Some people dread going to work every day and have minor difficulties managing daily pressures on the job. Others feel extreme fear of work, or the workplace, and need psychological treatment to cope. Read about the causes of ergophobia, its symptoms, and how this condition is treated.
What is Ergophobia?
Maintaining employment comes with a certain amount of stress for anyone. Individuals with ergophobia experience anxiety and stress beyond this typical amount and feel an abnormal and persistent fear of work or responsibility. This fear or combination of fears may include severe anxiety about the workplace, the ability to perform one’s job, or fear of specific tasks. Ergophobics can also be afraid of making presentations at work or of socializing with co-workers.
Fears and anxieties associated with ergophobia cause physical and psychological symptoms. The severity and number of symptoms will vary from person to person and include:
- Muscle tension
- Stomach problems
- Dry mouth
- Heart palpitations
- Rapid breathing
- Excessive sweating
- Difficulty concentrating
- Social withdrawal
- Feeling extreme anxiety, irritability, and depression
- Using alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms
These symptoms can impair an individual’s performance on the job and even away from it. At an extreme, ergophobia can cause high rates of absenteeism or lead people to stop going to work altogether.
What Causes Ergophobia?
Causes of ergophobia differ based on an individual’s background. Someone who fears work or work-related situations most likely has experienced trauma on the job. Traumatic experiences can include being terminated, being laid-off, or dealing with humiliation or harassment at work.
Other causes of fear could come from instances that do not begin in the workplace. An individual who feared giving speeches or making presentations in school, for example, can bring these phobias to work situations. Likewise, a student who had problems completing assignments on time may now fear meeting work deadlines.
The irrational thinking associated with this condition may be worsened by rational components, though. An employee who has such extreme fear about the ability to perform a job activity may avoid completing the task altogether. Incompletion of job tasks could jeopardize the individual’s employment, which, in turn, could feed the fear even further.
Ergophobia may be treated with medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or graduated exposure therapy. Anti-anxiety medication is prescribed to reduce physical and emotional symptoms, and to enable therapy to work more effectively. Treatment with CBT teaches patients to challenge negative and unrealistic thoughts by thinking of evidence that contradicts them. In addition, patients develop coping mechanisms, such as replacing negative thoughts with positive affirmations that are repeated to themselves when fear strikes.
Graduated exposure therapy works to treat ergophobia by gradually and repeatedly exposing individuals to the workplace or the work-related activities they fear in a safe and controlled manner. Usually, the therapist uses virtual reality exposure (VRE), rather than accompanying the individual to work. VRE employs computer-generated environments to immerse the ergophobic in the list of work situations that they fear - one item at a time. With an example of a feared work situation, therapy would begin with the following steps:
List fears. If a patient is afraid of making presentations at work, he or she will list frightening situations related to the phobia. The list may include deciding which information to present, writing what to say, preparing PowerPoint slides, going to work on the day of the meeting, and entering the conference room to deliver the presentation.
Build the hierarchy of fear. Items on the list are arranged from the least scary to the scariest, and thought of like a ladder. The first item or step should cause slight anxiety, but not be too intimidating. Patients should think of the end goal (giving the presentation at work without severe anxiety) and the steps needed to reach that goal.
Work up the ladder. Using a head-mounted display with earphones, the patient sees, hears, and reacts to one fear on the list at a time in a realistic, virtual environment that changes with head and body motion. The therapist uses biofeedback instrumentation to measure the patient’s psychological responses. If, for instance, the patient’s heart rate increases, the therapist can guide him or her in relaxation techniques to help control the anxious responses. Therapists will guide patients in remaining in the situation for as long as it takes for anxiety to decrease. The process can be slowed if steps become too overwhelming. During the exposure process, patients face their fears and tolerate their anxiety until it inevitably passes. With each repeated exposure, patients learn that the worse will not happen and they regain confidence and control in the situation.
Practice. Therapists will ask patients to practice relaxation techniques regularly outside of therapy. Regular practice of these techniques will lead to faster progress.
Eventually, the phobia loses its grip on the patient. VRE has been shown to be as effective as standard exposure therapy.
While patients will feel uncomfortable and anxious as they confront ergophobia, they should remember that these feelings are only temporary. Anxiety will subside with continued treatment and practice. Confidence can be regained and individuals can move forward to experience happiness and productivity on the job.
- Smith, Melinda, Segal, Robert, and Segal, Jeanne. “Phobias and Fears: Symptoms, Treatment, and Self-help.” www.helpguide.org/mental/phobia_symptoms_types_treatment.ht
Plante, Thomas G. Mental Disorders of the New Millennium. Greenwood, 2006.