My first encounter with work related stress
I was only seventeen years of age when I first became unwell with stress in the workplace. I had only been in my post for two weeks. Although I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I knew that what was happening in my office had been a contributing factor.
I worked in a small busy office with four other ladies, but struggled with the gossiping that was taking place about another member of staff. I needed to work in a harmonious atmosphere, but this wasn’t the case, and it was affecting my health.
Admittedly, there were other factors in my life that were contributing to my ill health, but the office situation turned out to be the final straw. Once my manager became aware that I was poorly, I had no choice but to take some time off sick.
Only return to work when well enough
I made the mistake of returning to work far too soon. I was far too fragile and it resulted in me becoming very emotional. This exacerbated my illness very quickly and so I went on sick leave once more.
Now I realise that, when you’re recovering from an episode of mental ill-health, you should never run before you can walk. It’s just as important to heal your mind as it is your body.
Often, the problem with mental illness is that it is invisible. You tend to feel a sense of guilt, perhaps, because no one believes how poorly you are. But it doesn’t matter what others think; what does matter is that you feel strong enough to cope with what life will throw at you when facing the outside world once again.
Awareness of being in the wrong job
At the age of 23, I found myself retiring on ill health. This was quite a shock for someone so young; I had been attending meetings with the occupational health doctor and was quite taken aback when he first suggested that I end my career! I was convinced he was wrong. However, the doctor was proven right when I attempted to return to work after being hospitalized – I just could not cope with returning to my previous job. I knew that if I hadn’t taken his advice, I would have become very poorly again.
It was over 15 years before I returned to paid work. I assumed that I would be in a much stronger position to do so, and felt it safe to return to the work that I had always known. I therefore accepted a job with local government again.
Sadly, it wasn’t long before I became ill with work-related stress once more. I just couldn’t cope with the pressure, which was often exacerbated more by the office atmosphere than the work itself.
I would try again and again to recover and return to work, until I ended up having longer periods of sickness. I would be in floods of tears every time I was due to go back – I dreaded having to walk back into the office.
This would then lead to sleepless nights, which meant I had to be very careful that my Bipolar Disorder was not triggered.
I battled with my illness at work for eight years before I finally admitted to myself that it just wasn’t working for me. I was taking a lot more time off sick and, even though my working hours had been reduced, I just wasn’t coping with my job. It was having such a negative impact on me!
Two years ago, I made the decision to resign from my post. I just couldn’t go on being poorly all the time. It was a vicious cycle: I would become ill, take time off, return and get ill again. Each period of sickness was having a big impact not just on my life, but on those of my close family too.
The decision to resign was not taken easily. I needed to contribute to the finances, but I knew that the stress just had to stop as it was taking over my life. I felt such relief when I sent in my resignation letter; it was as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders!
On reflection, I’ve realised that the occupational doctor back in 1993 knew me better than I knew myself. He recognised that I was in the wrong job. I only wish I could have accepted that!
My advice now would be to always make an employment decision for yourself and not to please other people. Personally, my career choice was based on what I believed my parents wanted for me and not what I wanted to do. They were extremely proud of me for working in local government, but if I’m brutally honest, I really hated it! I strongly believe that no matter what age you are, you should always make your career choice for you and you alone. Do what makes you happy; if you are happy in your work, then this will reflect in your mental wellbeing.
I would also add that if you are struggling in your workplace, please raise the issue with your line manager. They can involve HR, who will work with you both to get the best results, ensuring that your wellbeing is of the utmost importance.
How I manage my stress now
As time has moved on, I’ve realised that it’s so important not to be a people-pleaser – it will just result in resentment. Yes, we all need to be considerate towards others, but ultimately it’s important never to do something just to please other people. Now, if I don’t want to participate in something, I just politely say no.
I feel that I manage my stress so much better now that I’m making sure to look after myself. I always go along to my keep-fit classes because they make me feel so much better! I do spinning, stepping, toning, and other activities that release endorphins to contribute to my wellbeing. It isn’t always easy to want to do this (especially in the cold weather!), but I know I’ll feel so much better afterwards, so I push myself to go.
Not only is my exercise good for my wellbeing and weight management, but it’s also a great way of socialising, which is vital to our wellbeing. I certainly try to see my friends for a coffee and a chat as often as I can. I’ve met so many nice people just from the gym alone, and it’s always nice to share how I’m feeling with them. I also enjoy going places with my husband. It is such a boost to have a night away or a little break – it really is a tonic!
We all deserve to be happy, so find something that alleviates your stress and always ensure you have some me time!
– Karen Manton
Find out more about her story in ‘Searching for Brighter Days’, available from our online store.