Whether you work to live or live to work, chances are you have experienced your own level of stress in the workplace. That is what life in the real world is all about, right? But what happens when this accepted stress becomes unacceptable, what happens when it is bordering on anxiety?
Cast your mind back to the day before a big brief or the week of deadline, everyone is a little highly strung. If the coffee machine runs out of beans that day, there might be a riot. Stress is in the air, but it is the sort of stress that can be embraced. It can give you that triple-shot, adrenaline rush that you need to achieve the task at hand. The thing is, this is just a sporadic occurrence and these people are stressed for good reason. But what happens when you are stressed every day? When your work stress makes it hard to breath, makes your fingers tingle and makes your negative thinking run into overdrive. In these cases, the adrenaline doesn’t kick into gear and the stress doesn’t stay within the four walls of your office.
First things first: we need to put an end to the idea that if you get overly stressed at work you are weak, that it is your emotions getting the better of you or that you are simply not doing your job right. Counsellor at Fillan Healthcare and founder of The Balanced Life, Ellie Hancock, reminds us that what is weak is ignorance and we shouldn’t ignore the ways we are feeling. “There is nothing ‘weak’ about acknowledging what is happening inside your head, what you are thinking and feeling,” she says. “Everyone has this voice, and [even though] we all learn to do everything in our own special way, sometimes you need a little help just to figure out what your way of coping with stress and/or anxiety is.”
Our modern working life is inundated with environmental factors that can cause anxiety and stress. We struggle daily with work-life balance, as constant communication comes from all directions, with unwanted emails popping up every few seconds, and DMs or IMs persistently buzzing us on our mobiles. The majority of us also fight to overcome the financial stress of not making enough money to live the life we envisioned. For others, their work is plagued with unrealistic deadlines and pressure. To add fuel to the fire, a lot of us are wholly wrapped up in the idea that we must only do what we are passionate about. It’s starting to sound familiar, right?
In turn, people are increasingly finding themselves taking work home and being completely defined by their jobs. It isn’t all because of tyrant bosses like in The Devil Wears Prada either, rather it is the expectation and pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect, successful business women. Think back a bit, maybe an hour or maybe a day, and recall the last time you said ‘yes’ to someone asking you to do something while you were at work. Maybe it was your boss you were trying to impress or a stressed out colleague who you wanted to help. None of us want to disappoint anyone, least of all ourselves. That is why so many of us have a to-do list longer than our ASOS wish list and the constant feeling of pressure and stress weighing down on us.
“A little bit of stress is normal and can be healthy, it keeps you on your toes,” Hancock says. “However, you should be able to switch off when you leave work and unwind. [If] it begins to affect things such as sleep and eating habits, consequently, overall mood can become quite low as anxious thoughts become harder and harder to quieten. It can also lead to a lot of illness and you can feel unwell and quite burnt out. If you find yourself not being able to sleep at night or eat in the morning, or waking up thinking about work, it’s definitely time to address those thoughts.”
The biggest problem is that whether you are experiencing one or all of these factors on a scale from a little to a lot, in today’s society, stress and anxiety have become the norm. Anxiety in general is a large part of our lives, even if it is at times unspoken, with one in four Kiwis having experienced anxiety and panic attacks. Workplace stress and anxiety is also common and, unsurprisingly, on the rise. A 2015 Business New Zealand survey on Wellness in the Workplace found general stress/anxiety levels did increase during 2014, with the major stressors being workload, family relationships and long hours, closely followed by pressure to meet work targets. Hancock says while it is hard to pinpoint an exact answer as to why workplace stress is becoming more common, it is likely to come down to pressure we put on ourselves. “I can see that many think they should automatically know exactly which dream career they want/should have. So people often find themselves in a rut, in a job they don’t particularly enjoy, putting pressure on themselves that they should be doing something else.”