The most feared workplace phobias
"I'd love to accept the position," says Laura Walker, the eager, well-qualified 20-something you've just hired. "But there's one thing I feel I should tell you. I'm a papyrophobe, so will have to work in a paperless environment. Or else, I'll have to work from home."
If you're unsure of whether to laugh or kick the smart mouthed kid out of your office, you're not alone. But for Walker, a recent college graduate looking for work in public relations in Orlando, Fla., and the other 19 million Americans afflicted with specific phobias, fear of something seemingly trivial -- like paper -- is far from laughable.
"The most important distinction to make is that while phobics know their fears may be irrational, they are most often powerless to control their feelings," says John Weaver, Psy.D., a psychologist, consultant and the owner of Psychology for Business. A papyrophobic like Walker, for example, knows that her panicked reaction to the sight of a stack of looseleaf is entirely unreasonable -- but that doesn't mean she won't have to leave the room.
By adding the suffix "-phobe" to the offending object, the list of known, diagnosed or referenced fears has grown to over 2,000, according to online, although non-scientific, resources. Arachnophobia (fear of spiders), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) and acrophobia (fear of heights) afflict the majority of specific phobia sufferers, according to Weaver. "There are certain things which understandably engender phobias," he says. "Snakes, spiders, rats and bats are creepy creatures. They're often poisonous or dangerous, and rather than figure out the risk, it's easy to become phobic." From an evolutionary perspective, he says, some phobias are quite helpful, and date back to the fight-or-flight decisions of our caveman ancestors.
Some of the more unique workplace specific fears -- numerophobia (fear of numbers), deciophobia (fear of decision-making), bibliophobia and technophobia (fear of books or computers) -- don't have clearly defined or generally recognized origins, and so seem irrational and harder to understand.
"They're not clearly threatening," says Weaver. "Most people can have a bad experience with a book or a decision and it never becomes something bigger than that one experience. Others are scarred for the rest of their lives."
Though she admits her phobia is affecting her job hunt and accepts it as a problem, if you ask Walker why the sight of stacked paper makes her palms sweat and her throat tighten, after thinking for nearly a full minute the best she can offer is: "I just feel unsafe." She equates the feeling to being alone in a house full of windows -- and the impending possibility of attack from any angle.
"Paper cuts?" I ask. "Do you feel threatened by paper cuts?"
"No, not at all. It's just the paper. Paper on top of paper on top of paper. It's horror movie bad. Call my mom bad."
Asking "why" this happens to some and not for others is a bit like going down a rabbit hole of repressed psychology. "Human beings have an incredible capacity to represent things symbolically," says Weaver. "The number four, for example, is really a symbolic representation of an abstract concept rather than fear of three lines drawn in the pattern we see as the number four. What happens is that in some cases this symbolic representation has become connected to something that a person fears. So the number four represents something a person is afraid of because it symbolically connects with whatever they fear most in their life."
Abandonment, rejection, loss or ridicule often lay at the heart of many seemingly bizarre phobias.
While most of the novelty phobias discussed by the media are not clinical terms, what seems to be the most common and detrimental workplace fear falls under the official diagnosis "social phobia." Dianne Cheblis, Psy.D., the director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that there are two different kinds of this condition, which the NIMH shows affects nearly 7% of the U.S. population at any time.
The first can be termed a general social phobia. "This person has anxiety about most any form of social interaction, even if they are passive. These fears, in addition to being far more common than specific phobias, are often the hardest to escape for Americans looking to earn a paycheck. While more specific phobias -- snakes, heights, paper, even -- can be avoided with job choice and careful planning, Cheblis is quite plain: "You really can't get away from people."
The second is a performance-based anxiety, usually the fear of public speaking or the fear of being asked to perform in front of a group." She stresses that "performing" can be as simple of a task as speaking up in a staff meeting or giving a status report to a supervisor. "For many people with a social phobia, just sitting in a meeting can be enough to raise their anxiety levels to a point where they are in significant emotional anguish or become unable to function."
Weaver agrees that the fear of public speaking is the phobia he has seen to be the most detrimental to a persons' career. Mark Douglas, a number cruncher at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, admits that agoraphobia has kept him from accepting multiple promotions and has seriously impacted his earning potential despite continued attempts to work through his issues with cognitive therapy.
"I feel okay when I'm in my office, but it's frustrating to know that even though my supervisors think I'm doing a good job and see potential for my advancement in the company, I'm the one holding me back," he says. But when it comes to the prospect of making presentations -- the main task that's kept him from taking a promotion -- "I just can't do it. It's impossible for me."
The fight or flight mindset of our ancestors is mimicked in the symptoms of a person suffering from a social phobia, says Chemblis. "The flight or fight response includes a rapid heartbeat and dry mouth, trembling hands. Some people need to use the bathroom."
For people without a social phobia, the elevated heart beat, or nerves that come before public speaking help to prepare you or increase energy before you talk. For people with social anxiety it just keeps going. Their body says fight or flight but there's nowhere to run. These sensations, she says, are often accompanied by a particular thought pattern: that it's probable that something bad is going to happen. "I'm going to embarrass myself," Chemblis hypothesizes, "and the repercussions are going to be really horrible. Horrible in a way that's more horrible than for the rest of us."
Horrible enough to take a paycut to avoid it? For many people, including Mark Douglas, and maybe someday Laura Walker the answer is, sadly enough, yes.