This week is Mental Health Awareness week. According to Anxiety UK, 15% of people in the UK are affected by anxiety. In a recent study, mental health charity Mind found that 79% of 18 to 34 year olds feel they have to put on a brave face when they are anxious, and 27% felt that showing their emotions is a sign of weakness. It’s important to remember that mental illness is just that, an illness that you can’t help but be affected by. You wouldn’t feel embarrassed to tell your boss if you caught the flu or couldn’t come to work because of the chicken pox, so we decided to stick a middle finger up at the stigma surrounding mental illness and start a conversation. We spoke to Nicky Lidbetter, Chief Executive of charity Anxiety UK, as well as a young person suffering from anxiety, to find out the best way to manage the mental illness at work.
“Anxiety is a normal human emotion,” Nicky told us. “So just like anger, it’s just something that everybody experiences from time to time. There are many types of anxiety disorder; the most common one is probably panic attacks. It’s at the more ‘acceptable’ end of the mental health spectrum because it encompasses stress and we all talk about feeling stressed and anxious.”
“When you experience a disproportionate level of anxiety in response to an everyday situation, that’s when you could be said to be living with an anxiety disorder,” she explained.
Signs that you’re not just suffering from stress…
1.You’re making changes to your daily routine to accommodate your anxiety
2. Inability to concentrate
3. Not eating or sleeping well
4. Racing thoughts
5. Feeling snappy or short-tempered
Think you have anxiety? Here’s what to do:
“When anxiety gets very severe and starts to impact on your day-to-day functioning, perhaps it’s something you need to seek treatment for,” suggests Nicky. “It’s very treatable, that’s the good thing. The longer you leave stress and anxiety, the more entrenched it becomes, so if you can, seek help early on.”
“If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your doctor or going through the NHS, you can come to a charity like Anxiety UK. We offer access to psychological therapy treatments, mindfulness and other support treatments which you can access readily. It’s all about getting help early on and trying to find somebody who you can talk to as well.”
If you’re worried about having a panic attack at work, Nicky says the key is taking a step away from the situation. “Anxiety can’t stay at the peak at which it is at the height of a panic attack, so it will eventually go down. So it’s just about removing yourself from the situation and going for a walk, going to the toilet, and having somebody at work you can talk to. That might be a trusted friend at work, your line manager, or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provider in your workplace.”
You’re not alone…
“Anxiety is very, very common,” Nicky told us. “It’s something that so many people experience and it’s not something to feel ashamed of. The reality is at least 1 in 3 people will experience some kind of common mental health problem, like depression or anxiety, at some stage in their life. That’s a third of the office. That figure is probably growing, so we’re not doing ourselves any favours by pretending it doesn’t exist, having to hide it only makes it much worse.”
“Anxiety can be an incredibly isolating thing to live with and it’s loaded with feelings of shame and feeling that you shouldn’t be feeling the way you are, but in sharing the experience it’s amazing how many people will say ‘actually I’m feeling the same’.”
Should you tell potential employers about your anxiety?
“It’s really difficult to say whether it’s a good idea to put the fact that you have anxiety on your application form. In an ideal world you should be able to disclose it, but we do know that discrimination is still out there. My general advice on it would be to be honest and, if you have experiences with stress and anxiety, say that, but you might want to disclose it after you’ve been offered the job. There is legislation in place to protect people, if you disclose on your application form that you do have anxiety and then you subsequently aren’t called for an interview when you should have been, that’s discrimination. I would recommend that people have a look on Mind’s website, there’s a great section there about what to do and a legal information line for people who have specific inquiries.
How to manage anxiety at work
Nicky’s top tips for dealing with anxiety on a day-to-day basis…
Tell someone: If you can tell your line manager that you’re experiencing difficulties, that is definitely the best way forward. Employers have to put things right in terms of making reasonable adjustments for you if you’re experiencing anxiety. It’s in the organisation’s interest to keep you at work, because when people go off work for a long period of time it’s very difficult for them to return. A lot of organisations now have employees assistant programmes (EAPs), so the first thing I would do is find out if your organisation has one of those. Most organisations have something.
