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I've accepted that almost no one gets an office any more in the world of the "open-plan" workspace. At my job, I sit at a long table with 10 other people, in a big room with 100 other people. I've been adjusting to all the ambient noise, but there's one thing I cannot get over: being so exposed all of the time. There's always people walking by. I feel like they're looking at me, and that my computer screen is always being monitored by the people behind me. We don't have any communal space to eat, so I eat my lunch at my desk. This too makes me super anxious—I feel like people are watching what I eat and if I dribble on my chin. The pressure is starting to be overpowering. It can sometimes feel like I'm going to have a panic attack. What can I do to survive in the fish bowl?
One of my first jobs after leaving high school was on a customer service hotline, sitting at a table with about a dozen others. As someone who manages to get self-conscious even when I’m talking to Siri, I can tell you this was my idea of hell. In the first couple of days, I waited in constant dread for my phone to ring. Most of all I feared being the only one on the phone and all the others staring at me and listening in to my every stuttered word.
Like most things in life, though, the more I did it, the easier it got. After a week or so on the job, and especially as the phone lines got busier, I eventually started to enjoy it a bit, even competing with the others to feign the most politeness or sympathy for customer woes. Perhaps above all, the experience taught me that other people are paying far less attention to you than you think.
There’s a neat psychology experiment from the turn of the last century that perfectly captures this. Individual student volunteers were misled into arriving late for a group task, and to compound matters, they were asked to slip on an over-sized Barry Manilow T-shirt before they entered the meeting room—Manilow was considered to be highly embarrassing at the time (sorry Barry!).
After being prompted to leave the room a short time afterwards, the duped students were asked a bunch of questions (to divert them from the true aims of the task), including to estimate how many of the others in the group they thought would remember their t-shirt afterwards. The humiliated t-shirt wearers estimated that around half the group would recall their mortifying attire. In reality? It was only around 25 percent of them.
This mismatch between how much attention we think is on us, and how much really is, has become known as the “spotlight effect”—and the study has become a contemporary classic. As Melissa Dahl writes in her new book Cringeworthy, the message from the spotlight effect study is comforting: “Give yourself a break about the coffee stain on your shirt,” she says, “or the weird comment you made on a first date or, say, the knocked-over bowl of fried chicken. Fewer people are keeping track of your foibles than you imagine.”
You’re probably thinking that this study is all well and good, but the fact is, you feel like everyone is watching. Again, it’s worth reminding yourself just how normal your feelings are—surveys of many thousands of office employees around the world have found that open-plan workspaces are intensely disliked. Partly because of the noise issues (which you say you’ve adjusted to, which is great) but also because of the loss of privacy. Indeed, a recent paper found that the supposed benefits of an open-plan space, in terms of increased collaboration and idea-exchange, simply doesn’t justify the psychological costs of the loss of privacy.
Sadly, management aren’t likely to listen to these findings any time soon. However, I think there are some practical steps you can take to make your life easier.
First, eating lunch at your desk is a bad idea. It’s convenient, sure. But unlike a fish trapped in a bowl, you do surely have the freedom to leave your desk for a lunch break. In fact, to ease the overpowering anxiety that you’re feeling, I would urge you to take every legitimate chance you can to get out of the building, or at least the room.
Taking a “proper” break will help reduce that build-up of pressure that you’re experiencing. After all, you’re juggling your work and constant interruptions, as well as constantly monitoring the impression you are making on others others.
A proper break means getting up and logging off. Studies have shown that workers who use their breaks to browse the internet on their computer or phone end up feeling more emotionally drained later in the day. If your job involves computer work, then more screen time simply won’t provide you enough of a change to allow your batteries to recharge.
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What’s more, eating your lunch in front of your computer is just adding more things for you to feel self-conscious about, whether it’s your eating style or the cat videos on your screen. You need to give yourself regular breaks from the constant feeling of being on public display. Bear in mind that even short walks are mood-enhancing and rejuvenating, especially if you can get to an urban green space in your lunch or coffee break. If you’re worried about seeming anti-social, you could ask one or two of your colleagues to come along with you.
Like you, I need my personal space, and when I’m crammed cheek-by-jowl with commuters on a train, I find it suffocating. But listening to music over headphones really helps me cope (psychologists have confirmed this effect in the lab: When volunteers were listening to music on headphones, the experimenter had to get much closer to them before they said it felt uncomfortable). Try bringing headphones to work and listen to calming music, or whatever kind of music makes you feel good. It will take your attention off the people around you and create a psychological cocoon, providing you with an illusion of privacy.
Personalizing your immediate workspace—with your favorite mug, photos of friends or family or your pet pig, whatever—can also help. If you're hot-desking it this is obviously trickier, but there should still be some possessions you can move around with you, to mark out your own space. Research with open-plan office workers has found that the usual link between lack of privacy and emotional exhaustion is reduced among those who make greater efforts to personalize their spaces, probably because doing this helps create a calming mini-sanctuary and increases feelings of control.
A few final thoughts: The more you can absorb yourself in your work, the less spare attention you’ll have left over to worry about the people around you, and the less stressful you’ll find the goldfish bowl. Try putting plans in place for how to distract yourself when the self-consciousness becomes overpowering (like, “if it gets too much, then I’ll go to the bathroom”). Also, ask your co-workers what they think about the fish-bowl effect of working together. You’ll probably find that many of them share similar anxieties to you. By getting the issue out in the open, it will lose a lot of its sting.
Last of all: Remember the grass isn’t always greener. My time working on a customer helpline in an open-plan warehouse is, thankfully, a distant memory. I have my own garden office now! But there are no colleagues around me. If I see a funny tweet, or suddenly have a good idea, I can’t swing my chair around and share it with anyone. Your lack of privacy is a burden, but you have the opportunity for human interaction all around you. I miss it.
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Dr. Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. His next book, about personality change, will be published next year by Simon and Schuster.
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