Why are we scared at work? Fear can paralyze or mobilize.

Infographic With Fear Data and Background Photo of Ocean

Infographic and story by Patricia Bouweraerts

You might remember — it was probably a long time ago — when you were on the way to work and first noticed this weird twinge of fear subtly there under the ribs, followed by an insight that broke the surface of your awareness with an image of something or someone at your destination that was scary.

Maybe a thought rippled the inner stillness, “Why would there be waves of fear on a regular workday?”

In 2018, Chapman University questioned 1,190 adults on topics related to a broad array of general fears. The researchers found that 34.4 percent said they “are afraid” or “are very afraid” of becoming unemployed. In addition, 30.7 percent worried about computers replacing people in the workforce, and 26.2 percent noted a fear of public speaking.

Work is not only energy, passion, and skill — there is fear involved.

It may arise when facing an unusually slammed day ahead, worrying about a boss that appears to question your judgment, or anticipating a meeting where you’re tasked with presenting complex material. Further, there may be deep roots behind the anxious feeling, such as being vulnerable, disapproved of, or rejected.

Leadership experts and professionals in various fields have explored the roots of fear in articles and talks.

Allison Disarufino, Communities Director at Redemption Arcadia Church in Phoenix, was one of two guest speakers at the May 2 presentation on career-related fear, as part of the series Backstories.

Photo of Allison Disarufino

Allison Disarufino, courtesy photo

“We get very caught up in, ‘Am I relevant to the culture today? Am I fitting in?’” she said.

Instead, she asks herself meaningful questions about whether something is practical to do, and if it is right to do. She added that asking the right questions helps to manage fears.

“Insignificance is one of our greatest fears, but it manifests itself in our lives in the form of believing the lie of scarcity — scarcity of fame, ’Am I making my mark’, importance, or influence,” Disarufino wrote in a follow-up email.

She believes that focusing on relevance is tiring and does not bring as much joy through the phases of life than concentrating on more true-to-self questions such as if a work or career decision is possible, just, and achievable — questions leading to answers that bring about more lasting fulfillment.

Scott Steinberg, business strategy consultant and author of the bestselling book “Make Change Work for You,” separates fear into two types; anxiety — fear of being afraid — and second, esteem when a person is creating new and important work.

“There’s good fear — fear of being outside your comfort zone, because it lets you know that you’re doing something worthy of notice,” he said in a videotaped talk.

In this three-minute video, Scott Steinberg talks about two ways to experience fear — feeling anxiety, or sensing one is doing something noteworthy — and explains how fear can seep into the culture of an organization.

What are Americans scared of?

Business.org sponsored a phone and email survey of 5,000 Americans, 100 in each state. The topmost fear reported by a majority of the total participants was being underpaid and undervalued.

“With 64 percent of Americans identifying it as their biggest workplace fear, a lack of compensation and reward easily tops our ranking,” wrote Chloe Gawrych on Business.org.

At 22 percent of those surveyed, second place overall was job loss, although the fear of losing one’s job did place first in 11 of the states.

“According to a study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 20 million people lost their jobs due to layoffs or discharge in 2016,” Gawrych wrote. “That means job loss affected just under 14 percent of U.S. employees.”

Third place was the fear of overflowing job duties, with 14 percent of the total saying that work overload was their top fear.

Infographic Listing Top Job Fears Data with Clouds Graphics

Infographics by P. Bouweraerts

“The three fears above might be the most common, but they’re far from the only ones out there, Gawrych wrote on HRDailyAdvisor.blr.com. “The study also found that many workers fear harassment in all its forms — whether that’s bullying, sexual harassment or assault, physical assault, or discrimination. Lest you think these issues only concern a minority of people, keep in mind that 33 percent of people listed discrimination as a concern.”

Steinberg interviewed business researchers, leaders at large corporations, and entrepreneurs, and organized workplace fears into seven types.

  • Fear of failure; being unable to fulfill a goal or task for yourself or others
  • Embarrassment; fear of humiliation
  • Underperformance; performing below what you or others think is adequate
  • Rejection; your services or products may be refused or avoided
  • Change and uncertainty; change can be surrounded by risks
  • Confrontation; facing a negative or hostile interaction
  • Isolation; being alone without anyone else’s support

Social scientists also confirm that public speaking is one of our topmost fears. A number of articles propose that social fears originated as a mechanism of human survival. Early humans survived threats such as large predators by living in groups; alerting members to potential danger, and working together to defend each other, wrote Glenn Croston, Ph.D. on PsychologyToday.com/us/blog.  Being rejected or alone was perilous — those who collaborated survived.

“When faced with standing up in front of a group, we break into a sweat because we are afraid of rejection,” Croston added. “And at a primal level, the fear is so great because we are not merely afraid of being embarrassed, or judged. We are afraid of being rejected from the social group, ostracized and left to defend ourselves all on our own.”

What’s behind the fear?

The late psychologist Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. wrote 18 books, the first of which became an international bestseller, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” She wrote that an individual cannot get rid of feeling fear, but with the practice of specific mental exercises, individuals can manage fear from a position of power rather than pain.

“You may be surprised and encouraged to learn that while inability to deal with fear may look and feel like a psychological problem, in most cases it isn’t,” she wrote. “I believe it is primarily an educational problem, and that by reeducating the mind, you can accept fear as simply a fact of life rather than a barrier to success.”

