'I have ergophobia – fear of the workplace'


Whenever she thinks of work, an overwhelming feeling of dread cripples her. Her heart races, palms become excessively sweaty and she feels light-headed.

Lorna Liebenberg, from Port Elizabeth, suffers from ergophobia, the "debilitating fear of work, bosses, colleagues and the workplace".

"I have always had ergophobia, but it hasn't always been full blown," Lorna tells YOU.

After self-diagnosis, she approached a psychologist and a psychiatrist who confirmed her phobia.

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"When I was 18 I decided to study further because the thought of the working world was daunting."

Eventually, there came a time she had to find a job. "I have worked for a number of years with good bosses who were like fathers to me," she reveals.

When she was retrenched in 1999, "the fear grew out of proportion".

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"I was in and out of about 15 jobs in that time. The newness of a new company, boss, etc was extremely frightening."

Almost two decades on, the 53-year-old is still struggling to deal with her heightened anxiety regarding the workplace.

As a result, the condition has caused "great financial difficulty". "I have no pension," says Lorna.

Instead, she relies on her mother (87) and 30-year-old nephew to support her financially. "It places a lot of pressure on them," she admits.

"When times are tough I know what it is like to go hungry."

Apart from assisting with day-to-day necessities, Lorna's mom has been her emotional rock. "My mom tries to drum positive thoughts into me with no results."

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Desperate for a solution, Lorna has turned to hypnosis, prayer and psychotherapy. "I have been seeing a psychologist but it doesn't help. Nothing works. I would love someone out there to offer a solution."

What is ergophobia?

According to Cape Town clinical psychologist Larissa Ernst, phobias are classified into two categories, namely specific phobias and agoraphobia.

"Ergophobia is a specific phobia as it is a fear of a particular object or social situation (the workplace) which immediately results in anxiety and can sometimes lead to panic attacks," explains Ernst.

She adds that this phobia is "an irrational, intense and persistent fear of certain situations, activities, things or people”.

As a result, the individual's functioning is affected at both an emotional and physical level, thus leading to avoidance behaviour.

The symptoms

Ergophobia is characterised by fear of work, says Ernst.

"This fear is persistent and leads to symptoms of anxiety (heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, chest pain, numbness/tingling sensations, dry mouth, dizziness, excessive sweating, nausea which can escalate into a full-blown panic attack."

She adds that the fear is mostly linked to performance-related issues. For instance, the individual could have a fear of failing at a given task, fear of oral presentations, inability to meet deadlines and so on. The fear could also be linked to interpersonal issues such as difficulty in socialising with co-workers, struggling to deal with conflict or difficulty dealing with the boss.

"The severity of symptoms increases once the individual starts to actively avoid the stimulus (trigger) since the workplace or the exact trigger cannot be avoided indefinitely," says Ernst.

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