Ergophobia: the fear of work

May 23, 2023

5 mins

Ergophobia: the fear of work
Lorraine Posthuma

Freelance translator and journalist

In American culture, hard work defines success. So what happens when someone has ergophobia, the intense and debilitating fear of work? Many of us dread it occasionally, but people with ergophobia can experience extreme difficulty when seeking employment or holding down a job.

“Phobias of all types are generally acquired due to an extremely negative or traumatic experience involving a particular stimulus,” says Louis Laves-Webb, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Texas. He gives the example of a recently married client who had just entered the workforce. When the client was a child, his single dad often worked late nights, leaving him alone for hours at a time. This scenario repeated for many years and, later in life, the client realized he associated both his father’s job and work in general with neglect. “When the traumatic experience is consciously or unconsciously associated with a work-type atmosphere, ergophobia can develop,” Laves-Webb explains. In this client’s mind, work meant neglect and abandonment, so he believed he was neglecting and abandoning his new wife every time he went to work. This caused the client to panic, and he was eventually diagnosed with ergophobia.

In another instance, Laves-Webb was treating a woman who had recently given birth to her first child. “She would go to work and feel extreme terror and panic that something awful was going to befall her son.” Every time the new mother left for work, she experienced intense fear and displayed phobic reactions that became stronger and more frequent over time. She, too, developed ergophobia.

Diagnosing ergophobia

While ergophobia can be triggered by a negative event, other factors can also contribute to an intense fear of work. Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) Karen Carloni says this phobia needs to be diagnosed delicately: “If a person had a bad workplace experience because of ageism, classism, or racism, care must be taken in differentiating between diagnostic categories and factoring in lived experience.” It’s important to figure out if the aversion to work is caused by an irrational fear or toxic conditions.

Dr. Peter A. James is an Executive and Leadership Coach with HCG Consulting Solutions, a company dedicated to partnering with organizations and individuals as they look to improve business and career success. “Clients will sometimes present with job-related fears,” James says. These types of clients can feel insecure at work and constantly worry about losing their job — but their fears usually aren’t irrational. Rather, these clients are rightly concerned about their financial stability, and this angst can lead to a fear of losing their employment. While these cases of work-related anxiety may or may not have a correlation to ergophobia, some present ergophobia-like symptoms, such as panic attacks. James refers these clients to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

A study from the National Institute of Mental Health states that 12.5% of adults in the US experience a specific phobia at some point during their lives, but it’s unclear what percentage suffer from ergophobia as research on the condition is limited. “It’s difficult to tease out from other phobias,” Carloni explains, “but if the person has concurring anxiety and depression, they are more likely to develop ergophobia.”

Treating ergophobia

When a person suffers from ergophobia, working becomes nearly impossible. This can feel alienating and paralyzing, as working is an integral part of our human experience. “From our earliest days, we’ve had to work to survive,” says James, who believes people can tackle the source of their ergophobia, anxiety, or nearly any disorder with coaching and therapy. He explains the two-fold approach: “Therapy looks at the past in order to overcome it, whereas coaching is focused on the present and future.”

When ergophobia symptoms appear, professional counsel is recommended. In addition to panic attacks, warning signs include: avoiding work, chronic lateness, dry mouth, racing heart and sweating. “Don’t try to tackle this on your own,” warns Carloni. “Specific phobias need treatment from a specialized professional. This is the most efficient route to feeling better and achieving successful outcomes in the workplace.”

Laves-Webb supports action-based behavior therapy, which involves “participating in a behavior in spite of feeling uncomfortable.” With behavior therapy, a person with ergophobia will continue the unpleasant action of working, and a therapist will provide coping techniques. The therapist teaches the client to calm themselves back into a functional state, as well as relaxation strategies to soothe anxiety. The goal is to phase out self-defeating behaviors and replace them with healthy ones.

While behavioral therapy focuses on changing actions and conduct, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is also used to help ergophobia patients shift their negative thought patterns. Carloni recalls using this technique with a client who experienced anxiety when she had to speak in front of coworkers during meetings. As a CBT exercise, the client started keeping a thought journal at work. Documenting her thoughts allowed her to identify negative ones, which she was then able to reframe into neutral or positive reflections. “It’s a deceptively simple intervention,” Carloni says. “The difficult part is catching those underlying thoughts.”

The client would visualize herself speaking in meetings and began inserting her reframed thoughts. She was eventually able to do this in real meetings and could feel her anxiety dissipate as her improved thought patterns replaced old ones. This technique helped Carloni’s client gain confidence and manage stress more effectively when it was her turn to take the floor.

Solutions at work

How should employees talk to their boss if they have ergophobia or anxiety related to work? First, they must be aware that this conversation means walking a fine line. On one hand, they’re being paid to do their job, so they should be capable of carrying out the necessary tasks. On the other hand, they should be able to bring up work issues with management. “If you’re anxious about feedback, ask your boss to provide it without being harsh,” suggests Carloni. James, however, feels this discussion is not likely to go well: “It’s a non-starter because working is about making money and being productive.”

That said, there’s less stigma against people with mental illness than there was ten years ago, according to a poll by the American Psychiatric Association. About half of those surveyed say they can talk openly about mental health with their supervisors and coworkers, and 62% feel comfortable using mental health services through their employer.

Despite the progress, therapists and counselors are still seeing mental health challenges butt heads with the traditional American work ethic. “We’re taught the only way to be successful is to work super hard,” laments James. Carloni agrees: “We live in a grind culture where it’s important to always be advancing in your career.” She describes how a person with ergophobia may choose to remain underemployed for their education level, or more hesitant about seeking promotions than their peers. “This may manifest in feelings of shame that they struggle to work at a higher capacity,” she explains. America’s definition of achievement — constantly climbing the ladder — is virtually impossible for employees struggling to perform at work.

Although work culture is slowly changing for the better, people with ergophobia and work-related anxiety must still do their best to get help. The first step is recognizing the phobia, fear, or anxiety, and the second step is accepting it. Then, the problem can be addressed: “We have to shift our mindset and be aware of ourselves and what we want,” says James. So while the fear of work can seem insurmountable, one thing is always within our control: trying our best to get help for the problems we can’t solve alone.

Check out more content related to Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 here.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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