What's the scariest thing you've ever faced at work?
Perhaps it was the prospect of losing your job, or a horrible boss who made your life miserable.
If you've been lucky, it's possible that your scariest work experience was seeing one of your co-workers dressed in an inappropriate costume for Halloween.
(Believe me, I'm not downplaying that. I know it can be incredibly frightening!)
The reality is, most people will face some kind of fear at work during their careers, but what scares residents of Cubeville the most?
Staffing firm Robert Half wanted to know, so it conducted an online survey of 324 randomly selected American office workers, asking, "Aside from losing your job, which of the following is your greatest work-related fear?" The results may not be frightening, but they are definitely interesting.
The top result was "having too much work leading to stress or burnout," which was chosen by 31 percent of respondents. That was followed by "making a serious mistake in my work," at 28 percent; "having conflicts with co-workers," at 16 percent; and "being outperformed by peers/not being promoted," at 13 percent. "Missing an important deadline" was cited by 8 percent of respondents.
I was a bit surprised by some of these results. For example, while I know how stressful it can be to feel overwhelmed by a huge volume of work, I thought conflicts with co-workers would place higher on the list of fears.
But Rick Westbrook, branch manager for Robert Half, said the survey results didn't surprise him at all.
In an email interview, Westbrook wrote that a different Robert Half survey showed that 39 percent of workers do not use all of their allotted vacation days, and 30 percent of these employees said they didn't use their time off because they had too much work and didn’t want to fall behind.
"Clearly, this is a bad habit, and taking time away from the office is important for professionals to avoid burnout and recharge," Westbrook wrote. "As far as making a serious mistake at work, I also think this falls in line with what could be expected as one of the biggest fears for workers.
"When it comes to making a serious mistake, more often than not this happens when people are under pressure from too much work, or burned out from working too long and hard. I think the results go hand-in-hand."
That makes sense, and I think these concerns have been exacerbated by the lingering effects of the recent economic downturn. Many people either lost their jobs or worried that they would during the last few years. When you're feeling that kind of pressure, you'll be naturally inclined to put in extra hours, take on additional projects and skip vacations to try to secure your job.
But all work and no play does make Greg more likely to make a mistake. During the last couple of years, I've become a true believer in the benefits — both in terms of work-life balance and productivity on the job — of taking a break from the office grind.
Westbrook agrees. "By taking time off, employees are able to return to work with a fresh perspective and renewed energy, which can boost productivity and effectiveness," he wrote in response to one of my emailed questions.
But what else can employees do to manage their fear of burnout? Westbrook suggested that workers talk to their supervisors about their workload and the possibilities of reducing or re-prioritizing it.
"Employees may find that some of their work gets reassigned or postponed and that they leave with advice that helps ease their stress," he wrote.
That can be a difficult conversation to instigate, but if you can make a good case to your supervisor, it could pay off. That's especially true if you're able to show that the temporarily lighter workload helps you recharge your batteries and develop fresh ideas that benefit the company in the long run.
However, talking to the boss about doing less work is definitely not an option for many workers. Westbrook suggests that the key for them is to manage their fears, and that starts with recognizing what they can and can't control.
"Sometimes sharing fears with the right people, like mentors and a network of friends and colleagues, can help to dissipate them," he wrote. "Often times, a mentor or friend has experienced the same issues and found good ways to address them. However, when fear is too overwhelming or not workable, it may be time to look at making a move."
As a manager, I would hate to think that a hard-working, productive member of my team was considering leaving the company due to fears of burnout. I asked Westbrook if he had any advice for helping managers deal with such situations.
"It’s important for managers to have open communication with their employees so any fears or issues can be addressed immediately, hopefully before mistakes, stress, gossiping, missing important deadlines, etc. result in serious consequences," Westbrook wrote in response to my question. "Having an open door for voicing problems will help nip any problems in the bud, and managers should try to make their employees feel comfortable coming to them to voice their concerns."
I've worked hard to do that, and I think it has paid off. I often have frank discussions with my team members, both individually and in a group, and those conversations have helped us bond as a team.
Westbrook wrote that managers also need to keep their employees updated on the company's short- and long-term goals.
"It’s important to explain what this information means, and doing so will help workers feel more like a part of the organization and can help them align their work and goals to those of the organization," Westbrook wrote. "Also, managers should ask for input and actively seek feedback from team members. ...
"They should also reach out to those who may be uncomfortable voicing their thoughts to ensure their ideas are heard. Additionally, managers should remind workers to take regular breaks to recharge, and set a good example by doing so themselves."
All of this is great advice, and I thank Westbrook and Robert Half for the counsel. I hope you won't need to use it in the weeks and months to come, but it's good to keep in mind.
When it comes to your huge male co-worker who comes to the office Halloween party in a skimpy tutu — well, you're on your own with that one.
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