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Fear Itself : The Causes And Costs Of Workplace Fear

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By Chris Avcollie

Iconic children’s television host Fred Rogers famously said, “Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”   Recently, iconic employment lawyer Mark Carey published an article on fear in the workplace. (Here) The article recognizes the very human experience of fear in the workplace and suggests some techniques for recognizing and coping with these fears when they arise at work.  I am hoping to expand that discussion of fear in this article.

This article is intended to further explore the issue of fear at work by examining some of the most common workplace fears. While the general topic of fear in the workplace is complex as it involves the intersection of human emotional dynamics, psychology, science, business ethics, and employment law, it is important that both employers and employees discuss this very real and important issue. By mentioning some common sources of fear, they will hopefully become more manageable. If it is human it is mentionable. Fear in the workplace is most definitely a part of contemporary human experience.

The Economic and Emotional Costs of a Fearful Workplace

It is important to recognize that fear in the workplace is a problem for both employers and employees.  While fear can make a workplace uncomfortable (or even intolerable) for employees, it can also have a negative impact on business revenue. Fear is psychological but it has physical effects as well. Stress and anxiety resulting from workplace fear can cause increased heart rate, sweating, adrenaline rush and even a fight or flight response. Fear spreads from the mind to the body. This feeling often leads to employees being “paralyzed” with fear and unable to work effectively. Low employee morale, reduced productivity, and high employee turnover result. Recent research has linked sexual harassment or assault at work to increased risk of hypertension among women. The costs of workplace fear are staggering and deeply personal.

Employers often bear the costs of rampant workplace fear so they have a great incentive to prevent or ameliorate the condition. In the current age of worker shortages these conditions can lead to devastating financial costs for a business.  According to the American Institute of Stress (stress.org), some 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress while US businesses lose up to $300 billion yearly as a result of workplace stress. Workplace fear and stress cause around one million workers to miss work every day in the US. (Source). To the extent that the extraordinary cost of fear in the workplace contributes to much higher business costs in general, fear can have widespread economic consequences for our nation.

Some Common Sources of Workplace Fear

While workplace fears can be as diverse and multifarious as any human activity, there are certain sources of fear that are common or endemic to the contemporary American workplace. While the sources of workplace fear are unlimited, we can try to mention a few of the major categories in order to make them “…more manageable.” So, what are human beings in our country most afraid of at work?

Fear of termination.

This fear tops the list and sets the stage for countless other related fears. The American “employment at will” doctrine ensures that this fear will run rampant throughout the workplace for years to come, at least until our lawmakers begin to change it for a more humane policy. The “at will” employment principle means that unless the employee has a contract of employment for a term of years or is a member of a labor union, she can be terminated at any time for any lawful reason with or without cause. This means that an employee who depends upon their job for financial or health reasons can lose their job on any given day at any given time and for almost any reason. Even for no reason whatsoever!  

No matter how much tenure one has, no matter how great one’s performance is or has been, no matter how perfect one’s work product is, the “at will” rule makes fear the daily lot for most employees. This leads to constant fear of uncertainty. Will I be fired for making one mistake? For no reason even if I make no mistakes? What if my supervisor does not seem to like me? What if a co-worker who is liked by the boss has a problem with me? What if I can’t find another job in my field after this?

Everyday millions of at will employees need to worry about whether they will be able to continue to earn a living. It is important to remember that working is not a choice. It is not “optional” in our society. The need to work to support oneself and one’s family is a categorical necessity.  The United Nations General Assembly has adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in relevant part: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” UDHR Art. 23 Sec.1. The employment at will rule is a violation of basic human rights, or at least a vehicle for such violations. That makes a paying job a necessity for living. The uncertainty created for employees by this rule is intensely fear inducing.

One important aspect to remember when facing the fear of termination is that although the employment at will rule allows employers to terminate employees “without cause,” there are many reasons why an employer cannot terminate an employee without violating the law. Terminations motivated by racism or disparate treatment of workers based on race, gender, nationality, religion, age, or disability status is unlawful. Terminating an employee for reporting misconduct by a supervisor or who advocated for better working or safety conditions is also prohibited. Terminations based on retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, taking FMLA leave, or for requesting accommodations for a disability are likewise illegal. While employment at will is inequitable, it has definite limits about which employees should be aware.    

Fear of not knowing.

One of the most common ways that fear-based employers control their employees is by controlling the flow of information. An employer who always knows more than its employees can always maintain control over them. The knowledge deficit is one of the most common sources of fear at work. I have written in past articles about how American businesses spend a fortune each year on employment lawyers while individual employees spend very little seeking counsel on their workplace issues. (Here). When an employer’s superior “knowledge” about work place laws goes unchallenged, it is often abused to an employee’s detriment. 

Deliberately withholding key information from employees is used as a discriminatory or retaliatory tactic and often comes up in discrimination cases. When a supervisor is discriminating against an employee, they may refuse to share important details about work or changes in policy in order to disadvantage the unsuspecting employee.  Often, employees who are being targeted with discrimination or harassment will be excluded from meetings, gatherings, or training sessions that are key to their participation in the workplace. This can be an intense source of fear as it creates a feeling of being left behind one’s colleagues. It can also seriously impact one’s ability to function in a team environment.

Fear of retaliation.