Look at your workload: If you have a to-do list at the start of the day, go through it and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by emails coming in. Things pop-up at the right-hand side of your screen just when you’ve got your head in something and then you think: ‘oh gosh, now I’ve got to deal with that’ and at the end of the day you feel that you’ve been completely non-productive because you haven’t got on and addressed the thing that’s on your to-do list. That can grind anyone down, even the most motivated and enthusiastic of employees.
Reward Yourself: When you’ve ticked-off something on your to-do list, rather than launching straight into the next task, sit back and be kind to yourself. We live in a very task-orientated world where we just keep going from one thing to the next and we don’t really stop to think about what we’ve achieved.
Take regular breaks: Get up, even if it’s just a walk round the block. Half an hour of peace and quiet is so good for you amidst a busy day at work. Also, don’t take all your annual leave in January! You need to pace yourself and space it throughout the whole year so you’ve got time to unwind and you’re not using up your entitlement all in one go.
Get the basics right: Make sure you’re drinking enough during the day and eating well. It’s easy to look back through the course of the day and realise you might have drunk four or five relatively strong coffees. Caffeine stimulates the adrenaline receptors in the body, so it primes us for anxiety.
Get a mindfulness app: The Headspace app is something that we offer through Anxiety UK and we think it’s perfect because you can access mindfulness in little bite size chunks. It’s just something that you can take ten minutes to do. Sit in your car, or in the garden, or wherever you want to be, with your headphones on. No one really needs to know what you’re doing, you could just be listening to music, but it helps slow your mind down and connect you to the now, rather than projecting ahead and thinking about what you have to do.
Develop some habits for the end of the day: Try to have a tidy desk, and plan a bit for the next day so when you come in you haven’t got a sea of paperwork to look at. Make sure your desk resembles some sort of order. If you’re starting the day off in the wrong way that sets the scene for how it continues.
Don’t let work be your entire life: I think people assume that people who work really hard are doing it because they’re doing difficult jobs, but actually a lot of people who overwork in an unhealthy way do it because they love their job. When things do go wrong in work, which inevitably they can do even in the greatest of workplaces, if you’ve made work your entire life then it feels like your entire life is going wrong. We give an anaology to our clients: there’s an ocean liner which has different compartments and those different compartments represent different parts of your life. Your ship will sink if something goes wrong and the cargo is all in one box. You have to split things up and make sure you have outside activities and a good social life, so that you can come into work feeling fresh.
Be realistic: You don’t have to be perfect all the time and no employee is. Even the most fantastic employees have spells when they’re not as productive or as great, because that’s just how we are as human beings. You can’t be 100% all the time.
Advice from someone who’s been through it…
We spoke to Sophie, 23, about the way anxiety affects her at work. She says her anxiety started while she was studying for her A-Levels, “tell-tale signs were things like not being able to sleep, always feeling on edge and having to seek reassurance from other people about things, I needed constant reassurance that I was going to be fine,” she told us. Sophie’s anxiety issues didn’t stem from stress at work, but her anxiety began to affect her entire life. “I wasn’t able to stop thinking about it, I would be thinking about it really late at night, and wouldn’t be able to sleep and would be really tired during the day. When it got to a point where I was missing work because I hadn’t had any sleep the night before, I told my manager everything because I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t fobbing them off, and I think that they could tell that I really was panicked and worried.”
What advice does she have for anyone in a similar position? “I would definitely recommend telling a manager, don’t worry about telling people at work,” she told us. “Wait until you feel comfortable and really know any colleagues you tell, as unfortunately mental illness does still have a stigma, but tell a manager because it’s their responsibility to know things like this. If you feel like there’s something that your manager could do that would really help you get support, like if you feel that you need to work from home a couple of days a week, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask for that. Be open to the fact that they might say no, but even if you could get half an afternoon a week, having that time at home might still help a lot. If you can’t ask for that support at work, definitely reach out to charities.”
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