Afraid of the boss, afraid of failing, afraid of being yourself: many employees are hindered by fear at some point. How do you deal with that? Psychologist and journalist Jolein de Rooij collected forty personal stories and asked experts for solutions for the book Never again afraid at work . Using stories from the book, she shares key lessons: “Everyone seems to be doing so well, but we’re holding out.” 1 The body often knows more than the mind Of course, the anxious employees who share their experiences in De Rooij’s book primarily have mental complaints. Yet they often end up physically collapsing, she says. “A convulsive posture, irregular breathing, headaches, fatigue: the body gives warnings when something is wrong at work. Some people get used to the stress, or ignore the signals, consciously or unconsciously.” In one of the book’s more poignant testimonies, a female researcher at a university says she became “dog tired” as a result of sexual harassment by a professor. For a long time she ignored his misbehavior, trying to focus on her investigation. That became impossible when the man, her supervisor, began to openly doubt the quality of her work. When she brought up the situation, things got worse. For example, the research director asked whether she secretly liked the professor herself. De Rooij: “The woman wanted to fulfill her contract at all costs, and started taking stimulants against fatigue.” A newly sworn lawyer had heart palpitations at work due to the workload. She was afraid to disappoint experienced colleagues and did not dare to refuse new cases. In addition, she was terrified of losing a case, because much was at stake for her worked up clients. At the end of the day, she felt as if she had “run a marathon.” She was 23. “Many people bravely carry on with their obligations,” notes the author. “Our body can always adapt to an increased stress level, for example by producing more cortisol. Pain and stress are suppressed. But if you don’t take these signals seriously, you can suddenly collapse later on.” About the author Jolein de Rooij is a psychologist and journalist. Her articles have appeared in, among others, Psychology Magazine . For Intermediair she wrote a series about fear, the basis for Never again afraid at work . The book is published by Ambo Anthos (232 pages; €21.99). 2 Look at your working conditions before you blame yourself Those who are hindered by fear can look for the cause within themselves. But the book teaches that the source of anxiety and stress often lies with the organization. De Rooij: “Then it is better to change your working conditions – employer, position, number of hours – than yourself.” For example, the task load can be too heavy, employees are given too little autonomy, conflicts arise in the workplace or there is too little appreciation. In other cases, the organization acts unethically, forcing employees to do things they don’t support. A dedicated veterinarian was crushed when she saw her “small, cozy practice” merge with a large establishment. Suddenly a consultation was only allowed to last ten minutes, while she was so happy to take the time to put the animals, often anxious, at ease. Her ideas to improve the practice were not taken seriously. She became overstrained, only returned to work after six months – with fewer hours. It also happens that the employer does not adequately protect its employees, according to De Rooij. Merel, municipal complaints officer, told how angry citizens regularly raged against her over the phone: “Trut, you just don’t get it, do you, with your civil servant salary.” De Rooij: “According to conflict and aggression expert Caroline Koetsenruijter, former researcher at Leiden University, these types of employees receive too little support. Ninety percent of conflicts are not about content, but are caused by feelings of injustice, insecurity and dependence. If your employer doesn’t prepare you for that, you don’t know whether to calm such a caller or set hard limits.” After training, the complaints officer managed to put frustrated callers on hold: “I hear you’re calling me a bitch. I find that unpleasant. If you continue with this, I’ll end the call.” Now most callers tied in, or even apologized. Also read: Afraid? An angry boss is only part of the problem 3 Put yourself in the place of the other (and get to know yourself) Sometimes fear stems from misunderstanding. For example, clients of the young lawyer in the book sometimes became furious with her, and wondered aloud whose side she was on. The lawyer underestimated the emotions of those clients, convinced of their own right in the legal matter. When she started taking the time for intake interviews, her situation improved. The clients were able to discharge, their counsel promised to make every effort, without giving any guarantees about the outcome. De Rooij: „Now the clients were grateful to her, even if she lost the case. They realized that at least their lawyer could have limited the damage.” At other times, fear of the other comes down to a difference in personalities, according to the account of an introverted policy advisor who was afraid of meeting more extroverted colleagues in the corridors. They asked work-related questions that they wanted immediate answers to. And in meetings, the woman did not respond to their critical comments, no matter how much she thought about her advice. De Rooij: „Where a more introverted person first wants to consider all the facts and options before finding something, the more extroverted employee talks while thinking. When she became aware of those dynamics, the policy advisor was able to prepare for the scenarios she feared so much.” If we understand how we relate to others, says De Rooij, we can change our situation. 4 Be open, but not too open According to the Ministry of Health, almost half of all Dutch people experience psychological complaints, such as an anxiety disorder. The collective awareness of these mental burdens is growing. But will it also be easier to come out at work? De Rooij suspects so: “I think that more employers nowadays want to hear about it, and appreciate that openness.” Employee Martijn shares how he hid panic attacks at work for twenty years. He would then slowly and silently leave a meeting. Afterwards he lied that he had to go to the bathroom, then no one asked. Later on, he openly admitted his panic attacks, and he became the point of contact for colleagues with a mental illness. For the book, De Rooij asked Professor of Psychology at Tilburg University Evelien Brouwers for advice. He warns: don’t tell everyone everything, especially not during a job interview. Think about what you want to share and with whom. De Rooij: “Openness comes with risks, such as stigma and discrimination, but those who cannot be themselves at work will never reach the top of their abilities.” 5 Sometimes it doesn’t work out (completely) The fact that people can learn to deal with fear better does not mean that it disappears completely, De Rooij knows. For example, she interviewed a marketer with a fear of contamination. Therapy and support from fellow sufferers largely brought the fear of contamination under control, but the fear – with shaking hands, when visiting the toilet – remained. At the same time, the woman wondered if she could not have made more of a career. “Sometimes things don’t work out, at least not completely,” De Rooij concludes soberly. “One transgender woman I interviewed continued to fear the 10 percent of humanity who ‘act weird’ once they find out she’s trans.” The woman was suddenly fired after coming out . Now she works in a place where she hasn’t told anyone about her identity and doesn’t want to tell anyone again. De Rooij: “Fear is human, it protects us. But don’t say that anxiety at work helps you, or that it makes you perform better. It is a sign that you are doing something that is not good for you, or that you are working in an environment that is not good for you. If you are afraid of something, take a good look at it.” A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 7, 2022