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Meet Your New Co-Worker: Fear

By Eileen Dooley

We all experience it, usually daily, in one form or another. Sometimes it’s short-lived and has minimal impact. Other times, it can be all-consuming and lead to negative side effects such as anxiety, trepidation, and counterproductive behaviours.

Let’s admit it: These have been fear-inducing times. Fear is increasing in some, with pending plans to return to the office once the current Covid-19 wave passes. Just last week, I ran into a friend who happens to be working at a company where the return to the office is “as soon as possible” because the company (translation – the CEO) wants everyone back in person. Those expressing concern will be noticed if they don’t go along with the plan.

Another person I spoke with, who will be returning to the office a few days a week, is not sure how she will manage as she is wondering how it will be perceived by those returning full time.  

Finally, someone told me that she does not want to go back to the office without either a significant drop in Covid-19 cases (such as daily numbers in the single digits), or a vaccination mandate for all employees.  

These are examples of one very real, very prominent fear: returning to whatever workplace arrangement is being implemented. Some have a choice, others do not. Either way, it is weighing on peoples’ minds. 

Whether it’s the fear of catching Covid-19, choosing when to work from home, or being ordered to return to the office, very few of us are seamlessly rolling with the punches. The reality is that, regardless of what your work situation may be, fear comes from how we interpret the events around us. Similar circumstances will lead to different reactions in different people. 

For the first time in most of our lives, we are collectively facing a common issue that just keeps coming at us from all different directions. Previous generations dealt with global conflicts; we’re dealing with a global contagion. 

Whichever way you cut it, fears about returning to the office – or not returning soon enough – are something that leaders and colleagues need to recognize as very real in the mind of the individual. Helping people learn to deal with those fears requires support and is heavily influenced by the overall culture of the company.   

We all have a different tolerance for risk, and different risks have different levels of tolerance. Someone may enjoy the risk (and thrill) of bungee jumping but might not be inclined to take a similar risk in financial matters. Risk and fear are directly related, because when we take a risk, there is always an element of fear.  

Whatever the back to the office or hybrid arrangement is, leaders need to be intensely aware of how they are communicating around those fears – both their own, and the known or assumed fears of those that report to them. How can we do that? 

First, know yourself. Leaders need to know — and own — their fear and not be afraid to admit it to others. Create the space to be vulnerable and courageous. Whether it’s fear of change, the perception or reality of having to make choices, or fear of what the new work world will look and feel like, recognize publicly that this time of uncertainty can be fear-inducing. Ultimately, it is critical to keep discussing what is happening and reinforce that you are in it for the ride together. 

Second, know others. Your employees will likely see and experience fear in different ways. Personality plays a significant role, as it does in many other cultural aspects of our office lives. A recent study showed that a variety of variables predict whether someone is likely to be risk averse or risk tolerant[i]: 

Risk Averse

  • High conscientiousness
  • High openness
  • High mindfulness
  • Being female
  • Being older in age

Risk Tolerant

  • High agreeableness
  • High emotional stability
  • Being male
  • Being younger in age

Keeping this awareness of personality factors in mind will help leaders understand how much fear employees may have when returning to the office or in a hybrid model, and in what regards. Recognizing that others have fears you might not personally share is a key part of treating each employee with individual respect and sensitivity. It’s not a matter of feeding or arguing against those fears. Instead, act with empathy by acknowledging that they are something you need to find ways to work through together. 

Clearly, no one has a crystal ball for how Covid-19 will play out. Avoiding the emotional rollercoaster that continued uncertainty brings, including the outcomes of new working arrangements, may be impossible. What is possible, however, is to be accepting of our individual fears so that employees (and leaders) can feel safe and comfortable to articulate them without any judgment or even more fear of consequences. We’ve already got enough of that going around.

About Work EvOHlution™ 

Before hybrid and distributed work became topics that took over the world, the Work EvOHlution™ team had already spent nearly a decade studying the effectiveness of remote work, consulting globally with organizations, and implementing strategies to transform workplace cultures. 
Now part of the Humance team, Work EvOHlution™ increases performance and commitment in remote and hybrid workplaces globally. 

[i] Aumeboonsuke, V., Caplanova, A. (2021). An analysis of impact of personality traits and mindfulness on risk aversion of individual investors. Current Psychology. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/10.1007/s12144-021-02015-9 

Eileen Dooley

Eileen works with executive and senior leadership teams to assess and identify opportunities for people, culture, and talent improvements, providing her clients with balanced perspectives that help realize opportunity and potential. Certified in Hogan assessments, Eileen also brings additional skills in mediation, negotiation, and communications.

Eileen is a certified coach who connects deeply with people, providing innovative and personalized approaches to talent development, learning, and ongoing professional development that underpins succession planning and team member skills growth. She has had a career-long focus on supporting effective, high-performance organizational cultures and working with leaders and teams to develop and execute integrated plans.

In addition to her work with Humance, Eileen is a monthly national business columnist with the Globe and Mail and a trusted thought leader on people, culture, and career trends. She is also a source for other national and local publications, and television and radio outlets throughout Canada.

Prior to specializing in leadership development and coaching, Eileen spent 15 years as a communications professional, with a portfolio that includes senior management experience and team leadership.


Work EvOHlution™ has been a world leader in remote work success since our launch in 2014. We are a Calgary-based team of Organizational Psychologists committed to enhancing engagement and performance in distributed workplaces. We offer innovative assessment tools for leaders, teams, and employees based on research conducted since 2003, as well as consulting, coaching, and training solutions. Work EvOHlution™ specializes in supporting organizations both locally and internationally.

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