“If you don’t make some major lifestyle changes, you will probably have a stroke before you turn 30.”
Not the words you want to hear from your GP when you’re 29 years old.
It was the wake up call I needed. Extreme stress had been quietly eroding my quality of life for some time, however it wasn’t until I was having major chest pains, almost hourly, that I was frightened enough to take myself off to the doctor. You know. After I’d been having them for a month or two. Or maybe even three.
What causes a 29 year old woman to have such major stress I hear you ask?
Simple. It was work.
I had a highly stressful job as an event organiser – at the time I took myself off to see my GP I had been in my current job for about ten months. And my team of six had organised close to 300 events for our very demanding, and frankly, not very nice, client. I worked an average of 70 hours a week, and it was a rare day I wasn’t in the office from 7am until well after 7pm. Yes, I drank a LOT of coffee. And yes, I was also on the verge of getting a stomach ulcer. Ouch. And yuk.
The nearest place to get food near my office after 6pm was McDonalds, which provided “sustenance” at least once a week. Actually, I may have blocked just how often I ate it from my memory. Fortunately I was in the habit of doing a cook-up on the weekends, so nights I didn’t eat McDonalds I did have a reasonably healthy meal at home – normally around 8.30pm – but
sometimes usually washed down with a bottle of wine while I continued working. I didn’t know what an alcohol free day was. I rarely went to bed before midnight, and I was up and out the door by 6.30am so I could beat the worst of the Sydney traffic as I drove through the Harbour Tunnel to my office. On a bad day it took well over an hour to drive the 11km from my home to the office. Weirdly, regardless of what time I left the office at the end of the day, it always took about 19-22 minutes to get home.
I lived alone while I did this job. And I lived in Sydney, where I had few friends. And they all had equally busy, stressful jobs. I’m surprised none of us ended up in AA.
And you know the worst part? I can’t even say I loved this job, because I mostly hated it. I hated the client, the work, the pressure, living in Sydney, the lack of time to have a life. I hated eating McDonalds as much as I did. I hated that I drank probably 10 bottles of wine a week. I hated that I was single. I hated that I had forgotten what a hobby was, that I had no time to do what I loved. Actually, I had forgotten what I loved, because I was so mired in unhappiness. Which I didn’t realise at the time.
On the plus side, I loved my team and I had a pretty good boss. We were a fantastic team and we stuck by each other to get a phenomenal amount done. And we bolstered each other during the really shit times. Which is the main reason I stayed in the job as long as I did.
So what’s the point of all this I hear you ask.
I want you to recognise the symptoms of workplace stress so that you can reach out and help your colleagues, staff and friends when they are exhibiting the signs. Or so you can recognise it in yourself and make some positive changes.
No one should have to hear the words “if you don’t change your lifestyle you will probably have a stroke”. Especially when you are only in your 20s.
How to recognise stress in the workplace – a few things to look out for:
- People (or you) consistently working long hours. The occasional 10-12 hour day is fine, but constantly having to work more than an eight hour day means something is wrong. Plus, this level of work is just not sustainable.
- An increase in sick days. In another job I had a team member who called in sick almost once a week – usually on a Monday. Turns out she was feeling very overworked and out of her depth with what was expected after a promotion. She worked herself into such a state on Sundays that she was physically sick on Mondays – so her sick day was legitimate. Fortunately we were able to fix this problem so her regular working hours resumed.
- A decline in work performance – we all know that feeling of being so totally overwhelmed with what needs to be done that nothing gets done. We DO all know that feeling, right?
- A decline in initiative and creativity – it’s pretty damn hard to feel creative when your body is coping with stress.
- An increase in moodiness, grumpiness and mood swings in general. A sure sign that I’m feeling stressed is that I become the bitch from hell for no apparent reason. Yeah OK, sometimes I just have PMS and feel like crap, but PMS doesn’t last every day of every week. Or at least, it shouldn’t.
There are also a whole heap of more personal signs that you are dealing with too much bad stress (because some stress is good, but I’ll talk about that another time). Have a look out for:
- increased mood swings and crying for no reason
- having difficulty sleeping – either getting to sleep or staying asleep. I now have a rule – if I have three consecutive sleepless nights due to worrying about work then it’s time to get another job (or get rid of that client)
- drinking more alcohol or coffee than usual
- dodgy stomach things – diarrhoea or constipation
- chest pains or heart palpitations
- nervous energy and shakiness
- tingles in your arms – like pins and needles – for no apparent reason
- grinding your teeth
- feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
- feelings of overwhelming sadness – depression is a key symptom of stress – fortunately for me the depression went away when the stress went away
- inability to make decisions – even simple decisions.
If you notice any of these symptoms for a prolonged period of time, get yourself off to the doctor. Have a few simple tests – blood pressure being an excellent start. Talk to your doctor about how you feel. I had a fantastic GP who was very willing to listen to me and who offered sage advice. And lots of tissues when all I could do was cry in his office.
So, what did I do?
Well, I quit my job. In quite a spectacular way. First day back at work after a couple of weeks off over Christmas and my boss asked me how I was. My immediate response was to say “Great thanks. And by the way, I quit”. Not words I had expected to pop out of my mouth! However the relief I felt was immense. He asked if I meant it – I said “well, I hadn’t intended to say that, but I did, so obviously I do”. I should add that two months earlier I had been crying hysterically over the phone to him from the foyer of the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne. On Oaks Day. Where I was for a client event. And having a very bad day. Obviously. So my resignation was not a surprise to him.
Shortly after that I realised a big part of my stress came from living in Sydney. Work was a key contributor, but there were many other factors that added to the pain. Two months after resigning I moved to Brisbane. And the rest, they say, is history.
Have you had a similar experience? What symptoms of workplace stress have you noticed?