Does Networking Have to Trigger Anxiety? It’s Time to Redefine How We Connect at Work

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Have you ever RSVP’d “yes” to a networking event and then been too anxious to attend?

It happens to the best of us.

If you do a quick search for “networking anxiety,” Google answers with 34,000,000 results. “Practice and prepare,” advises one. “See it as a numbers game,” another cynically suggests.

While tips like these may minimize butterflies, they give me pause. If networking brings about intense anxiety for so many of us, then why do it? Sure, connecting with people is a key aspect of building a career. But should connection be a detriment to mental health?

As Co-Founder and Head of Clinical Services at Talkspace online therapy, I’ve certainly faced a fair share of anxiety at male-dominated professional events. (There are still far too few female tech entrepreneurs). I’ve learned that if you’re too confident and serious, there’s risk of being seen as “cold.” If you’re shy or say something perceived as “too personal,” you likely confirm sexist suspicions that women aren’t cut out to be business leaders.

Innumerable Talkspace clients, both men and women, have come to us for social and professional anxiety. Unsurprisingly, networking comes up as a hot-spot topic with our therapists again and again.

Recently, at a 20-person networking dinner, the host asked us to share names, job titles, and plans for the holidays with the group. These “introductions” quickly boiled down to an exchange of resumes and a vacation contest. Not unlike the way social media conjures envy and negative self-esteem, the event left me feeling empty and confused. Was it worth missing an evening at home with my kids? Did I collect enough business cards? Was I interesting? Were people responding to me just to be polite?

Now more than ever, our culture is increasingly fixated on the nuances of gender discrimination and inequality in the workplace. At networking events, challenges around gender remain relevant, and are perhaps even heightened. But they also exist alongside other, more universal anxiety. This only adds insult to injury, often increasing alcohol consumption and increasing the chances of inappropriate behavior as a result. So how should we deal with it?

Today, I invite other entrepreneurs and organizations to consider this along with me: can we redefine networking to support employee mental health, rather than denigrate it? How can we encourage vulnerability among employees and treat it as a source of connection and sign of strength, rather than treat it as something “feminine” or “unprofessional”?

In order for networking to be a source of value for our work and well-being, rather than a source of such acute anxiety, we need to feel connection with others when we “network.”

Fortunately, there are probably an infinite number of potential solutions, which is why this should be an ongoing cultural conversation. I got started brainstorming, and landed on the following ideas as an experiment for hosts aiming to create networking events more conducive to mental health.

1. Make it more playful and structured.

Many networking events feel like an endless exchange of verbal business cards. People list their names, job titles, and career histories, and wait for others to do the same. We don’t know if talking to other people is bothersome, or if it’s a requirement. Should we be selling ourselves or trying to make friends? Is it better to present yourself as successful and confident, or humble and approachable? The answers are never clear, but everyone is asking the same questions.

But at its most stripped down level, networking is really about connecting with others. Event hosts can be proactive about creating the conditions to help attendees connect. What if the first half of the event wasn’t about the workplace at all?

Happy hour mingling could be made into something like a challenge — with clear, formal instructions to give the event more of a sense of structure and purpose. For example, hosts could instruct event attendees to introduce themselves to another person without mentioning their roles or positions. Instead, they would be instructed to say their names, to describe a personal challenge in detail — and to talk about how they overcame it. After the first person is done, the second can guess the first’s industry and job title, and then the partners can switch roles.

Remember to provide attendees an instruction card or schedule that clarifies “the rules of the challenge.” You wouldn’t want to create more anxiety for people!

An exercise like this will reduce networking anxiety for a variety of reasons. Showing some vulnerability and sharing something authentic helps create a real connection, which has been scientifically-proven to reduce anxiety. Further, this particular exercise would reduce the inevitable sense of hierarchy and competition that plagues most networking events. Both individuals simply become two human beings who have faced challenges and overcome them.

Recently at Talkspace, we actually hosted an interactive event with clinical psychologist Iris Reitzes, PhD, who is an influencer in the mental health space. For a group activity, she encouraged employees on our team to submit anonymous descriptions of a personal challenge they were facing — from controlling spouses to substance abuse issues to contentious dynamics in the workplace. During her 90-minute visit, Reitzes reviewed most of the cards out loud to the group, responding to each with advice that was widely applicable. The event was radically emotional for a workplace event, but it also made the office into a quiet, respectful place for contemplation. Everyone remained professional toward and collaborative with one another.

After the event, countless employees of all genders wrote to me about how much of an impact the event made on them. They felt less lonely, and more understood. Additional employees later reported feeling better and more productive at work following the event, highlighting the sense of connection and support they newly felt among their colleagues. Together, we had built a shared experience. This event gave me motivation to really start thinking about how we might redefine networking.

2. Leave phones at the door.

As early as 2010, The New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd asked, “Are Cells the New Cigarettes?

We continue to ask this question today. Recent research shows that American adults collectively pick up their phones 8 billion times a day. Bored at work? Pick up the phone. Waiting for a subway? Pick up the phone. Nervous at a party or networking event? Pick up the phone.

At every networking event I’ve ever been to, there is an obsession with capturing the experience on social media, especially Instagram. Many of us feel that if we don’t post about it, it didn’t happen.

But none of this is fluff. Research shows that excessive screen-time, and especially excessive social media time, has a significant impact on our mental health, linked with both depression and anxiety.

By making networking events no-phone zones, event hosts are doing something powerful for the mental health of their attendees. Without phones, there would be no need to worry so much about posting photos, using the right hashtags, being tagged in photos — and appearing next to the “right” people. Plus, rather than resorting to idly phone-use during each second of minor awkwardness, attendees could take the opportunity to connect more deeply. During unstructured time, event attendees could even talk about how different they felt interacting without their phones!

3. Make your experiment part of the event conversation.

If you’re going to experiment with the structure and style of a networking event you’re hosting, be clear about your approach to those attending. Call attention to your mission statement around mental health; tell them where your decisions are coming from, and explain that you’re experimenting.

Further, make sure you create a formal means for people to provide feedback. Make cards! Provide an email survey after the event! Inquire about how participants felt, if they learned something new, if they met new people, and if the event exercises helped reduce their anxiety.

Keep in mind that this is just one experiment to redefine networking. There are thousands of ideas to make networking more interesting and less anxiety-producing. Together let’s see this as a challenge.

As a mental health advocate and co-founder of a mental health company, we can’t accept anxiety as the status quo for our personal lives or our professional lives. It’s time to start talking about it — at home, at work, at events, and beyond. From there, we can create change.

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