Ergophobia is an extreme, irrational, and debilitating fear of working and of the features of work, such as specific tasks, social relationships, or speaking meetings. In order to be diagnosed as ergophobia, symptoms must persist for over six months, and they shouldn’t be better explained by another diagnosis like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety, or another phobia.
Ergophobia describes the debilitating fear of working or going to work. The DSM-5 doesn’t specify ergophobia as a disorder on its own; rather, it classifies all specific phobias in one category while the particular feared situation or object differs and falls under one of five categories: animals, natural environment, blood-injection-injury, situational, or other.1,2
To be diagnosed with ergophobia as a specific phobia, other behavioral health disorders must be ruled out, including panic disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), separation anxiety, and social anxiety. The differentiating factor is that the irrational fear of work and situations in the workplace doesn’t also arise from related but non-work anxiety triggers, past trauma, or panic.
Is Fear of Work Just Laziness?
Fear of work goes far beyond laziness. Many people with ergophobia may have other contributing factors that from the outside may appear as laziness. Often, people with phobias have co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety, or other phobias, where fatigue, avoidance, and lack of motivation are common symptoms, making a person appear lazy. In fact, many people with specific phobias are likely to experience multiple phobias and/or develop another mental health condition that makes it hard for them to function in day-to-day life.3,4
How Does Ergophobia Differ From Normal Anxiety About Going to Work?
The defining factor in any phobia is the irrationality of the fear. The anxiety is out of proportion to the situation or inherent risk of the situation. It is not uncommon to find that people who suffer from ergophobia start working later in life than their peers. People with ergophobia also have a more exaggerated or irrational level of fear and may avoid even applying for work or be chronically under-employed due to their fears. They may feel unduly stressed by common work situations, even when they are performing objectively well.
A normal course of ergophobia might begin with an initial period of over-engagement rather than avoidance of the workplace, leading to work burnout. However, as work burnout reaches later stages, ergophobia can be the result. At the same time, the fear and anxiety related to work may cause the sufferer to have performance difficulties.
Symptoms of Ergophobia
Signs and symptoms of any phobia include anxiousness, fear, and avoidance of the stimulus—in this case, anything work-related. Fear of work or the workplace may manifest in frequent job change, pauses between jobs, missing work, and irrational concerns about evaluation and interactions with coworkers or bosses.
Common symptoms of ergophobia include:3
- Racing heart or heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Feeling suffocated or having difficulty catching one’s breath
- Full blown panic attacks
- Inability to meet work deadlines
- Difficulty staying in a job
- Long periods of unemployment
- Avoidance of taking on additional work responsibility
- Ruminating on negative work situations or challenges at work
- Disengagement from the workplace
- Underemployment (working fewer hours or at jobs requiring few skills)
What Causes a Fear of Work?
Specific phobias are acquired when there is a direct or indirect negative or traumatic event involving a particular stimulus, like a toxic work environment. Sufferers of ergophobia have likely experienced a negative or frightening event in a workplace. They may have been publicly embarrassed by a boss or coworker, made an error at work that was emotionally significant, or even had an event occur in a workplace that caused fear, like having an abusive boss.
Similarly, a person can develop a vicarious fear of work through hearing about or seeing traumatic workplace events (such as workplace bullying or workplace violence).
When someone avoids the stimulus, in this case work, their feelings of fear and anxiety abate. An association is formed between avoiding the stimulus and feeling safe. The more the stimulus is avoided, the deeper the association between feeling safe and avoiding the stimulus.
Different forms of treatment for phobias include a variety of therapeutic methods, like exposure therapy, EMDR, or CBT, and some may also benefit from anxiety medication.
Treatments for ergophobia include:
Exposure therapy is considered the treatment of choice for specific phobias. It can be undertaken in vivo (in reality), through imaginal scenarios, or with assistance from VR technology. Typical length of treatment is one to 12 sessions.
People with ergophobia would begin by rating work-related situations by how much fear they provoke. They would also be taught relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation. The person would then be exposed to situations (either in reality, imagined, or simulated scenarios) that provoke increasingly greater amounts of anxiety while using relaxation techniques.
The goal is to change the association between the stimulus and the fear response. Exposure therapy can also include the use of medications to manage the physiological response to the stimulus.
Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)
Studies on specific phobias demonstrate that EMDR can produce significant improvements within a limited number of sessions.5 It treats the phobic situations as unprocessed traumas using a process of working through memories of these situations until they are no longer experienced as risky or distressing.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT seeks to help people learn to manage the negative thoughts about work that underlie fear and subsequent avoidant behaviors. Clients begin with the least anxiety-provoking scenario and work up to the most anxiety provoking situation, continuing until thoughts about work allow for more adaptive behaviors and subsequently, more positive associations with work. It’s often paired with exposure therapy and psychoeducation.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
DBT is a type of CBT that teaches specific skills to better manage extreme emotional responses. In regard to treating ergophobia, skills taught in DBT could include mindfulness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance, especially as they relate to social or performance anxiety.
Medication for anxiety can be helpful in treatment of ergophobia as an adjunct to other therapies. To date, it’s not a best practice as the only intervention. Overall, the efficacy of medication is best used to enhance the success of exposure-based therapeutic interventions and may play a role in session management of anxiety to prevent re-consolidation of the stimulus-response pairing.
How to Get Help for Ergophobia
If your ergophobia paralyzes you and prevents you from moving forward in life, talk to your doctor to determine a smart plan of action. More than likely, your PCP will refer you to a psychological expert for evaluation and treatment. Or you can start this process by browsing an online therapist directory and find a mental health professional who is experienced in treating phobias and is suitable for your particular preferences.
Keep in mind that, typically, phobias worsen over time when untreated, so starting therapy sooner rather than later will not only improve your quality of life but also prevent the progression of your chronic fear.
One of the barriers to treatment of ergophobia is the importance given to work and success in Western cultures. Early articles on ergophobia conflate the disorder with “laziness,” which is completely inaccurate. A combination of therapies, and in some cases, medication, can help someone overcome this specific phobia and begin to enjoy a rich, fulfilling professional life.
For Further Reading
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers support to family members of persons suffering from mental illness and connection to other resources.
- Mental Health America