Dr. Jeffers separated fears into three categories. Level one fears include the physical world or things that happen to us, such as loss of financial security, retirement, or becoming disabled. Also on this tangible level are actions, such as changing a career, asserting oneself, being interviewed, or speaking in public. Level two fears are the mental and emotional ones, including being afraid of rejection, failure, disapproval, or loss of image. Level three fear is the one that is behind all other fears.

“At the bottom of every one of your fears is simply the fear that you can’t handle whatever life may bring you,” she wrote.

Examples include “I can’t handle making a mistake,” “I can’t handle losing my job,” “I can’t handle failure,” and “I can’t handle being rejected.”

“If you knew you could handle anything that came your way, what would you possibly have to fear,” she asked. “The answer is: nothing.”

Jeffers wrote that the fear of being unable to handle an event is caused by not feeling good enough about yourself and not yet trusting yourself. With practice and patience, though, individuals can develop greater self-trust.

“What matters is that you begin now to develop your trust in yourself, until you reach the point where you will be able to say: ‘Whatever happens to me, given any situation, I can handle it,” she wrote.

Strategies to deal with workplace fear

“Fear is one of the most powerful forces in your life,” wrote Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D. on the PsychologyToday blog. “It affects the decisions you make, the actions you take, and the outcomes you achieve. Who you are and what you do has at one point or another been influenced by fear. Being successful relies to a large extent on knowing how to leverage fear.”

Infographic Listing Survival Needs in Modern World

Because fear kept our human ancestors alive, it is associated with survival. Dr. Tsaousides categorizes survival needs in a complex modern, technological world into five areas:

  • Biological survival is the topmost need; fear is greatest when one’s life is at risk.
  • Physical health and ability are vital because stamina is needed to meet the needs of everyday life.
  • Autonomy; the ability to make decisions and not be restrained physically or metaphorically is a survival need. “This is what makes being trapped, whether in an elevator or in a horrible job, so scary…,” he wrote.
  • Social survival involves connection; being accepted and respected by peers, and not alone or rejected.
  • Self-worth is the desire to feel adequate and worthwhile.

“The fear of feeling worthless and inadequate can be very limiting, as it stops you from thinking big, expressing yourself, and taking risks,” he added. “This is why the impact of losing a job or getting a rejection letter can last for days or even weeks.”

The first step to using fear positively — leveraging fear — begins when the cause or source of the fear is identified.

Knowing how to leverage fear means respecting the role of fear to warn and protect, and understanding that it is a complex experience with physical, emotional, and mental elements, Tsaousides wrote. After identifying the origin of why something is especially scary, individuals who positively use fear build confidence by gaining knowledge and skills, and preparing plans and backup plans for scary situations. They take action even though fear is present.

He added that if a person asks for support or seeks help in especially difficult times when worry becomes disproportionate, it demonstrates not a fearful, but more of a courageous, fearless attitude.

Dr. Jeffers offers a set of exercises in her book such as charting, analyzing negative self-talk, listing subtle inner payoffs when avoiding fear-filled scenarios, listening to meditation visualization recordings, practicing affirmations, and others.

Affirmation is the repetition of positive statements, as if the goal is already happening. Affirmations included in Jeffers’ book include, “I am now handling my fears,” and “I am becoming more confident every day.”

“I promise you that with practice the negative voice will be the rarity and the positive voice the norm,” she wrote. “Just believe that constant repetition will do the trick eventually.”

Facing and managing fear becomes less of a burden than allowing it to exist in the background, because ignoring a certain fear can lead to an attitude of helplessness concerning the scary situation, Jeffers wrote.

Forbes staff writer Jenna Goudreau agrees with the concept of pushing through fear.

“Try to embrace the challenges as they come,” she wrote in Forbes. “If you dread asking a question in a meeting, just do it to know how it feels. Be kind to yourself by imagining a nurturing parent patting you on the back and offering constructive feedback. Think: ‘I’m proud of you for trying. You may have spoken too quickly this time, but next time you will take a more measured tone.’”

Steinberg added that fear does not have to be thought of as a negative sensation.

“In fact, learning to embrace fear and use it as a warning signal of sorts (a.k.a. a radar which alerts us to rising sources of concern or interest), can be a leading driver of growth and competitive advantage on both the personal and professional fronts,” he wrote.

Employing fear for discovery

Ad man and former president and creative director of Scali, McCabe, Sloves, Inc., Edward A. McCabe wrote an article published in 1986 about how fear can be repurposed as excitement to propel interest and discovery.

“Hey, I just felt it,” he wrote in The New York Times Magazine. “A twinge of fear. That’s what has been missing. That’s why I’m walking away from a company that was my life for so long. And maybe abandoning a profession that’s been all I’ve known for more than 30 years. On the way up, the thing I clung to for support was the fear of failing. My personal adrenaline-soaked security blanket. Success robbed me of that. One day I realized I wasn’t scared anymore. People work a lifetime to earn that comfort. Not me.”

McCabe sought a new field where he could learn, make mistakes, and grow professionally.

“It’s time to move on now,” he wrote. “To what or to where remains to be seen. I’m scared, it’s true. But it’s a fine, healthy young fear. I hope it grows up strong and becomes an inspiration.”

He went on to race a Mercedes-Benz from Paris to Dakar, Senegal, write a book, and direct the creative for campaign media in Dukakis’ presidential bid, according to The New York Times archives. McCabe is now CEO at McCabe Communications, Inc.

Fear can scare and paralyze, but it can also take you on an adventure of daring and freedom.


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