by Sarah K. White

How to manage the 7 biggest workplace fears

Jul 28, 2016
Careers IT Jobs IT Leadership

Everyone's experienced some level of stress at work, and chances are, it's stemmed from one of these seven workplace fears. However, managers can ease those fears.

fear afraid hiding
Credit: Thinkstock

Workplace stress is common, and at some point in your life, it’s likely you’ll feel the pressure that can come from maintaining a career. Experiencing anxiety at work is ultimately bad for everyone. Consistent anxious feelings in the workplace can actually lead to underperformance and affect the relationship between employees and their co-workers and managers.

Scott Steinberg, bestselling author of Make Change Work for You, cites research around the seven common types of fear people report feeling in the workplace. These fears not only stand in the way of professional development, but they hamper creativity, innovation and business growth as well, according to Steinberg.

Elaine Varelas, managing partner at Keystone Partners, a company focused on career management support and talent management, has seen employees fall flat due to fear of failure at work, and offers suggestions for both employees and managers to tackle these pesky workplace fears.

Fear of failure

We don’t live in an ideal world, and that means sales fall through, initiatives go ignored and metrics aren’t always met, says Varelas. But, she also points out that you can learn a lot from failure — in fact, one company purposefully creates failure scenarios as a way to grow and learn. Varelas says, if anything, it’s how organizations respond to, deal with and eventually move on from failure that can be the most telling about their overall success.

And, she says, it’s not always on the employee to manage a fear of failure at work. Part of that responsibility lies with managers as well. Managers need to ask themselves a few questions before assigning a new task or project to an employee — whether or not they’re ready, for example. Or if their skillset is a good match and whether or not the employee is already overwhelmed with their current workload? She says that managers need to ensure employees always feel they have an open line of communication to ask for help or guidance and make sure failure is seen as a learning experience and an opportunity to grow.

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No one likes to be embarrassed and that’s especially true at work. It can be as simple as a “foot-in-mouth moment” with a client, copying the wrong person on a sensitive email. Varelas says that your feelings of embarrassment at work can oftentimes feel more augmented than they might at home or at a party with friends. “No employee wants to be embarrassed in front of their managers and colleagues — and they often see recovery as impossible. As a result, people avoid risk to avoid embarrassment, which minimizes learning.”

But studies show that embarrassment can be a positive emotion, even at work. Or, at the very least, it can lead to positive outcomes. One study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that embarrassment helped strengthen trust in relationships. Subjects showed greater feelings of trust for those who expressed embarrassment and were even more likely to want to get to know that person and associate with them. Embrace those embarrassing moments, laugh about them with friends and colleagues, learn from your mistake and maybe even get a little closer in the process.


Performance at work can sometimes be subjective — you might have one employee who seemingly outperforms other workers, but is it because they are so worried about their performance that they go home and log on for three extra hours each night and on the weekends? Similarly, you can’t compare a seasoned well-trained employee with one who is still new to the game and learning the ropes to work towards becoming an expert.

But even if performance is difficult to measure — it’s still something everyone is worried about. Managers should give consistent and reliable feedback to employees so they always know where they stand. Even if they’re over performing, you want to make sure you avoid potential burnout scenarios with your employees as well.

Varelas says employees should feel comfortable and confident at work, so when a new project pops up, they won’t hesitate to take it on. She also notes that any new skill is like a muscle so always have realistic expectations for how long it might take an employee to gain confidence when learning something new.

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Just like a fear of embarrassment might hold your employees back from exercising their full potential so will a fear of a rejection. Varelas says that this attitude often stems from feeling undervalued at work, or not knowing exactly where you stand. If an employee isn’t completely sure that their idea or opinion at the very least will be valued and considered, they are more likely to keep their mouths shut.

Managers need to ensure they foster collaborative cultures that helps support new ideas and opinions from even the most entry-level person in your department. And avoid only creating opportunities for your favorite employees — every employee needs to see their own value in order to grow and flourish within the company.

Change and uncertainty

Big company changes can often take employees by surprise. Sudden and swift changes can create a sense of uncertainty for employees who might wonder what else they don’t know or what types of changes could surprise them in the future.

The only solution, says Varelas, is to over-communicate and be completely transparent with your employees whenever you can. “As a manager you have most likely been dealing with topics of change for a significant period of time before change is introduced to employees. Work hard to be transparent about change, keep an open door for reassurance of employees, and answer the same questions many times without annoyance,” she says.


Your work space can feel small if you’re suddenly faced with an in-office confrontation, especially if it’s with a manager or someone higher on the totem pole. A fear of confrontation also circles back to the idea that employees want to avoid any negative emotions at work.

Managers need to be sure that they keep every confrontation private, says Varelas. Never call out an employee in front of their peers or in an open-space environment, or you’ll likely only make the situation worse. Always be sure gain a level head before you pull employees aside to have an uncomfortable talk.


Because every employee is different, the level at which they engage at work or with their peers will be different, too. Some will come in the door and easily blend into the company culture, while others might seem stand-offish. To ensure no one on your team becomes isolated, managers need to focus on reinforcing the importance of employee contributions to the organization. Similarly, ensure that all employees are included on important calls or meetings as well as new opportunities and even informal conversations between managers and other departments.

The worst thing you can do is avoid and ignore your more challenging employees, says Varelas. “Not every employee is easy, but avoiding those who are challenging is not the sign of a strong manager or healthy organization.”

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