Phenomenon of ergophobia: How to combat fear of work

Anyone who can no longer enjoy Sunday and feels a queasy feeling in their stomach at the thought of the beginning of the working week knows the fear of work.

Phenomenon of ergophobia: How to combat fear of work

Anyone who can no longer enjoy Sunday and feels a queasy feeling in their stomach at the thought of the beginning of the working week knows the fear of work. Nervous restlessness, tachycardia and sleep disturbances are then frequent symptoms that can develop into ergophobia over time. But there are ways out of this state of anxiety, as Dr. Hanne Horvath, psychologist and co-founder of the online therapy platform Hellobetter. In an interview, the expert reveals how it is possible to face the fear of work and overcome it.

What exactly is fear of work?

dr Hanne Horvath: Those affected who suffer from ergophobia often describe a diffuse feeling of anxiety that is triggered at the thought of work, occurs regularly and impairs the quality of life.

What are the reasons for this?

The causes of fear can be traced back to very different reasons: For example, a conflictual relationship with colleagues or superiors can trigger the fear, and escalated forms such as exclusion and bullying are also included. In other cases, the anxiety is related to specific work situations and tasks. A classic that many people know is the fear of giving lectures, for example in meetings. But there can also be smaller situations that are perceived as challenging. The more often they occur in everyday work, the more stressful it is for those affected.

Then there are structural reasons that can lead to fear of work. This includes job insecurity or an excessive workload due to a lack of staff, pressure to perform and tight deadlines. After two years of the pandemic and the return from home office, another phenomenon can also be observed. Some are afraid of infection, others have difficulties adjusting, for example they feel stressed by the many social contacts or can no longer cope with the noise level in the open-plan office. So, as we can see, there are many different reasons why someone can feel afraid of work.

What symptoms can I tell if I'm suffering from it?

On the one hand, the fear reaction can be felt physically. Those affected often suffer from symptoms such as tachycardia, headaches or stomach problems. Anxiety can also make itself felt psychologically, for example through restlessness, difficulty concentrating and sleep disorders. In severe cases, those affected also suffer from panic attacks. Other symptoms can be expressed in changed behavior. This includes being over-irritable, forgetful or not meeting deadlines, to name just a few.

How else is the fear of work expressed?

None of the symptoms are pleasant, so sufferers often try to avoid the anxiety-provoking situation or person. These can initially be harmless strategies, such as speeding up the step when a certain colleague is also approaching the elevator in the morning. At some point it's missed meetings to avoid the person, and the next step is missed days. The avoidance provides temporary relief, but at the same time the fear is increased, which of course makes the situation worse. This avoidance strategy is therefore not a way out.

So what can I do to manage the fear?

It starts with facing the fear and by that I mean getting to the bottom of it. At some point, many of those affected are so caught up in their spiral of fear that it is difficult to take a closer look. But that is exactly what is necessary. It is helpful to ask yourself the following question: "What would have to change for me to want to go back to work?" It is best to take the time to explore the answer, as it contains important clues as to where the fear is actually coming from and is ultimately the key to overcoming it.

If the answer is "My colleague would have resigned" or "My manager would no longer criticize me", everything indicates that the fear is triggered by people. If the wishful thinking sounds like this: "I would confidently and confidently represent my point of view in meetings and successfully hold presentations in front of customers", the cause of the fear can be located more in the area of ​​​​work situations. On the other hand, statements such as "I would do everything effortlessly and without errors" tend to indicate that those affected place too high demands on themselves and suffer from perfectionism. Depending on the result of this first important cause research, there are then different coping strategies.

If the fear of work is actually a fear of a person, it can take a lot of courage to do something. In this context, those affected often experience exclusion, unfair treatment, bullying and harassment. A helpful strategy is therefore to first confide in someone in order to get additional support from outside. The first point of contact can be your superior, the human resources department or the works council. Of course it sometimes happens that the situation cannot be sufficiently clarified, despite the courage of those affected and the efforts of the mediators entrusted to them, but it is more likely that solutions will be found together.

If the cause of the fear is more of a specific task, unfortunately there is no other way than to face the challenge. This does not seem possible to those affected at first, which is why it is important to approach the task in small steps. So if it's a presentation in front of customers that causes sweaty palms and racing hearts, it's worth practicing internally first. Meeting formats that are more about internal knowledge transfer or in which successful projects are presented are suitable for this, for example. It is also possible to try things out outside of the work context. It can be helpful to speak up more actively in discussions with friends or to state your point of view more clearly than usual in the family circle. It is important to be very patient with yourself and to celebrate even small successes. Over time, you can become more confident and gradually reduce your fear.

What else can help if we regularly experience anxiety about work?

Horvath: What can help those affected is to keep reminding themselves that mistakes are human and that it's okay to ask for support from time to time. There is even an opportunity to improve relationships with superiors and colleagues. Researchers found that we are more likely to like people when we have done them a favor. So there may even be concrete benefits to involving others.

It is clear that this confrontation with the cause of the fear also requires a lot of courage and patience. It just takes practice to be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to make mistakes. So I recommend another technique. It can be helpful to just give the fear some space and run through the worst-case scenario: "Suppose I make a mistake, what is the worst that can happen?" Often times, this takes away some of the fear's power because the consequences aren't as catastrophic as they first feel. Those affected often even find that they already have a solution if the worst case scenario should actually occur. This can bring great relief and help to get a different perspective on mistakes. In any case, the fear is also reduced in this case.

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