High stress workplaces and overworked employees aren’t anything new when it comes to North America. However, recently The Atlantic reported on a working paper from Harvard and Stanford Business Schools that investigated the impact that job stress had on the health and mortality of American workers.
“The paper found that health problems stemming from job stress, like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and decreased mental health, can lead to fatal conditions that wind up killing about 120,000 people each year – making work-related stressors and the maladies they cause, more deadly than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.”
It’s incredible that 120,000 Americans are dying each year because of workplace stress. It’s not particularly surprising when we think of our climate of work and our glorification of busy. If you’re not busy, you’re worthless! We base our value on how many things we are able to achieve in a day. If we’re not exhausted and exasperated at the end of the day, then our day wasn’t worth anything. If we can’t complain about how tired and busy we are, our lives don’t matter.
I have been on sick-leave for the past 5 months and have stepped off of that hamster wheel of stress, Only now have I been able to look critically at my work self. I already knew I was a perfectionist workaholic (I take after my dad in that regard). But, I hadn’t realized that I had been conditioned to say yes to everything and respond to additional work with a smile and can-do attitude because I was told that’s what team players do. That’s what hard workers do. That’s what people who get promoted do.
But it’s not.
That’s what doormats do.
That’s what people who cannot establish boundaries do.
Now that I have established distance from work, I recognize that it wasn’t just unmanageable workloads and difficult colleagues that caused my latest relapse (although they were major players). It was my inability to ask for help and not establishing boundaries with colleagues that really made me sick. If I had the strength to tell my boss sooner that I was floundering under the weight of my workload instead of trying to do it all, maybe I wouldn’t have relapsed. Now I can see that the workplace may create stress, but only I have the power to stop these situations from impacting my mental health.
This week I will be returning to work. It will be a gradual return that will take about 8 weeks until I return full-time. To say that I’m nervous is an understatement. I am terrified that being thrust back into the pressure cooker will completely destroy me this time around. All of these realizations that I have had about my role in my own sickness are great, but will I actually be able to say no? Will it be possible for me to do my job without making myself sick? I run through hypothetical scenarios with my therapist and in those moments I can say: “No, I have too much to do. If you want me to complete that task then you will need to take something off my plate.” But when it comes down to it, will I actually do it?
I hope so and I’m going to try my hardest.
Whether you have a mental illness or not, boundaries are critical in maintaining good mental health as the Harvard and Stanford paper illustrates. However, as someone with a mental illness, I must recognize my limitations and work around them. I have to understand that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. My ability to say no will not only benefit my health and future, but it will also benefit my employer.
Wish me luck!