Why can Work have a negative impact on Mental Health?

by Daniela Nicol

You may ask, why do almost 70% of workforces develop mental health issues?

Two words – Chronic Stress.

Chronic stress is a state achieved by being stressed a lot of the time. It can be composed of mental, physical and emotional stresses.

Everybody experiences stress at work and ‘good’ stress can help us be more focussed and productive. However, consistently high levels of stress mean that a powerful cocktail of stress hormones is circulating in our blood all the time.

This is not a natural state for us to be in as these hormones are meant to help us get out of life-threatening situations. Having to attend 5 critical business meetings a day certainly would not count as life-threatening -or does it?

Let’s think through the various stresses associated with such a working day:

Mental stress

  • absorbing large amounts of data to prepare for each meeting
  • staying focussed during meetings
  • ensuring that the employee’s other responsibilities are not affected by their attendance at these meetings

Additional stresses here could be unrealistic targets set by managers, lack of clearly defined objectives, ineffective communication, and more.

Emotional stress

  • concerned to be meeting bosses and customers’ expectations
  • fear of losing job if performance is not top par
  • remaining professional even though doubts and fears may be arising

Additional stresses could be humiliation and anger resulting from bullying bosses or colleagues through inadequate anti-harassment policies, feelings of not being appreciated, having little or no control over their area of work, and more.

Physical stress

  • feelings of tiredness due to working with insufficient breaks
  • working long hours
  • getting to meeting venues which could be in different places, even different countries.

Additional stresses here could include inflexible working hours, meaning always rushing to fit in family commitments, and more.

So, potentially just one working day can be filled with a range of stressors. No matter how resilient a person is, if stresses levels are continuously high, they will start to lead to disorders if efforts are not made to reduce them.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

I recently attended a workshop on trauma at the centre for Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors (PODS). We learnt about the severest form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – dissociative identity disorder (DID). It was fascinating to hear about the infinitely complex ways in which our entire system tries to make the unendurable endurable. DID is experienced by people who were subjected to continuous abuse as small children. The memories of such trauma are too painful to bear and our brain starts to disintegrate the experiences and the persons we were during them. This can lead to a breakdown in communication between the part of us experiencing the abuse, i.e. young child, and the other representations of ourselves, i.e. daughter, mother, sister, wife, teenager, adult, etc. which are usually all integrated into one system.

Inspiringly, the founder of PODS and presenting the workshop, Carolyn Spring, now in her thirties and herself a survivor of continuous sexual abuse and torture from the age of 4 years, has been able to make significant progress with her recovery over the past 12 years. If you would like to know more, have a look at their website (www.pods.org.uk).

Why can Stress become Anxiety?

The other day a friend said she was experiencing heightened anxiety and was finding it difficult to cope. When she took a good look at her life she realised that there were many stressful things going on for her at the time. Buying a house, moving, work commitments and developing another career. Most of those activities belong to the most stressful we can experience. So it seemed like although there was no ‘real’ reason for anxiety, the incredible pressure of the combined stresses were resulting in feelings of anxiety, in other words, ending up as fear.

So how can stress connected with buying a house end up as fear? The answer to this lies in how our body responds to stress. We are equipped to deal with certain amounts of stress in our daily lives otherwise we could have hardly become the successful species we are today. In fact, studies suggest that exposure to some stress in childhood increases our ability to manage stress later on in adulthood.
However, when stress levels increase to beyond what is manageable the body starts to feel under threat and triggers its survival responses – one of which is fear.

My friend decided to take some days off work and focus on relaxing. I saw her the other day and I’m happy to report that as her stress levels fell so did her anxiety!