When 'work-related stress' isn't related to 'work'.
Updated: Jul 6
Over 80% of the distressed employees I've counselled in businesses discovered that their work had little to do with their anxious or depressed symptoms¹.
What they all had in common was A) an avoidant emotional style - i.e. they distracted themselves from how they felt - a lot and B) unprocessed effects from significant events that had taken place outside of work. Processing the emotions associated with these events significantly reduced or eliminated the stress levels and symptoms in over 60% of the cases.
My hope in sharing this post is to re-balance an idea I regularly hear 'that 21st century workplaces are too stressful' - to something more accepting of the reality that life in general is stressful and as we're all hard-wired to feel - getting anxious or down isn’t a malfunction. It's normal natural and inevitable for us all to feel that way sometimes.
Don't get me wrong - Excessive hours, exploitative pay or unsupportive bosses/cultures absolutely need to be challenged as stress inducing. Getting clarity on the underlying causes of what you feel though (by pausing to express and explore it) is the real key to overcoming symptoms. By stopping our avoidant side from projecting negative feelings elsewhere, something that can be extra helpful when doing so is restricting your career potential.
I’ve worked as an impartial on-site Counsellor² within three highly pressurised businesses since early 2017. Essentially helping employees unpick and overcome varying levels of stress related symptoms. Often workload, structure, or process is cited as a dominant cause. As mentioned, this turns out not to be the case the vast majority of the time. So what’s happening?
The causes of psychological distress are a multilayered web of past and present interactions between our genes, our diets, our habits, our physical activity and environments generally so there are no simple answers.
What I can be clear about is that when the overwhelmed clients I work with are given some safe impartial time and space to express themselves - then one or more of the following almost always comes up; Significant losses that remain unprocessed, abnormal neglect trauma or relationship breakdowns from the past which have been suppressed or a general sense of isolation.
Once confronted and brought out in the open symptoms start to make more sense as natural human responses to difficult circumstances - rather than their previous conclusions of personal malfunction or weakness. As we go on to acknowledge and understand them in manageable chunks the symptoms usually reduce, often significantly or altogether. The sense of purpose and engagement found through work is usually then experienced far more positively and productively - as are relationships outside of work.
That said, being open about such things isn't easy and counselling at work isn’t a magic bullet - sometimes the symptoms are too complex, I’m the wrong fit for a clients needs or there isn't scope for regular enough sessions. When this happens, advice and direction on solutions outside of the workplace are provided. The majority of the time though, for moderate stress, anxiety or low mood, if the underlying material is confronted in manageable amounts then the results are positive and empowering.
So, if you find yourself starting 2020 feeling indifferent towards your work - then before you quit, maybe consider the above data and the points below;
1. Our emotional feelings are a feedback loop designed specifically to help us understand ourselves better and make healthy decisions. Ignoring them is like trying to productively use your smartphone in airplane mode.
2. Human growth is built upon a cycle of experiencing manageable amounts of stress (living), reflecting on them (through expression) and recharging (resting and learning).
3. When we encounter overwhelming amounts of stress (i.e. loss, trauma, neglect etc) we usually need support to manage the complex feelings that accompany these kinds of experiences. Why? Because our software (our brains) evolved socially through human connection and interaction - not isolation. In short - we aren't built to process emotional overwhelm alone.
And nope, point 3 doesn't have to involve a professional or endless hours unpicking your childhood. Allowing yourself time to level with a good friend regularly (one who will listen without trying to fix you) may well be enough.
If not and engaging a professional feels too much, try writing the problem and the feelings you are experiencing down or drawing them out to begin with. Whichever way of expressing feels most accessible and natural to you. Therapeutic writing can be a good starting point - see Writing as Therapy for an example of how to do so.
To conclude - maybe your stress, anxiety or low mood is related to your current role and/or your overbearing boss or unsupportive workplace. On the other hand, maybe your symptoms are due to ignoring the emotional effects of abnormally difficult events in your personal life. Effects that are stifling your career potential and are worth pausing upon to explore and express more healthily.
1. Based on 1400 one to one hours across 105 individual clients.
2. I retrained as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist in 2014 having spent the previous 25 years fulfilling operational roles in the creative sector.