By Tamela Rich

October is a month that trades in fear: hissing cats, zombies, vampires and “The Walking Dead.” Seasonal allusions aside, if we take a serious look at our behavior, we’ll admit that we trade in this emotion every day, in every aspect of life.

Workplace fear shows up in statements like these:

  • If you don’t get this project approved in three days we’ll fall out of the bonus pool.
  • The new manager is a bean counter. We’ll be doing more with less in no time.
  • If you don’t improve your customer satisfaction scores, upper management is sure to offshore the department.


If you believe that these three examples are simply statements of fact, I invite you to ask yourself whether using them makes the workplace a more or less fear-filled atmosphere?

The cost of workplace fear


Why should we care about the atmosphere at work? You might say that you want results by whatever means are expedient, even if that means goosing workers with a jolt of fear.

Then let’s consider the cost of workplace fear.

As recent events show, you never know when a fear-filled workforce will boil over. Earlier this month AirFrance workers, angered by a proposed restructuring plan that included 2,900 job cuts, stormed the company’s annual meeting and ripped the clothes off of senior managers.

Before you dismiss this news with a roll of the eyes to all things French, you might consider thatworkplace violence is the fourth-leading cause of occupational injuries. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 23,000 significant injuries due to assault at work.

So when you’re looking for the cost of fear, begin with workplace injuries, which are easily quantified. In another recent study, this one of 4,800 injured workers from across 12 states, researchers found a relationship between fear of being fired and higher costs for workers compensation claims. Those are hard dollars.

In a Stanford University study this year, researchers found that employees who perceive their workplaces as being unfair are about 50% more likely to develop a physician-diagnosed condition. This contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs. Holy cow.

One of the Stanford researchers gives this response to those who would discount the benefits of a less stressful workplace:

“(W)e have lost focus on human well-being. It’s all about costs now. Can we afford this, can we afford that? Does it lead to better or worse financial performance for the company? We’re talking about human beings and the quality of their lives. To me, that ought to get some attention.”

Spinning fear out of thin air

De-escalating fear at work is a job we can all undertake. I suggest beginning with understanding what I call our individual “Fear Voice.”

Imagine sitting in a team meeting at work when someone mentions a competitor gaining market share. It’s a simple observation; your business has not been affected…but your “Fear Voice” makes you miserable.

Going around the conference room, here’s what a few “Fear Voices” might sound like:

Baptiste: I dread telling my team that there might be layoffs if they don’t work a miracle.

Marcene: My stock options will be in the toilet.

Jody: What will happen to my family if I get fired?

Chris: I can’t afford a blemish on my resume if we fail.

Before you know it, the simple observation of a competitor gaining market share has become an attack on the adrenal glands of everyone in the room because they are thinking/talking about budget freezes, layoffs and all kinds of misery.

We can do better than this by ourselves and by each other.

What’s your “Fear Voice?”


What is it a “Fear Voice?”

It’s your own go-to script in response to challenging news.

If we each know our “Fear Voice” and its standard talking points, we can acknowledge our fears and assess whether they have any place in solving the problem at hand.

In the example, Chris’ “Fear Voice” is a “blemish on my resume,” (a form of humiliation.) If Chris pays attention, he might recognize that this is his response to many challenging situations at work. If so, he has identified his “Workplace Fear Voice.” (Humiliation may or may not be his dominant “Fear Voice” at home or elsewhere.)

When he recognizes the “Workplace Fear Voice” as such, he can change his inner dialog and cool the burn. He might say to himself, “There’s my Fear Voice running wild. I’m a long way from failure.” This allows him to focus on the tasks before him instead of running fearful scenarios in his head.

How to de-escalate a fear-filled workplace

You can do your part to de-escalate the atmosphere of fear in your workplace by first committing not to use fear as a weapon—against yourself and others. The first step is taking note of the casual and accepted ways we use fear.

When you notice fear being brandished by someone at work, gently guide the conversation to higher ground. In the case of the competitor’s growing market share you might say, “Okay, let’s focus on what we can do to increase our market share, not what will happen if we don’t.”

Here’s another easy step. Is your company using questions like these in job interviews?

“What is your greatest fear?”

  • “Do you handle pressure well?”

Any job applicant worth a second interview has already rehearsed answers to these questions, so commit not to ask them. There are far better questions that will help you find the right person for the job.

In the words of a Stanford University researcher, “It costs more to remediate the effects of toxic workplaces than it does to prevent their ill effects in the first place.”

Let’s practice prevention instead of remediation when it comes to fear.

Tamela Rich

Tamela Rich is an award-winning author, speaker and adventurer based in Charlotte, N.C.  Tamela invites people to share their fears in an online survey any time between now and 7:00PM EST on Sunday, Oct. 18. For more information about Rich, visit

Category: Editorial