Ergophobia (taken from the Greek language literally meaning work-fear), is a little recognized, severe form of anxiety which is so crippling that the sufferer is incapable of either going out to work, maintaining jobs for long periods of time, or even finding work. It is a very misunderstood affliction, often greeted by lack of compassion or empathy, and confused with ‘Monday morning blues’ by employers and colleagues alike.
We’ve all been there at some point in our careers; that sick feeling on a Sunday night when we think about going to work the following morning.
Sometimes, the nervousness and dread can continue well into that Monday, but most people generally start to feel better and more settled once the day wears on.
But what about the people who suffer from anxiety about going to work so badly that it actually affects their lives in such a negative way that they become physically and mentally unable to go out and work, no matter what the job?
We’re aware of social anxiety and the various different phobias suffered by people from all walks of life, and we can often feel empathy for them. Fear of flying, fear of heights, anxiety about speaking in public or job interviews – all well-known fears and phobias that we read about or hear about regularly, and are far more recognized and accepted than the lesser-known anxiety of Ergophobia.
“I started feeling very upset and weepy every Sunday evening at the thought of work the next day. Fridays stopped being a relief to me – I would spend the entire weekend dreading the new work week. Initially I thought that forcing myself to grin and bear it, and troop on, go to work and get it over with would be beneficial to me – exposure therapy, if you like, but each and every day became worse and worse for me, until I ended up sobbing in the restrooms at every given opportunity, as well as thinking up every excuse possible to call in sick. I eventually got signed off work for 6 months by my doctor after being diagnosed with depression, but no amount of prescription medications helped this all-consuming panic, upset, and anxiety that built up at just the thought of going to work.” Phil, Austin, TX
“No one understood what I was going through when they saw me crying at work. My co-workers would give me filthy looks, or roll their eyes when I came back to work after taking days off with this horrible anxiety, and more than once I had someone tell me, “Well I don’t like work either, but I have to have a job or I’d lose my house/car/vacations, etc”. They truly believed I had control over my phobia, and that I was just trying to get out of doing my job. They had no idea of the physical effects this was having on me. I wasn’t sleeping, I was crying constantly, nauseated all the time, and suffering with constant headaches. Even talking about work would have me wanting to reach for the Xanax.” Leanne, Middlesborough, UK.
The fact is, Ergophobia is a very real, life altering form of anxiety, but the frustrating thing for sufferers is that there’s not always any rhyme or reason that they develop this paralysing fear. Ergophobics cannot usually put their finger on what it is about work that has them wanting to run for the door. In some cases it is the knowledge that they’re stuck somewhere without the luxury of being able to leave when they choose (a feeling of imprisonment/confinement), while others perhaps fear confrontation or criticism by managers and co-workers. Some may simply suffer from heightened social anxiety, finding it impossible to be around other people, particularly in a work environment, while others simply feel that they are not good enough to do the work required of them, and fear failure.
Whatever the cause or reason for Ergophobia, it has few options for treatment. Some suggest immersion therapy, but in many cases this can increase the feelings of anxiety ten-fold. Counselling is unlikely to work because more often than not, the sufferer cannot pinpoint the reason behind their feelings. Medications don’t necessarily work, and the ones prescribed for anxiety (such as benzodiazepines) can have severe, long-term side effects.
Compassion, empathy, and understanding is an important factor, but can be difficult to find in most work places, and attempting to explain this fear to friends and family can result in an eye roll and incorrect accusation of being ‘lazy’, and just not wanting to work.
“It is my dream to be independent, to go out and earn my own money instead of having to rely on my husband’s income to cover all of our mounting bills. I imagine myself in a job I love, but even sitting down at my computer and browsing job sites has me sweating, shaking, and often crying in sheer frustration at my own inner turmoil. I am not lazy – in the few jobs I’ve had in the past before my anxiety crippled me, I worked hard and was a valued employee. Even learning that the condition has a name has not helped me or reassured me, because trying to explain it to anyone, even those closest to me, is virtually impossible. I feel so alone, embarrassed, and at a loss as to how to move forward in my future. I need to work, I have to work, I want to work… but I can’t.” Christine, Gwynedd, Wales.
Sadly, not many mental health specialists are even aware of this form of anxiety, often confusing it with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and merely prescribe benzodiazepines, which as previously mentioned are not ideal for long-term use, and have been proven to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 51%.