Fear factor: Tackling work phobia


Got an office phobia? Haven’t we all? It’s just for some of us an office phobia means more than wanting to stay in bed on Monday mornings. According to conservative estimates by the British mental health charity Mind, at least 10 million people have a phobia — and for some that means facing their fears every day at work.

Dealing with a phobia at work is tricky to say the least. What will your colleagues think? How can you avoid your phobia and still keep your job? And not all phobia are as specific as you’d think. A phobia can occur about any object or situation, and some are complex and not easy to define. Workplace phobia often share one thing in common — a fear of what other people think of us.

“The most common work fear is social phobia,” says Professor Robert Edelmann, a patron of the National Phobics Society. “It’s impossible to work in an office and not interact with people. If you have a social phobia, it’s likely to be revealed at work.”

So does a social phobia mean you hide away in a corner and are too scared to talk to anyone? “A social phobia can manifest itself in many ways,” says Edelmann. “It could cause intense blushing, you might not want to eat lunch in front of people or shun after-work parties. You may also dodge giving a presentation and avoid speaking in meetings.”

This is something Anna Lancaster (not her real name), who works in magazines can identify with. “I have an irrational dread of office meetings, especially those where I’m expected to contribute,” she says. “I was shaking with nerves before one team meeting where I had to present an appraisal of a competitor. It went fine, but I was worried for weeks, and considered calling in sick on the day. During the presentation my voice was shaky, I went bright red, my hands were trembling and I felt sick.”

There can’t be many of us whose stomachs don’t turn at hearing the word ‘appraisal’ or learning we have to give an important presentation. But when does a bit of healthy fear become a phobia? “It’s perfectly normal to have fears but it depends on how you deal with them that defines whether it’s a phobia or not,’’ explains Edelmann. “If you’re scared of doing presentations but you still do them, then your fear is not a phobia. If you avoid doing a presentation by calling in sick, then the fear could have escalated into a phobia.”

For some people a social phobia can result in leaving a job. Clare Edge, 23, left two jobs because of social anxiety at work.

“When I was 17, I started a new job in telesales. On my first day, I felt incredibly nervous and paranoid about what people thought of me. I made the odd mistake and I thought people were laughing at me,’’ she says. “At lunchtime, I decided to go home and I didn’t return to the job. The same thing happened in another job three months later.’’

For sufferers like Edge, an understanding manager or colleague can make all the difference. “There is such a stigma to mental health issues at work. If I could have spoken to my manager about my anxieties, I probably wouldn’t have left,’’ she says.

How you think appears to be the difference between someone who is fearful and someone who has a phobia. “Positive thinking is the key. If you tell yourself you’re going to look stupid in a meeting then you’re setting yourself up for failure. If positive thinking isn’t helping, then see your doctor,’’ advises Edelmann.

Edge agrees: “I joined a self-help group and met other social phobia sufferers. I realised lots of people have anxieties and I wasn’t so odd after all. If you’re suffering from a work phobia, just remember you’re not alone. There’s probably someone else in your office who’s just as worried as you.’’