The Dread

The Scream - Edvard Munch (1893)

Whether it be as a ten year old on a Sunday night with school in the morning, the last day of your holiday before you fly back, or the night before a non-calculator maths exam, we have all experienced 'the Dread'.

'The dread' is that sinking feeling of inevitability and impending doom. That time is passing too quickly, and it has quietly betrayed us.

I recently spoke to a colleague and friend who similarly works in education, an industry perhaps more susceptible to post-annual leave dread than any other. We noted, much to our surprise, that we actually did not 'dread' our return to the workplace after our much needed restful summer break.

This prompted us to question what was different this year, and what actually causes 'the dread'?

Naturally, as with everyone who has had the misfortune to study motivational theory, I have been programmed to know that Maslow must have this one covered. Definitely. Probably.

Surely, if work is helping us to eat, be safe, to love, to be famous and to self-actualise the world into awesomeness, we must be motivated and therefore 'the dread' could only occur at knocking off time?

Could it be that 'the dread' is caused by a threat to the comfort and enjoyment of our 'normal' lives? To some extent perhaps. But surely it must be more than this, why does 'the dread' feel deeper at some points than others?

It is quite apparent that Abraham Maslow was more focussed on what pushes us through 'the dread', rather than the causes. Motivation and enjoyment do not always go hand in hand. We can't blame him, only millennials could look at life and work, and agonise over the causes of our inclination not to like it whilst still continuing to invest ourselves deeper within it.

Contemporary writer, and fashionable Ted Talk'er, Dan Pink suggests that the three intrinsic drivers to modern life are 'Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose' (Pink, 2012). Could it be that 'the dread' is caused in some part by a frustration of these?

It does seem to make sense, particularly in regards to control of our activity. Rehearsing a role-play of a conversation we may have in the workplace is a sure fire replacement for a Sunday night’s sleep, particularly when the perception is we have little control of the outcome. The dread of visiting the dentist, could it be that we hate visiting because we fear we have not mastered the dark art of flossing to such satisfactory state which does not facilitate frown lines of said dentist, or worse - the drill?

The Heath & Safety Executive (HSE) suggest the leading causes of stress in the workplace can be categorised as Demands, Control, Support, Relationships and Role (HSE, 2017). It is often implied at work that if tasks are incomplete it is a failure of the worker, rather than the demands of the workplace. An indication that we are not masters of our craft.

Our perceptions of our own autonomy, mastery and purpose in the work place not only influence our levels of output, they influence our buy-in to our work. Doubts of these are the reasons for my ruined Sunday night enjoyment of Ballykissangel as an 11 year old, my anguish every 6 months before the dentist’s chair, and any previous mid-August despair.

In reality, it is natural we will all likely encounter at least a small regular portion of anxiety in regards to work. Work should be challenging. In these times, for some, financial compensation cushions this, for others stoicism saves the day, and for the rest health often pays the toll. If you never encounter work related 'dread', you have likely hit the 'self-actualising' goldmine, or in fact you are cyborg.

There is a serious point to be made. The dread of work, combined with the sense of no alternative, is all too often a very short journey to becoming a work-related stress condition. Workplaces are becoming increasingly more accepting and proactive in regards to their social responsibilities to staff, but there is always more that can be done. Managing the perception of work for employees, and managing our own expectations of employees should always be the number one consideration of Human Resource functions in any organisation. Of course, this is difficult. Especially now, with ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ being current managerial buzzwords of choice, there is always a pressure to extract more from less. Modern leaders need to increasingly be mindful in their approach, if you have gone home tonight feeling uncomfortable that you have asked a lot from colleagues, or that you were rather harsh in your assessment of someone’s output - ask why you feel uncomfortable, are you being unreasonable?

And finally, to those reading who are dreading work tomorrow, and do so far more often than not, you are not broken. Your workplace is.

Andrew Penfold

Do you agree? What causes your 'dread'?


Pink. D, 2012, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Movitates Us, accessed: 02/09/17

The Health & Safety Executive, 2017, Causes of Stress, accessed: 03/09/17

#OrganisationCulture #WorkAnxiety #Motivation #HumanResources #SenseMaking

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