What Are American Workers’ Biggest Fears?

64% of American Workers Share This Job-Related Fear

workplace fears

There are many things to fear in the modern workplace, from communal fridges that haven’t been cleaned for six months to printers running out of toner right before a presentation to the IT department announcing a software change.

As scary as those things are, we suspected they don’t keep Americans up at night—so we decided to conduct a study on what Americans actually fear the most in their workplaces. To find out, we surveyed 100 people from each state, a total of 5,000 people. Their answers indicated shared concerns—64% of people had the same fear—with roots in past recessions and current economic uncertainty.

Study size

We asked 5,000 people about their fears—100 people from each of the 50 states.

Keep reading to see what scares American workers the most—if you dare.

Things that go bump in the office

From office bullying to parental leave to sexual harassment, workers spoke of many different fears. However, when it came to what scares employees the most in the workplace, three fears dominated our study.

1. Being underpaid for their work

With 64% of Americans identifying it as their biggest workplace fear, a lack of compensation and reward easily tops our ranking. Employees worry about being underpaid and undervalued—and they might be right.

A study from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that companies steal some $15 billion a year from their employees through overtime violations, employee misclassification violations, and other forms of wage theft. And that number only accounts for illegal wage theft; it doesn’t include money lost to simply being underpaid.

Whatever form lack of compensation takes, workers aged 18–34 worry about it the most—52% called it a concern compared to just 22% of Baby Boomers. That might have something to do with millennials earning an average of 20% less than previous generations at the same age.1

If this fear sounds familiar, a salary calculator can help you figure out what you should be earning.

2. Losing their jobs

Coming in second place, job loss scared 22% of respondents the most. While this fear ranked first in 11 states, only two of those—Kentucky and West Virginia—have unemployment rates over 4% as of August 2018.2 In fact, both North Dakota and New Hampshire ranked job loss as their top workplace fear, despite having the third- and fourth-lowest unemployment rates in the nation, respectively.

Even with low unemployment rates, job loss affects plenty of workers. According to a study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 20 million people lost their jobs due to layoffs or discharge in 2016.3 That means job loss affected just under 14% of US employees.


With bills to pay and mouths to feed, that rate might not give much comfort to individual workers. As one respondent said, “I just worry about my ability to [keep my job] so that I can pay the bills and take care of my family. . . . I am stressed out more often than not.”

3. Getting overworked at their jobs

14% of American workers called work overload their biggest workplace fear. Of the seven states that worry about overwork, only Alaska and Georgia made our list of the most overworked states. In fact, California, Massachusetts, and Michigan fear work overload despite making the top 10 least-working states. Of course, some trend-bucking industries or roles still get overworked in those states, like journalists or tech workers.

And certainly, overwork comes with plenty of dangers to worry about. In one study, working over 55 hours a week was shown to increase the risk of a heart attack by 13% and the risk of strokes by 33%, as compared to working between 35 and 40 hours in a week.4

The worst part? Working long hours and risking your health doesn’t make you more productive. Research has shown that productivity significantly declines after 50 hours of work a week—so much so that people working 70-hour weeks don’t get any more done than people working 55 hours, making those 15 extra hours a waste.5

Who’s scared of the big bad workplace?

While American workers from all walks of life and all states worried about these work-related issues, some groups tended to have much higher levels of concern than others.

In particular, fear was higher among these groups:

  • Adults aged 18–34
  • Individuals who had previously experienced a workplace issue
  • People in urban areas
  • Households with children

On the other hand, our study found that respondents who identified as white had less concern than respondents of other ethnicities.

The call is coming from inside the workplace

US workers have many fears, but underpayment, job loss, and overwork top their lists. These fears speak to deep-rooted worries about income and stability.

And unlike moldy breakroom fridges and inkless printers, these fears aren’t so simple to solve. You can’t just put on gloves and take care of your company’s outdated, leftover pay grades yourself, after all. For most employees, these common fears are out of their hands entirely.

For many workers, that’s probably the scariest thing of all.

Do these fears sound familiar, or does something else get your heart racing with terror? Tell us about your workplace fears in the comments below!

Our methodology

We conducted our study in partnership with Lux. All information was gathered via phone and email surveys. We spoke with 100 people from each state, for a total of 5,000 participants.


  1. Economic Policy Institute, “Employers Steal Billions from Workers’ Paychecks Each Year
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Local Area Unemployment Statistics
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Quits Rise While Layoffs and Discharges Fall in 2016
  4. Harvard Health Publishing, “Only the Overworked Die Young
  5. CNBC, “Memo to Work Martyrs: Long Hours Make You Less Productive