Dealing with anxiety at work
By Abi Jackson
Whether it's unmanageable workloads and crazy hours, imposter syndrome, or just sheer dread of facing another day at the office, work-related anxiety is on the rise.
For the first time ever, by 2018, mental health issues - specifically work-related ones - accounted for over half of the UK's lost working days, according to government HSE figures. Talking about these things isn't always easy though, particularly for men (a stereotype but an important one, since young and middle-aged men remain among the most at-risk groups of suicide).
Yet there's evidence that increasing numbers of men are experiencing these issues. Men's Health magazine recently surveyed 1200 male workers, and almost half (44%) said they'd struggled with anxiety at work. When asked what was most likely to prevent them talking to a manager about their mental wellbeing, 'personal embarrassment' came out tops.
Psychotherapist Martin Pollecoff, chair of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), says this crops up a lot in the consulting room. Shame, he says, can be a big factor, "and it's not in the psyche of all men yet to seek help or 'talk to someone'.
"Some men are very much still in the breadwinner mode," adds Pollecoff. "Status and ranking are important to some men's feeling of wellbeing, so redundancies or being passed over for promotion are really taken to heart."
That's just part of the picture, of course, and lots of things can play a part. Pollecoff says, "The terrible fragility and precarious nature of modern work", and job security being "in short supply" probably feed into the rise in work-related anxiety too. Then there's the 'culture' of long hours and constantly 'on' nature of our tech-addled lifestyles. Plus, Pollecoff notes, work anxiety may also "often be caused by stuff at home and may have nothing to do with the workplace, but it plays out in the workplace".
Will it damage my prospects?
Rupert Rixon, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, experienced a severe bout of anxiety at 18 - just as his career was taking off. Rixon had recently produced a YouTube documentary following his journey longboarding across America and was invited to talk about the project before an audience at Google. "The week before, I went to a workshop where I had to stand up and talk to a room of people. I stood there and suddenly got really stressed and nervous and just felt like I couldn't talk," he recalls.
He'd never experienced this before - and the fear of it happening again rapidly spiralled. Rixon couldn't face the Google talk, and suddenly found himself getting extremely stressed and anxious about taking public transport and being around other people. "My confidence sort of fell apart overnight," he explains, "and my anxiety just reached a whole new level."
Things reached a head when he shut himself in a bathroom one day and climbed out of the window, too overwhelmed to face anybody. Realising he needed help, Rixon went to see his GP, who he says was immediately helpful. This was a turning point and one of the first steps towards getting the anxiety under control. But Rixon admits that, at the time, he was terrified what it all meant for his prospects.
"I was just about to start my business, and I remember walking home [from the GP's] thinking, 'Oh s***, I'm not going to be able to do any of the things I want to do'."
Fast-forward six or so years and he now knows that really wasn't the case. Rixon's London-based video production company, Perspective Pictures
(perspectivepicturesfilms.com), is now worth a £1-million plus and his team creates content for the likes of Google, Rolls Royce and Sony.
Having anxiety did not dent his success at all. If anything, the experience instilled a greater appreciation for keeping a healthy balance and looking after his mental health - values that feed into his approach as a manager too. "Until you have something happen to you like that, you can't really appreciate how vulnerable we are as human beings and that you have to look after yourself a little better. I know when I'm going to have some level of burnout or whatever, or haven't taken enough time out, and not to push myself beyond that," he says.
"I do the same with my staff - if someone is struggling or having a bad week, I want them to know they don't need to hide it, they can tell me if they really need a day off. The stress of having to hide things can be immense."
Busting the myths
For Rixon, a combination of a brief stint on medication, therapy, reading a book on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and challenging himself with a month hitchhiking across India (for a documentary, of course!) all helped in overcoming the anxiety. Despite his initial fears that his dreams were over before they'd even started, Rixon pushed on with his projects, and says "working on something I was incredibly passionate about" was key to his recovery too.
"When you're forced to try and overcome something, that's really hard. But when you're desperate to overcome it because you really want to be able to do X, Y, Z - that made it much easier for me to get past it," he says.
Those early fears were very real though - and this is something he hopes to tackle by sharing his story.
"The worst thing for me was when I was in a place where I thought, because I have this problem, I now can't achieve the things I want to achieve. That's a very dangerous mindset for people to fall into," he says. "I felt like that because I didn't know people could still make a success of things and feel the way I did. But a lot of people have gone through what I have, and then gone on to achieve things. But they never talked about it."
He doesn't think there should be any pressure or responsibility for everyone to share their mental health stories, but he's passionate about his message that anxiety does not have to be a barrier to pursuing your goals - and it really does not make you an unreliable worker.
For Pollecoff, making it OK for all men to acknowledge when they're struggling and seek support when they need it is vital - "If a man seeks help, then most of the work has been done" - and he believes employers have a bigger role to play too.
"Businesses need to start addressing the mental health issues of the workforce and create opportunities to discuss them openly and safely. If a business has capacity, employee assistance schemes can include access to therapy," Pollecoff suggests. "The best way to get people involved is to run a charity drive for an organisation like CALM or Samaritans - this kind of fundraising raises awareness without being patronising. Start classes in communication or relationships that are open to all. Use mental health as an educational issue and a platform for men to learn new skills."