Unrelenting work stress can lead to mental health problems — it’s time to call it out for what it is before it changes who we are and how we feel about ourselves
We carry it in the phones we hold as we constantly check for work emails; the laptop bags that weigh us down, that we can open anywhere, everywhere; the apparently trendy workwear clothes we sport, because everyone must always see us as upbeat. Every. Single. Day. Workplace pressure, ironically, is no longer confined to meeting rooms and office desks. And it isn’t the ‘good stress’ (eustress stress) anymore — the type that gets us to meet deadlines, ramp up our performance for a presentation and ooze great ideas.
It’s really a sense of distress, or constant stress, because our workplaces have changed. “Problems at work are more complex: everything needs to be done with speed; work is less predictable — it isn’t routine anymore; there are less people for more work and there’s really no slack — no wind-down time for reflection,” says Prof Neharika Vohra, a psychology major who works in the field of organisational behaviour in IIM, Ahmedabad. She adds that FOMO (fear of missing out) extends into work — we want to be in on everything. And while there is a certain amount of enrichment, in terms of the possibilities in this new workspace, there is also erosion.
Perpetuating the problem
This wearing down can, in fact, lead to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. The Job Demands-Resources theory predicts that when the demands at work far exceed the resources, it can lead to depletion in all aspects of our being, resulting in health problems eventually.
Stress can manifest in many ways, according to a paper published by Sambalpur University: physical (fatigue, muscle ache, obesity); mental (decreased concentration, memory power); emotional (fear, anxiety, depression); behavioural (nail biting, drinking); lifestyle (sleep and food imbalances).
Look at life as having three areas to it: work, family and friends, alone/hobby time. If there’s time for all three, you’re less likely to feel constrained. If however, one seeps into another, such as in the case of startups, where the culture of spending time with colleagues after-hours is the norm, it could pose a problem. “If you’re just meeting once in a while to vent, or you meet to talk about other areas of life, that’s fine. But if you meet regularly, to discuss work, then you’re never cutting off,” says Dr Ananya Choudhury, a psychiatrist at PsyCare, Delhi. People who have a propensity to anxiety and depression are at a higher risk: women, those who have suffered a traumatic early life, people who may have stress at home, those in high-stress jobs as the military or news agencies.
Working it out
Puneet Manuja, co-founder at YourDOST, an online resource that provides wellness and counselling services to people, says that his website gets 25% of people who are faced with work-related problems. “Career progression problems, manager conflict, poor office communication skills, layoffs, are all areas people talk about,” he says. Understanding that people need to go a step further, his company has tied up with career counsellors and recruiting agencies as well. Recently, a 3-day programme called #Fired2FiredUp provided free counselling to people who were going through a job or career crisis. What they found was this: 65% of the callers had been laid off and 32% were worried about being laid off.
It isn’t just job security though: “A problem peculiar to India is unrealistic deadlines,” says Rohit Chohan, senior vice president at Truworth Wellness, that puts together corporate wellness programmes. He also cites harassment and bullying at work, as well as the lack of communication with co-workers as problem areas. Companies are today anticipating the problem and taking part in what are called employee assistance programmes, that work to strengthen the mental health of their workforce with group sessions, one-on-ones with counsellors and even 24-hour helplines.
It’s not just about looking at mental health as an end to itself. “It’s about promoting overall wellness and well-being,” says clinical psychologist Ummul Ranalvi, managing director, Independent Counselling and Advisory Services (ICAS) India, a company that specialises in providing emotional well-being services to corporates. She talks of an executive who collapsed and passed away at a team off-site. The company asked her group for all-round support: helping the team deal with the trauma of losing a colleague, supporting the person’s spouse and arranging for a financial planner to work in tandem with them, so advice was always given with empathy.
Looking for solutions
When our responses become exaggerated, it’s time to look inwards though, says Prof Vohra. If irritation ends in road rage or fear in anxiety, for instance. If you feel overburdened and unable to deal with regular life, are overly sensitive and find yourself despairing over little things, your sleep is disturbed — these are signs you could be heading for a mental health problem. Awareness is the first step to understanding what is happening within.
As a preventive, avoid bringing work home, and if you must, then assign a 30-minute period, finish it off and then get on to other things, says Dr Choudhury. A support system of friends and relatives helps buffer the stressors of life.
Hobby gives you something to look forward to every day and provides a sense of achievement sans the stress — whether it’s running or painting. Plus, an outdoor activity always helps. A certain amount of regularity to life is good as well, with some unscheduled activity. If your whole life is about irregular hours, eating patterns and sleeping, then your body is left dealing with too much. And if you see a friend who needs helps, point them to a professional who can help.