Too stressed to work: the good, the bad, and the ugly crying

Stress? Pah, we all get stressed. While that might be true, for some of us, it can have devastating effects that go on to impact our physical health, as well as our loved ones.

I’ve written in the past about mental health at work – from things that make me anxious at the office, to how to make sick leave feel less shite. I’ve talked about how some businesses seem to be really responsive and open to discussion and even how I’m doing after taking sick leave from my own job.

What I’ve not really covered in great detail is exactly how that came to light. Given that today is World Mental Health day, with a theme of mental health in the workplace, now seems as good a time as any to tackle the questions I’ve often been asked about my time off:

“How did it happen?”

“What did you do on sick leave?”

“Were you diagnosed?”

“How long were you off for? Did it help?”

I genuinely believe this isn’t because they want to gossip (I hope), but because how these things unfold is typically still a bit of an enigma.

It shouldn’t be. We’ve all seen someone take temporary leave from school or work for a physical injury, but we’re far less familiar with the procedures and expectations that come with leave due to stress, anxiety, depression and other debilitating conditions. It’s a tired comparison, but it rings true.

So while this account is deeply personal – and obviously, unique to me – this is my attempt at demystifying just a few of those things.

“How did it happen?”

Essentially, I was on a really full-on project at work that involved a lot more responsibility and leadership than I’d previously encountered. I was given the opportunity to work a little more autonomously and show I could handle bigger projects.

Despite being ambitious and keen with new challenges, this timing did not work out well for me.

There was no other stressful thing going on in my life at the time. Just, for some reason or another, I did not feel equipped to cope. Client work can be as demanding as it is rewarding, but as the goalposts moved and my confidence drained, I felt as though I was barely keeping my head above water.

Not only that, but I felt like in struggling, I was disappointing my colleagues. I thought I was proving that I wasn’t up to the task with every question I asked. I began to make more silly errors and my usual high standards slipped – which only served to give me more to worry about.

My ability to ‘leave work at work’ ceased to exist as I got up in the middle of the night to frantically make notes about things I’d forgotten to do, an email I hadn’t yet sent, a task I needed to double-check. I wasn’t sleeping. All of which only made things worse, as is often the way with mental health.

I would cry with exhaustion and anxiety before leaving the house, anticipating the tasks I felt I simply wouldn’t be able to do.

If not, I’d cry in the car on the commute as I worked myself up and envisioned having to sit at my desk and pretend to be in control.

I’d cry as we pulled up outside the building. I’d cry in the bathroom. I’d cry as I walked back to the office at the end of lunch.

My self-esteem was at an all-time low.

Breaking point

Ah, the night from hell.

Tossing. Turning. 1am. Note-taking. Shaking. 3.30am. Dread in the pit of my stomach. 4.50am.

‘It’s just a project,’ I said to soothe myself and stop ruminating.

But no, it wasn’t just a project. It was failure.

This particular evening, I managed to sleep a total of two to three hours or so. Getting dressed, I was in autopilot, bracing myself for another day. As my boyfriend’s car manoeuvred the last roundabout before work, I had a panic attack.

My brain had essentially stopped producing what little ‘You’ve got this’ thoughts I had left and I sobbed. I had nothing to offer anyone. I was useless.

Calming down enough to walk into the building, I asked for an impromptu meeting with my managers. I cried a lot. As you might imagine, this was rather awkward. I felt silly for having such a lack of control over my work and wellbeing. They were incredibly sympathetic and, with puffy eyes and a crumpled up tissue in the palm of my unsteady hands, I left the building. My boyfriend drove me home.

“What did you do on sick leave?”

Arriving home from the office, the first thing I did was put the kettle on (what else?).

I had absolutely no idea what to do beyond that. Sat on the sofa, clasping a hot cup of tea with a blanket wrapped tightly around me, I Googled it.

‘Sick leave’ only seemed to cover physical illness and much of the material I found was very US-centric. After some time digging, I found the Fit for Work website. It was then I realised I needed to see a doctor.

I needed to obtain a ‘Fit note’ pretty sharpish, because you can only self-certify absences of up to a week. After that, you need a medical professional to sign you off. Have you ever tried getting a quick appointment with a doctor? It usually involves a wait time of around a week.

Thankfully, I got a telephone appointment – but I still had to wait a number of days. So truthfully, I spent much of my time off work stressed about being able to prove that I actually needed the time off.

The doctor was nice enough, asking a few questions about what happened, how I was feeling, and so on. She was keen to emphasise that too much time off work can do more harm than good. I felt two weeks in total would be sufficient. She signed me off for the remainder of the week and booked me another appointment for a month’s time, so we could review how I was feeling again.

Aside from stressing about paperwork and emailing the office a few updates, I did a lot of research and self-reflection. It sounds like total garbage, but this seemed to me like the sort of thing I ‘should’ be doing to make the time productive. How often are you afforded the luxury of two weeks to just have a think about your life and where it’s going?

Of course, there was a healthy amount of catching up on sleep and the usual ‘self-care’ – eating well, exercising, pursuing creative passions.

I spent a lot of time on the phone – which, for me, is absolutely UNHEARD of. I called my Mum practically every day. I talked to my dad. I talked to my brother. I talked to my other friends who were dealing with their own demons. My boyfriend popped round regularly to see how I was feeling. This support network was absolutely vital. It was an easy way for me to feel social, with minimal effort.

“Were you diagnosed?”

Prior to my sick leave, I’d phoned the NHS to ask for help dealing with my stress and anxiety. While on sick leave, I had a telephone assessment with a very nice lady.

She asked me a bunch of questions about how I was feeling. Was I washing? Was I eating? Was I exercising? Did I have many friends? Did I have suicidal thoughts? Was I self-harming? Did I have any intent to? Was I on any medication?

Reviewing my answers, she then asked if I’d mind answering a few more, along a slightly more specific line of enquiry.

I didn’t mind at all. I had all damn day.

After answering those, she made an interesting observation.

“You show a lot of symptoms for Generalised Anxiety Disorder.”

I’d read about it before, since I had an inkling myself that things weren’t quite right. She explained that because of its general nature, it can be quite difficult to treat – was I open to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)?

“I’m pretty much open to anything right now.”

And with that, I was booked in to start a full course of group CBT within six weeks.

“How long were you off for? Did it help?”

Two weeks in total. In the grand scheme of things – and compared to other people’s sick leave – it’s not a great deal of time.

I found this worked for me. It gave me just enough time to refocus and feel refreshed, while not being so long as to make returning to work a real ordeal. In fact, quite a few people had assumed I’d just been on holiday, which made it feel less awkward coming back.

I kept lines of communication, with both work and my doctors, very open. Ahead of my return to work, I met with my doctor to discuss reasonable adjustments, and we both felt that reducing my hours would help me get back into the swing of things. My employers agreed, so I went back to work with Wednesdays off – a nice little break in the middle of the week.

Perhaps most importantly, sick leave helped me a great deal in finding perspective. My career and work is important to me – but it should never be at the cost of my health and wellbeing.

And I started this blog. A small corner of the internet where I can draw attention to issues I care about and, hopefully, show that being vulnerable doesn’t make you any less of a person.

Some helpful resources:

Fit for Work
Has pretty much all the information you need to know about taking sick leave in the UK, as well as some insightful blogs.

Mind Wellness Action Plan
I recommend this for anyone returning to work after sick leave – it can help you make productive, useful changes

Samaritans

I emailed (seriously, hate phones) Samaritans on my second day of leave, not knowing what else to do. Their reply was full of empathy and kindness, letting me know they were there for me whenever I needed. TOP DUDES 👍

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