The last month has been full of excitement and relief as, in Alberta anyway, the pandemic restrictions have been lifted. I have been buoyed by seeing friends in their homes and walking through public spaces not wearing a mask. I anticipated the interesting contradiction of excitement by familiarity. Relief coming from the place of ‘normalcy’. And yet, what has accompanied these feelings for me is fear and anxiety.
Those close to me will know I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression at times in my life. The pandemic has not been easy on anyone, especially our collective mental health. I’ve always been an introvert, but I’ve never had a lot of social anxiety…until now. As someone who’s career and jobs (marketing & Business development as well as event planning) hinges on being able to work a room and be comfortable in crowds, this new anxiety is life altering and terrifying.
In person events are coming back at an incredible pace. I have been invited to so many networking events, luncheons, conferences, social events, kids birthday parties that it is hard to keep track because I’m not only anxious but I’m also out of practice at running my calendar with in-person needs in place; how long does it take to get fully dressed with hair and make up again? How long does it take to drive to this place? Why is there traffic? Oh right! I have to pay for parking…. Must re-download the parking-pay app.
This was all recently tested as I attended my first in-person networking events last week. Attending a familiar, 500 person construction industry event made me realize how rusty my in-person elevator pitch is and that I’m not prepared for small talk and sarcasm. A second event in a crowded bar, brought to the surface for me my newly acquired claustrophobia when in a crowded bar and that the volume level of 200 people talking is way louder and far more distracting than I remember.
As I looked around at these events I wondered am I the only one feeling this way? Am I the only one fighting the eagerness to embrace my pre-pandemic self, and realizing she may not exist the same way I remember? Am I the only one struggling to ease back into the world of in person gatherings for work or pleasure?
I’m a direct and curious person by nature so instead of starting a conversation with ‘Wow this second winter sure sucks doesn’t it?’ I found myself asking my fellow event attendees ‘how are you doing with being in person with all these people? Are you feeling a little awkward and uncomfortable too?’ Turns out I am not alone.
Since many people may not be able to articulate their anxiety the same way as someone who has been handling general anxiety far before the pandemic, I wanted to draw attention to some things event-organizers can do to support their guests and enhance overall guest experience.
- Consider putting in place a red/yellow/green system of wrist bands, name tags or lanyards to indicate how comfortable guests are with different levels of interaction. Green is I’ve been starved for interaction – let’s shake hands/hugs/connect closely. Yellow is I’m unsure and may not be ready to shake hands or touch, but happy to connect. Red could be someone who needs some extra space and may still be more comfortable masking
- Plan for extra space – larger tables with fewer people at dinners, more high tops at networking events, more bars or walking servers to ensure fewer crowds gathered around bars or food stations
- Explore a lighter agenda at this year’s events – plan for more social time as people who may have not seen each other in two years, or may be new to the industries connect and learn from each other. Allow space for free discussion
- Plan for a ‘quiet space’ near the main event rooms – somewhere with no noise, hand sanitizer, masks, and seating for people who need to decompress and take some time are able to without having to return to their room or leave the event entirely
- Put your guest’s safety at the forefront and have a mental health nurse on site – include this information in scripts and make this individual easy to find. For someone who may not realize it, a panic attack can feel like a heart attack… having someone knowledgeable onsite to assist is next level awareness of the safety of your guests
- Have a way for guests to skip the networking rooms – perhaps it means opening the main room early to allow those who may be a bit more anxious to sit at their tables rather than wait in the crowd at the bar
- Organizers, venue staff, guests, everyone may be dealing with various degrees of this anxiety, be gentle with each other
- Be vigilent as organizers – if someone is hanging back from the registration table, gently ask if you can help them
- Keep the doors open as much as possible for air flow and if possible find a way to include an outdoor option to the social parts of your event
- As an event guest – you are not alone in your worries! Speak up – ask to be sat at the back of the room near an open door, ask the organizers what steps they’re taking, ask for what you need to be as comfortable as possible during this transitional period.
As much as I want to go back to what I remember to be my enjoyment of events before the pandemic, it’s going to take me time, self-compassion, and the patience of those around me and the knowledge that I’m not alone in this.