The Guardian


Fashion designer Cassandra Rice recently went for a job interview on the 27th floor of an office block. Nothing remarkable about that except that Rice suffers from claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) and is particularly afraid of lifts. “I nearly cancelled the interview because I knew I’d have to use the lift, but in the end I just took a deep breath and did it,’’ she says. “Once I was in the interview, all I could think about was the fact that I’d have to use the lift again on the way down, so I wasn’t concentrating properly. Luckily, I didn’t really want the job.’’

“I was embarrassed to tell people when I was younger,’’ she explains. “I used to work for someone who was looking for a new office so he was always saying, ‘Let’s hop on the tube and go and look at such-and-such a place.’ I always had to pretend I was too busy. Now I tell people straight and offer to pay for a taxi or take the bus instead.’’ But lots of us dislike using lifts and tubes, so what makes a phobia different from ordinary discomfort? Firstly, a phobia is an irrational fear characterised by extreme physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness and palpitations when sufferers are faced with whatever frightens them. They can also feel that they are out of control or going to die. Most notably, however, phobics will also go to extreme lengths to avoid a potentially terrifying situation.

Naturally, this can interfere with earning a living, says Nicky Lidbetter, senior manager at the UK’s National Phobics Society (NPS). “Social phobia is one of the biggest fears at work,’’ she says. “People are often terrified of speaking in meetings or giving presentations and will avoid promotion or miss job opportunities because of it. I know of one architect who took a job sweeping the streets because he couldn’t face working with people. Writing in public is another common fear at work. People feel that someone’s looking over their shoulder.’’

You can become phobic about anything, says Gareth Sharman, development officer at self-help organisation Triumph Over Phobia. It can develop in response to a stressful event, such as bereavement or divorce or simply appear out of the blue.

“People talk about ‘technophobia’ when they mean someone isn’t confident using computers, but there are people who are genuinely terrified of them,’’ he explains. “Fear of photocopiers is also quite common. It may be something to do with the fact that photocopiers emit ozone and people have been told this is dangerous. “It depends what the phobia is about as to how much it affects your job,’’he continues. “For example, if you’re frightened of snakes, it isn’t going to be a problem if you live in the UK. But motorway driving is a very common fear. People will drive miles out of their way using B roads to avoid it, which would obviously be a problem if you were, say, a salesman. I’ve also come across nurses who are frightened of cotton wool or blood and pilots who are frightened of flying. Fear of buttons is also reasonably common and could cause difficulties in a suited environment.’’ Although Sharman, himself a former sufferer of agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), admits it can be tempting to snigger at some of the more unusual fears, he says it’s important not to mock a colleague suffering from a phobia. “And don’t tell them to pull their socks up. After all, most people are frightened of something.’’

Telling your employers about your phobia may make workmates more supportive, says Nicky Lidbetter, although there is no guarantee that everyone will be helpful. Likewise, although not all family doctors are sympathetic, it’s best to see your doctor in the first instance, she advises, to double-check that your symptoms aren’t those of a physical illness. Luckily, the experts agree that most phobias can be treated successfully with cognitive behavioural therapy (where people are exposed bit-by-bit to whatever it is they are afraid of), hypnosis or anti-depressants. “It’s important to seek help sooner rather than later,’’ Lidbetter emphasises. “The longer you leave phobias, the more entrenched they become.’’ Luci Nye became agoraphobic after someone attacked her in a pub. The phobia developed gradually over the following 12 years and although Nye has worked during that time, she now prefers to stay at home. She feels employers should be more flexible towards people with phobias.

“I have had a lot of trouble convincing the benefits agency that I want to work but can’t, the same as if I had a physical problem,’’ she explains. “I can’t commit to a job because although I would be able to go to work most of the time, sometimes I have a day where I can’t go in. It would be great to have a job where my boss would let me work from home on those days.’’