The fear of termination leads to situations where a supervisor or manager might take advantage of subordinates or discriminate against them based on the knowledge that the employee will be too afraid of losing their position to complain. This happens much more often than people think. Employees under report sexual harassment, illegal discrimination, workplace bullying, safety issues, and other illegal employment practices for fear of retaliation. This fear is far from unfounded. In my experience as a practicing employment attorney, retaliation is the rule rather than the exception. 

While it is unlawful for an employer to fire, demote, harass, or otherwise “retaliate” against an individual for filing a complaint of discrimination, participating in a discrimination proceeding, or otherwise opposing discrimination, these incidents occur with great frequency. The same laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information also prohibit retaliation against individuals who oppose unlawful discrimination or participate in an employment discrimination proceeding.

Retaliation is so fear inducing because it can take place “behind the scenes” and can be very hard to prove. Retaliation is so destructive because it has a chilling effect on employees who would otherwise report illegal practices or object to mistreatment. Retaliation can take numerous forms. Denying routine requests, excluding employees from meetings or memos, issuing unnecessary performance improvement plans, unjustified poor performance reviews, failure to promote, unjustified discipline, failure to provide routinely available transfers, schedule changes, training, or other workplace accommodations, failure to accept quality work without cause, and baseless terminations disguised as “performance based” are just a few of the myriad methods of retaliation at work.       

Fear of workplace bullies.

Many workers feel intimidated by others at work. We have previously written articles on the topic of workplace bullying. (Here). Workplace bullying may be defined as a range of workplace behaviors characterized by repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees including abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, assault, or verbal abuse. Workplace bullying may include directly aggressive actions or insults as well as unwelcome jokes, pranks, or ridicule. Workplace bullies often target specific individuals, seeking to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable in some way.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, nineteen percent (19%) of adult Americans experience workplace bullying. That means that some sixty (60,000,000) million workers are affected by this type of misconduct. Sixty-five percent (65%) of the people bullied at work are women and seventy percent (70%) of the perpetrators are men. Approximately sixty one percent (61%) of bullying is committed by a supervisor or boss. In 2019 a Monster.com survey revealed that nearly ninety-four percent (94%) of responding employees reported being bullied in the workplace. These statistics are shocking when one considers that there is no federal law and few state laws prohibiting or even acknowledging bullying in the American workplace.

While few lawmakers are acting to address the problem, workplace bullying recently made national news as a top White House science advisor to President Biden, Dr. Eric Lander, resigned in February of 2022 amid allegations that he had been disrespectful and demeaning to colleagues. Dr. Lander apologized for his actions and publicly acknowledged them. While Dr. Lander took responsibility by acknowledging his behavior, most workplace bullies are far less repentant and self-aware. The most successful workplace bullies are supervisors who are able to target employees who complain about their conduct with poor performance reviews or bogus disciplinary documentation.

While lawmakers are largely ignoring the problem, both workers and employers should take notice. Both the economic and emotional costs of workplace bullying are high. For the targets of bullying the impact often includes damage to their physical and emotional health as well as their career. Targets suffer major stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, and more. Targets often face job loss, transfer, and demotion as well as other adverse workplace impacts. For employers, workplace bullying results in low morale, increased HR complaints, higher turnover, increased absenteeism, and higher employee health care costs. Lots to be afraid of here.

Covid fears.

The recent global pandemic has ushered in a new wave of heretofore unimagined workplace fears. Fear of physical proximity to customers and co-workers is a pretty tough one to get used to. Fear of lay-offs, shutdowns, lockdowns, and shuttered businesses has been a challenge across the nation. The changes brought on by the pandemic will have long term effects on the fear factor in the workplace.

Fear of the unknown changes in the workplace brought about by Covid-19 have contributed to both the “Great Resignation” and the challenges with the “Work From Home Revolution.” As businesses try to return to a normal post-covid workplace environment, a recent Pew Research Center survey shows that 60% of workers currently working remotely wish to remain at home for work when the pandemic is over. Of that number some 42% cited fear of contracting Covid as the primary reason for the desire to remain at home.

Employees who have a need for either medical or religious exemptions from covid vaccine mandates are particularly vulnerable to fear at this time. Many government and private employers have apparently decided that religious or even medical accommodations for vaccine exemption are to be rejected out of hand for the “greater good” of the organization. In many of the cases I have worked on, the accommodations are often rejected without any analysis of the “undue burden” the accommodations would have on the employer’s business. Loss of one’s religious freedoms and disregard of a treating doctor’s advice not to get a covid vaccine forces employees to choose between fear of job loss or fear of dire medical or moral and spiritual consequences.

For those who suffer with chronic medical conditions or risk factors or who live with loved ones who do will remain fearful and vigilant at work as long as covid transmission is a possibility. The law provides very little leeway or protection for workers seeking remote work accommodations due to their own or a family member’s vulnerability to Covid. Some reasonable accommodations involving work from home are possible, but many will be forced to return to “normal” office environments notwithstanding legitimate reasons to fear for their health and their family’s safety due to covid. Many employers are ignoring the success of the work from home paradigm in order to restore what they see as a preferable or more profitable, status quo ante.          

Fear Itself

In his nation-inspiring inaugural address President Franklin D, Roosevelt famously said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This article was aimed at naming some of the most common sources of fear in the workplace so that we can begin to reason about them and to ameliorate the “unjustified terror” that leads to paralysis at work. Let us be fearless in exposing workplace terror whenever and wherever it occurs. If you are experiencing any sort of fear at work, Carey & Associates, P.C. is here to help. Please contact us at 203-255-4150 or email to info@capclaw.com.