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Fears and Phobias in the Workplace

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Viewers of I'm a Celebrity get Me Out of Here last autumn will have seen DJ Jordan North attacking his major phobia of snakes head on by thinking throughout his task about his "Happy Place" of Turf Moor, Burnley's football stadium, earning him much respect in the process.

But what is a phobia, and, with around 10,000,000 people in the UK having at least one phobia, is it an issue that employers need to take seriously?

A phobia is a fear of something that causes so much anxiety that it interferes with their ability to function, and thus their quality of life.

A phobia is not something that happens rarely - such as (for me) the fear of injections, or to be more specific the fear of the piercing of the skin. They do not impact on the person's quality of life enough to be called a phobia.

Phobias are real, regular problems that can be extremely destructive and debilitating to the individual, and possibly to colleagues (especially in critical workplaces where teamwork is essential).

The Great British stiff upper lip means that most people will not tell their employer about their phobias, because more often than not their fears are totally irrational and often unpredictable. For too many, they are almost ashamed of their phobia, and are worried about it not being taken seriously if they did say something.

This can lead to a block in career progression, or even preventing the person with the phobia from applying for jobs. It can also lead to increased sickness absence while they deal with the phobia.

People need to start talking about their phobias, so that barriers can be broken. Earlier in my career, one day, I had to go into individual businesses on a high street to sell a service to them. When I got to that street, I froze. A fear of being turned down by the shopkeepers - of failing - overcame me. I could not build up the courage to go in and talk to them. This fear was verging on a phobia, because it affected me more and more. It affected my sleep with worry that I couldn't do that part of my job. In the end, I spoke to a friend about it, who suggested a cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT).

Nowadays those that know me will know I have absolutely no fear or phobia in that respect. I hated not being able to direct sell like that, and I did something about it.

Overcoming the fear or phobia by whatever means you can is a brave and potentially rewarding thing to do, and will allow you to get on with your life. Employers need to be sympathetic and help their employees along, instead of just brushing it aside and classing the employee as incapable.

Effective relevant training and support for an individual can mean the difference between being unable and capable, being unproductive and highly productive, and being unsafe and safe.

Whatever your fear or phobia, whether work related or not, whether the fear of public speaking, spiders, selling, heights, going over bridges, slime, needles or snakes, these issues are real and you need to overcome them.

Speak to your employer in an honest open manner, or if you cannot do that, speak to a friend or colleague. Take deep slow breathes. Find your happy place, wherever that may be. Mindfulness and CBT can also help. You can overcome your phobia with the right support.

If you can't face the situation and it is likely to impact your mental health, put yourself first. As the late great Captain Sir Tom Moore Sid, "Tomorrow is another day". But if that happens, speak to someone. Don't face it alone.

There is no one solution for everybody on overcoming phobias, but don't be pressured to do something you cannot at that time. Set a goal of learning to live with the thing you have the phobia of. You may never love it, but you can learn to live with it.

Whatever your phobia, overcoming the biggest fear of all is the huge first step. That is the fear of being honest with your situation. Once that happens, you should get the support and help needed to tackle everything else. Good luck.


18 April 2021: Anyone that knows me well will know my greatest fear, as alluded to above, is the piercing of the skin. Having collapsed having a blood test in the past, and tensing up so much for a tetanus jab that the doctor couldn’t get the needle out, I haven’t been looking forward to today. But I am pleased to say I did it. I had my first covid jab at St Helens Rugby Club this morning. If you are anxious about having it, please do not be. Tell them as you go in. They were fantastic with me, putting me at ease at every step of the way. Thank you to everyone at the vaccination centre, in particularly Faye, the lady who vaccinated me. I didn’t feel a thing.

The above article was originally published November 2020, reviewed, updated and amended slightly April 2021.


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