What it’s like to experience chronic stress at work

Stress left unmanaged is bad for our health. Excess stress can present itself in a wide range of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and physical ways, which can negatively affect our day-to-day lives. While stretching ourselves at work is positive as it helps us to grow, too much pressure puts a strain on us and eventually could lead to burnout. Jennifer, Sophia and Shannon tell us about their past experiences of burnout, demonstrating that the self-awareness they developed now helps them to spot the signs of stress and keep mentally healthy.

Trigger warning: This article mentions suicidal thoughts

I was feeling isolated and drained from day-to-day working life. The "how are you's" no longer felt genuine and so nor did my connection with my team.

I didn’t feel valued, and I felt very alone with no one to talk to about it with in my workplace. This gradually took a toll on my mental health and the suicidal thoughts I had experienced in the past had started to resurface. Both simple daily work and life tasks felt like never-ending chores, my motivation levels had dropped levels below minus and I didn't feel like I would ever be able to keep up with the demands of my role which ate away at my self-confidence.

Looking back, part of me wishes I had spoken up about how I was feeling to address the underlying issues causing me to feel burnt out, but I really didn’t have the courage to open up to anyone I worked with until I was at breaking point. Luckily in the end I left the company and I’m in a better headspace now.

I will say this to anyone reading though, when you ask someone how they are, please mean it and listen to the answer. It can make the world of difference to your working environment.

– Jennifer

It wasn’t until 2018 that I realised the importance of increasing awareness around chronic stress and its consequences.

I was going through a difficult time in my personal life and it naturally affected my self-worth at work. Everything at the office felt completely unmanageable and paralysing. Small work problems that I could usually solve became mammoth and it made me feel deskilled and worthless. I had to fight back tears often which was out of character for me.

It took a bit of research, digging and acceptance, but I eventually recognised that I was experiencing chronic stress and I was on the verge of burnout. Initially I was too scared to approach a doctor and acknowledge that I needed a time out from work (and from other areas of my life!) but I’m so grateful to my housemates for encouraging me to reach out and get help. The doctor signed me off for 2 weeks and it was the best piece of self-care I’ve ever done. I went back to the office feeling restored and with a lot more clarity on the things I needed to change in my life.

– Sophia

Experiencing stress and anxiety in a new role in the workplace really knocked my confidence. At the time I had taken on a maternity cover, for which I had received little training before my predecessor left. This made me feel unsupported and isolated, and soon became overwhelming.

I noticed I felt constantly on edge and at breaking point – the smallest things would make me feel tearful. I would have to leave the office to try and manage symptoms of panic attacks. As someone with existing mental health problems, the added stress and pressure I was now facing meant I decided to reach out to my GP for mental health support. When I made my workplace aware of this and requested time off for doctor's appointments, I felt I received a lot of judgement and was made to feel like it was my fault that I couldn't cope. What I really needed was to be offered support and training. I eventually had to make the decision to leave the position earlier than expected due to how stressed and anxious I was.

I'm glad I made the decision to put my mental health first and recognise the fact I was close to burnout and needed a break. I have since found employment that is incredibly supportive which has greatly encouraged my mental health to improve. What I would say to anyone struggling in the workplace is always put your mental health first. I realise not everyone is able to leave like I did – if that isn’t an option for you, talk to someone at work who you trust or see if you have an Employee Assistance Programme. No job is worth sacrificing your mental wellbeing for.

– Shannon

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