Workplace Doctor: deal with severe stress before illness sets in

I’m suffering from severe stress at work. I feel panicked, jittery and anxious most of the time and it is spilling over into my home life. As a corporate lawyer, I’m expected to work long hours under pressure, so why can I no longer cope? My wife wants me to take time out or sit down with my employer to discuss the situation. But I am worried about admitting to stress as there is such a stigma attached to it. How can I proceed without making myself seriously ill? HY, Dubai

Thousands of years ago when we experienced a threat to our survival our bodies would release stress hormones, which would tell us to either stand our ground and fight, or simply run away as fast as we can. This is known to many as a “fight or flight” response. Nowadays we may not face lions, tigers or bears, but our bodies and biology remain quite similar, pumping the same hormones into our blood though the challenges and stressors we experience are very different.


When these hormones overflow, many of us struggle to deal with the impact, and can easily be overwhelmed. Human-beings are actually quite good at coping with the tough stuff such as bereavements or trauma – though it is stressful and anxiety provoking, we can usually find the strength to move forward. But constant firefighting has a cumulative wear and tear on our bodies, which can cause us to burn out, or become seriously ill.

If anxiety is affecting your sleep, diet, social time and general enjoyment of life you need to make some changes before the stress overtakes your ability to cope. Though you feel overwhelmed, I’m sure there are a lot of good things in your life outside of work which can help you to take the stress away. Finding ways to refocus on these positives is a key part of helping you to return to your usual self.

When you are struggling with anxiety it is all too easy to focus on the things you need to do, or the things that could go wrong. Trying to solve these kind of conundrums alone makes them more difficult than they need to be, especially when your nerves impair your thinking process. Your wife is right – you need to sit down with your employer and discuss the situation, or you will entangle yourself further. The fact you are depleted, drained and generally overworked is not only bad for you, it is bad for the business, as the quality of decisions you make will be suboptimal. Equally, your ability to make considered choices, build relationships and meet social cues will be affected. When we are under pressure and drained; we lose self-control and the part of our brain prone to emotional responses, knee-jerk reactions and biases is more likely to take over. If this is not managed it can have devastating effects on a career you have worked hard to build.

The conversation with your boss should evolve around helping you to manage your workload more effectively, and possibly getting more support. On a personal level, there are a number of things you can do to help you get through the day in a more positive way. Tackle the tough stuff first and try to focus on one thing at a time; although multitasking is sometimes required, it saps a great deal of energy, which for you at the moment is a precious resource. Try to engage in a dose of realistic optimism through paying attention to enjoyable aspects of your work, as you will find they build your energy levels to face the things you don’t.

Don’t be ashamed to inject a degree of “healthy selfishness” into your daily life, putting yourself first and not worrying about the stigma of saying no. Start with little things you might ordinarily dismiss, such as taking a proper lunch break, or having a lie in on weekends. Your personal life is just as important in making you an effective corporate lawyer as the hours you put in at work. You should also see yourself as a role model to those less experienced colleagues and be willing to challenge the “work till you drop” stereotype.

Doctor’s prescription:

Remember to take some time to out relax and take a break; but it’s more important to proactively build in short energy boosts into your working life, doing everything in your power to keep your battery topped up. Many people take a holiday and fall back into the traps they previously set themselves, counting the days until the next. Instead use your downtime to develop your coping mechanisms and manage your anxiety rather than ignore it. Try mindfulness exercises for a moment of calm, or even anxiety managing apps that can easily be integrated into daily life to build resilience for panicky moments. These small steps should help you to feel like you are taking back control, while the big step of renegotiating your workload will give you breathing space for full recovery.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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