Fear in the workplace

Stressed staff are unhappy and unprofitable. Simon Ashton shows how reducing employee anxiety can increase productivity

Reading time: 4 minutes

Fear is not reserved for the month of October or horror movies. It is present for most people on a regular basis, particularly in the workplace, whether you realise it or not.

The threat associated with fear can vary. It can be physical, as in that heart-in-mouth feeling when your car hits an ice patch and veers out of control, or when you hear a noise in the middle of the night.

Or it can be psychological, as when you have to give an important speech, or something as simple as first-date jitters.

In a workplace, the feeling of fear or anxiety is not normally a result of harassment or physical violence, but often falls into the perceived ‘psychological threat’ camp – usually a result of culture, uncertainty, feelings of isolation or difficult relationships.

When fear gets physical

With this, many people can feel stress or anxiety every time they walk through the office door: their heart beats faster, they start sweating, their adrenaline sky rockets and they go into fight or flight mode.

The innate reaction to fear starts in the brain and then spreads throughout the body to make the adjustments required for the best reaction.

The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and the stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down.

And in the workplace, this can lead to someone feeling paralysed by fear and left incapable of proper decision-making.

By putting your employees into the threat response, you are quite literally making them less intelligent

The workplace has the ability to bring out unique responses from individuals, whether it be anger, distress or even ‘less-than-rational’ behaviour.

This feeling of uncertainty, stress or anxiety at the hand of an employer is not uncommon. The expectations of the modern working world only further exacerbate this; employees are expected to be constantly connected, while competing with new technology that threatens the very existence of their jobs.

All of this, coupled with the various personalities, emotions and conflicts within an office space, can become so overwhelming for an employee that they feel completely out of control.

The business cost of fear

The stress and anxiety that employees experience is not to be ignored, nor is it going away anytime soon. In the UK, it is recognised by the NHS that 30-60% of absences from work are stress-related, which is costing businesses on average £666 per employee.

 The Health and Safety Executive estimates that 15.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017-18 – a shocking statistic.

The report states that work-related stress, depression or anxiety continues to represent a significant ill-health condition in the workforce of Britain and accounted for 44% of work-related sick days in 2017-18.

Often, the reasons cited as causes of work-related stress involve relationships, workload, lack of managerial support and organisational change as the primary factors.

Leaders who express anger, frustration and impatience – even in relatively small doses – may drive their employees into states of fear and survival.



It is no secret that people perform best when they feel best. Leaders’ negative emotions not only leave a long trail, but also progressively deplete the reservoir of capacity and motivation their employees bring to the table. This begs the question, what can leaders do better to help mitigate this?

Recognise the power of the threat response

The brain is constantly on the lookout for danger with the sole goal of ensuring our survival. The threat response is five times stronger than the reward response and can greatly impact our ability to think and perform.

By putting your employees into the threat response, you are quite literally making them less intelligent.

To move employees towards a reward state we suggest leaders consider the three Cs.

  • Calm – Leaders need to recognise their own triggers – people, projects, certain situations or scenarios –and then have strategies in place to regulate emotions and be calm and controlled when pressures mount.
  • Connect – To minimise the threat response, leaders need to build trust with their people; connect first then lead. By demonstrating behaviour that conveys warmth and empathy, leaders are far more likely to engage with their employees.
  • Communicate – Psychological threats in employees can be minimised if leaders communicate effectively. Our brains crave information, especially during times of change. By filling the vacuum of uncertainty with information, this allows the brain to feel in control of the situation. If information isn’t forthcoming we start to speculate, causing employees to spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to fill in the gaps. Too often leaders feel it is better to say nothing, rather than have to say something different at a later date, but neuroscience research shows that even negative news is better than no news at all.

Fear does exist, and it cannot be ignored or misunderstood, especially in the workplace. To manage this, the modern-day leader must first understand the psychology behind fear and then look to the brain and the role it plays. Only then can they create a healthy and happy environment for their employees.

About the author

Simon Ashton is head of learning and development at Phoenix Leaders


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