Supporting employees who experience phobias

Trilby Breckman
Trilby Breckman

TOP UK Clinical Director

Many of us have fears about particular situations or objects, and this is perfectly normal. However, a fear becomes a phobia if:

  • the fear is out of proportion to the danger,
  • it lasts for more than six months, or
  • it has a significant impact on how you live your day-to-day life.

We asked Trilby Breckman, TOP UK Clinical Director, to explain what phobias are, how they might impact your staff, and how you can support someone who experiences one.


Top UKTOP UK is a charity specialising in supported self help for sufferers of phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and other related anxiety disorders. They do this by running a network of weekly, supported self-help groups which deliver a model of Behaviour Therapy.

“A phobia is a persistent and overwhelming fear of an everyday object, situation or activity that most of us take in our stride and which often poses little or no actual danger,” says Trilby. “A person with a phobia will avoid the fearful situation wherever possible and it can severely restrict their day to day life. Phobias can be split into two groups – simple or complex. All phobias are treatable.

According to the NHS website, simple phobias centre around a particular object, animal, situation or activity – for example, a phobia of spiders, injections, or heights would be classed as a simple phobia.

A complex phobia, on the other hand, are often associated with a deep-rooted fear or anxiety about a particular situation or circumstance. An example of this is agoraphobia, a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong.

Phobias can have a severe impact on a person's working life

When someone with a phobia encounters the thing they are afraid of, they may experience trembling, nausea, extreme fear, and sweating.

Trilby explains that phobias can have a severe impact on a person’s working life. “Most people with a phobia feel anxious all the time and it can make concentration difficult,” she says. “Fear makes you hyper-vigilant and you are always aware of your surroundings, who is in it and what people are doing and saying. It is difficult to relax and adrenaline makes you on edge most of the time.”

A security guard

There is good news – almost all phobias can be treated. Mind suggests someone who has a phobia might decide to seek treatment if:

  • avoiding the trigger object, situation, place or activity affects your everyday life, or causes you great distress,
  • it keeps you from doing things you normally enjoy,
  • it causes intense and overwhelming fear, anxiety​Workplace anxiety and work-related anxiety Web page Anxiety can be caused by issues inside or outside the workplace, and it's worth employers making efforts to look out for signs that an employee might need support. This page from Acas has a range of tips.Free By: Acas View resource or panic,
  • you recognise that your fear is out of proportion to the danger,
  • you’ve had the phobia for at least six months, or
  • it stops you getting support for other health problems – for example, a phobia that stops you using the phone or seeing the doctor.

“No one needs to live a life of fear when there is a simple treatment,” says Trilby. “The evidence based treatment for a phobia is exposure therapy. Try and get help so you can lead a life free of fear and anxiety.”

Exposure therapy helps somebody to gradually explore the thing they have a phobia about in a safe and controlled way.

Many people do not understand how terrifying it is

If somebody in your workplace discloses that they have a phobia, it’s important to treat them with respect. “Employers must be careful not to ridicule or belittle​Harassment and bullying at work Web page Sadly, anyone can be at risk of experiencing bullying, and it can happen in a wide variety of workplaces. This guide from the CIPD explores what bullying and harassment is, the different forms it comes in, and your responsibilities as an employer.Free By: CIPD View resource a staff member with a phobia,” Trilby explains. “Many people do not understand how terrifying it is to have a phobia and employers should never tell a staff member to ‘just pull themselves together and get on with things’.

She warns that the employer must be careful not to make the staff member do something which involves their phobia. “For example, if someone has claustrophobia, never force them in to a lift.” While a treatment for phobias might be exposure, it’s not up to you to make that happen.

A happy office environment

Instead, employers should signpost the employee to sources of support. For example, TOP UK run a network of supported self-help groups for anyone who has a phobia, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) or a similar related anxiety disorder.

You could also allow the employee time away from work to attend therapy sessions, and, where possible, reduce the chance​Reasonable adjustments at work PDF What's reasonable at work? Whether you're looking for work or are already employed, this guide has information on rights at work for people with a mental health problem. Free By: Rethink Mental Illness View resource that somebody will be exposed to their phobia in your workplace. For example, if a member of staff has a fear of heights, you might want to consider allowing them to sit at a desk that isn’t close to a window on a higher floor.

You might like to print out and share this leaflet from TOP UK in your workplace. It explains how to join a TOP UK session, along with information about phobias, OCD, and treatment.

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