What are you afraid of at work? Becoming redundant? Your Freddie Krueger boss? That you'll show up at the weekly team meeting without pants? That no one will notice?
While we may be reluctant to discuss what frightens us (fear of looking weak or vulnerable), fear affects our behaviour and can seriously block our career path.
There are multiple reasons why people feel anxiety in the workplace, and they are usually less obvious than a bully in the corner office. Alan Kearns, career coach and founder of CareerJoy, says one of the most common fears his clients have is fear of not reaching their potential.
"Fear of getting stuck or being passed over are huge issues for a lot of people," Mr. Kearns says. "They're anxious that their career has stalled. Or maybe there's a position coming up that they feel qualified for but they think somebody else is going to take it. There's also the baseline fear people have about being restructured and losing their job."
Mr. Kearns, who does a lot of corporate leadership development, says fresh fears may also emerge when people are promoted to new roles such as manager or vice-president. They can feel anxious about the expectations they or others have for them or it may be, that after getting the job, they're not producing in the role and fear they're failing.
The first thing he recommends for overcoming any fear is to figure out what you can control and what you can't.
"What are those things and how do I manage them?" Mr. Kearns asks. "You need to make those lists and figure out what's what. It can mess us up when we confuse those things. If you can separate the facts from the feelings and manage them intentionally, you might have more control over the elements than you think you do."
One example he gives is that if you have a difficult boss, you have control over how you respond to that boss. You control what information you do or don't give them as well as what rights you have.
"If the boss is exploding, you can try to deal with issues in a very public manner so that person is exposed – by leaving the door open or you can capture it visually or record it," Mr. Kearns says. "The other thing is know your rights. Get external advice from an employment lawyer or career practitioner to help you know what's acceptable and what's not. Many people don't know their rights or where the boundaries are professionally and personally."
If you don't know, Mr. Kearns suggests waiting and getting advice before being pushed into any action or decision.
"Don't let the momentum influence you," Mr. Kearns warns. "If that micromanaging boss is pressuring you into signing off on something, say, 'Yeah, I'll get it back to you tomorrow.' That may be tough when you're in the midst of a situation but it's respecting yourself to have the right kind of boundaries."
Of course, not all fears come with an identifiable label or cause. One distinction a person can make is between a fear that is specific and an anxiety that is more generalized.
"Very often people tend to show up with an un-namable dread," says Kate Hays, sports psychologist and founder of the Performing Edge consulting practice in Toronto, whose performance enhancement training is sought by business professionals as well as athletes. "There may be a specific aspect to it but often it's more of a general unease."
Depending on what the person is looking for, Dr. Hays will try to help them uncover the cause, but sometimes, she says, people just want to know what to do about it.
"The first thing I recommend is some kind of diaphragmatic breathing and second, I make sure they know how to do it," Dr. Hays says. "Engaging in a physical activity such as diaphragmatic breathing is a method of calming. Going from there to something like restorative yoga or walking offers an opportunity to get away from the tension of whatever is going on."
Dr. Hays observes that fears and anxieties are often quite contagious in a work environment. Since the financial crisis in 2008, it's very easy to tap into some level of uncertainty about something in the world and from there, it's that much easier to crank it up into some kind of specific potential personal disaster.
"If someone is already thinking about how life is pretty unpredictable and is no longer 33 years old, the next leap may be, 'I'm old and being shoved out of my job; furthermore, there are no jobs and I will never ever get another job again,'" Dr. Hays says. "Our capacity to spin out worst case scenarios is very impressive. You can see yourself picking out your corner with your hand out."
Here's a step-by-step process that Dr. Hays recommends for overcoming any fear: First, be aware that it's even happening. Sometimes we just tune out what we're doing to ourselves, so catching it is a start. Second is to be impressed with how inventive and creative we are. The third is to begin reeling oneself back. You can say to yourself, "Let's just get from here to the next five minutes." You don't have to jump into worst-case scenarios for the next 15 years.