplk and Revenant_Evil have a point that helping someone deal with anxiety is the job description of a therapist rather than a manager, the fact of the matter is that one can't get over anxiety just through therapy sessions any more than one can become a tennis player just by watching instructional videos. She is in a Catch-22 where she's not going to get over her anxiety without having a positive working experience, and she's not going to have a positive working experience until she gets over her anxiety. You say that you work for an organization that helps people enter the working world. So you are somewhere between a therapist and a manager. Given that you feel the need to ask on an internet board how to deal with this, it appears that your organization is severely lacking in mental health professionals, so a priority should be addressing that.

Once you have a therapist on staff or at least as a partner, and you have a company that is willing to make the increased effort of providing an opportunity for employees to work on these sorts of issues, you'll have to establish a four-way relationship between the manager, employee, job coach (from your post, that would appear to be you) and therapist.

Another related issue is identifying what's triggering her anxiety. What internal narratives, conscious and subconscious, does she have? What experiences and expectations are feeding into it? This is an area where the therapist may be of significant help.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Oct 1, 2021 at 15:29
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    There was a significant amount of content here that was dangerously close to medical advice, we can't do that here so I've edited it out.
    – motosubatsu
    Oct 1, 2021 at 15:39
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    @motosubatsu That's a rather broad definition of "medical" that would include pretty much any form of fostering a positive work environment. I mean, it's your stack exchange, but "how to be nice to people" is not medical advice. Oct 2, 2021 at 2:40

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