Most of what we — and our employees — focus on at work are little things. We hear “I’m worried about …,” “I’m anxious about …,” and “I’m stressed about …” a lot, generally connected to specific events.
During one particularly frenzied week at a previous job before a product launch, for instance, I heard “I’m stressed about Friday’s launch presentation” so many times it became an intractable earworm. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
What we seldom hear in the day-to-day rigmarole of work, however, is this: “I’m afraid.”
Fear, however real, is seldom articulated. That’s because we’ve normalized stress and anxiety about specific things or events, but steer clear of discussion about fear. Why? It showcases a profound vulnerability and potential weakness that threatens to derail positive forward movement at the office.
The moment people start talking about fear, things slow down — and that doesn’t jibe with a fast-paced work world.
Instead of addressing deeper emotional and mental issues, we articulate fear in persistent stress and anxiety language instead. And when employers fail to see the signs of underlying fear, it goes unchecked and begins to unravel productivity, work quality, and employees’ mental and emotional health.
Enough. Let’s stop avoiding our fears and address them head on: What are we afraid of? And how is our fear couched in more “acceptable” stress or anxiety language?
Fear usually hovers around larger issues that extend beyond the workplace. For instance, a fear of failure — which weighs on a third of Americans — often presents as anxiety around leading a project or completing a task.
A co-worker (and now friend) is the perfect example: She always stalled handing in completed assignments because she was afraid our boss would redline the heck out of them. So she kept asking for extensions and edited her work 10, sometimes 20 times. I’m not sure what she said about this to others, but to me it was a constant chorus of “I’m so stressed about [X] … I just know I screwed something up.”
Fear of being disliked or abandoned is also common. This often presents as constant questions about performance and others’ perception of one’s own work. What matters most to these employees is not the quality and efficiency of their work as they see it but as others do.
Here’s a final fear that’s more readily talked about in work circles but still needs addressing: fear of speaking in front of others, especially crowds. A few years ago, I met a CEO who was so petrified of speaking engagements he hired someone else to do them for him. That worked out in his case, but most of us can’t hire a stand-in when the going gets tough.
The ultimate point is this: As a leader or manager, be mindful of common “anxiety” speak that points to deeper issues. If they affect work performance, make it a point to address the issues with the employee — confidentially and carefully — and be ready to offer additional support to help them manage their fear.
Here are a few recommendations as you talk to your employee about their fear(s):
Always start from a place of concern and care, not chastisement.
Be sure you have a record of work performance you can lean on to start the conversation; you’re not a therapist, so don’t attempt to address fear issues without work-related context.
Lay out the circumstances or events that led you to believe your employee may be wrestling with deeper fears, but don’t spell it out for them. Let them articulate it. Something like: “I’ve noticed you haven’t completed your past five assignments and appear on edge at work. I just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.”
Don’t push a diagnosis. You may think you’ve nailed down the reason for your employee’s behavior, but you could be wrong. Be open to other reasons for their performance issues and be ready to listen.
Don’t play doctor. You’re a business leader; you aren’t trained to treat someone’s mental or emotional health. If you see or hear fear issues develop — and an employee articulates these — be ready with the names of therapists or counselors you can easily recommend. You can even suggest mental health apps like Talkspace and Headspace.
Remember that people aren’t machines and improvement takes time. You likely won’t come to a satisfying resolution during your one-on-one. Be willing to give your employee time to address some of the fears they face — even to offer them extra time off to take a breath and come back to work with renewed energy.
Be mindful that employees have lives outside of work that they are not obligated to share with you but might affect their performance at work. Don’t pry, but make it clear that you want to help them address fear issues generally so their work performance and overall satisfaction on the job can improve.
Most important, don’t turn a blind eye to bigger issues when the signs are there. Fear is a very common emotion and can wreak havoc on our work lives. While “fear talk” is still not commonplace at the office — or in remote workspaces — I encourage you to be the standard bearer for your industry and begin addressing critical fear issues now.
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