This post was first published in Medium.
I have been promoted eight times in my 19-year career history. These job promotions are similar in heightened positions, higher pay, and new responsibilities. I moved through several roles across industries and success was the consistent outcome.
What I mean by success is even though each new position had new challenges, I handled them well, assimilated quickly.
What is a stressful work environment?
When that stellar career track record broke, it didn’t slowly crack, it shattered. I failed miserably at a role I hated, with suicidal feelings every single day and night. Stress gave birth at work when I was unable to please the company founder. Every task I completed was not good enough. I felt defeated coming out of each meeting.
I hid the feelings of loneliness, despair, and self-destruction from many. Only my live-in partner and best friend knew the severity of my work unhappiness.
I felt alone because I was embarrassed. I didn’t perform well and I didn’t want to talk about that.
I felt hopeless because I couldn’t leave the job for fear of how our bills would get paid.
I was ready to end my life because I couldn’t think of another way to solve the problem without admitting I failed. And I didn’t want to confess I was unsuccessful.
It was a time my general optimistic outlook was locked away. Not a single ray of sunshine was able to light me up. No comedian was able to make me laugh. The thoughts of giving up pursued me in my nightmares that I not only hated waking up, I hated going to sleep.
If you had accompanied me to work any one of those days, you might have thought I was lying about how I felt. I woke up in a gorgeous home with my favourite person who dropped me off at the commuter train each morning. My twenty-minute commute dropped me in the heart of a major Canadian city’s downtown core. Filled with shops of beautiful things, I walked a short distance to my workplace. I had an office that many of my cubicle friends will never know of. A plaque engraved with my name hung outside the door to tell office visitors of my senior status in the company.
It looked like I lived an envious life.
Yet on the inside, I wanted to die.
What are the effects of workplace stress?
Each morning I stood on the platform waiting for the train and contemplated the same thought. Only how it would happen varied. Some times it was me taking control and jumping onto the tracks. Other times I was an unlucky bystander of a random shooting. I slightly preferred the latter option because it would mean after I died, there wouldn’t be rumours of my professional failure that threw me into my grave.
Each night I climbed into bed, heart beating so out of control I expected neighbours to report noise complaints.
The Globe and Mail reported 500,000 Canadians requested sick leave days due to mental stress every week. I never called in sick, I never left early, I never skipped work. I just arrived every day in quiet, hidden misery.
How stress can affect relationships?
One evening around 9 pm, I called my partner and told him I was still at the office. He offered to pick me up and I agreed. He was in another part of the city and drove more than 45 minutes to meet me. I stomped into the car, slammed it shut and stabbed him with the day’s frustrations. I blamed him for my hunger and exhaustion. We fought.
There were too many days and nights like those back then.
Violent screams from me.
Gentle kindness from him.
The effect on home life due to job stress is common. One study showed job stress can lead individuals to display anger and avoid family time. I was a victim of workplace pressures.
I wasn’t afraid of dying because I didn’t think our relationship would survive my unkind treatment toward him. I wasn’t alone when I brought my workplace stress home. The great thing is he responded in all of the right ways. He showed compassion, acknowledged the hardship of it, and listened. His support diffused some of the angry moments.
Should I quit my job if it makes me unhappy?
I’m not even sure now how and what pushed me to take my next step. It happened quick.
I already knew I didn’t want to be there anymore but I couldn’t quit. If I did, it would mean a contract breach and not only would I lose my wage immediately, I’d have to pay out of pocket damages.
I navigated a way out. I wasn’t valued and I didn’t want to stay. It took only one discussion to arrive at the same conclusion. It was a win-win agreement.
I felt relief when I knew I would be leaving in three months. Still, it felt awful. It was a slap in the face.
The sting has subsided. The awful sweaty nights have passed. I love my workplace, boss and people I work with now.
When you’re in a good place, you can reflect and figure out what you’ve learned from the bad times. It is said that the first time is always the hardest. With many things, the subsequent times get easier. My wound is healed like when a cut has developed a scab but a premature tug and can open a gush of blood.
What are some strategies for coping with stress?
I can, however, reflect on my experience and here are the things I would do the same or differently if I faced a similar situation again:
- Find therapy: looking for professional help is something I thought about but didn’t actively pursue. When I hit the dark moments, I hid them instead of asking for help. Perhaps seeking professional support could have opened my eyes to other ways to work through my situation. Talk therapy is one option for individuals who raise their hands to talk to a therapist. These mental health professionals can then apply techniques to find solutions.
- Stay calm: remaining calm is so easy to write and so hard to do for a person like me. My not-easily-ruffled nature was lost when I met with the unpleasant work environment I was in. If I came into a similar position now, I would remind myself that it takes longer to find a way out in a state of anger. Research asserts that while some distressing feelings like anxiety and worry can drive better decisions, anger does not. The state of being angry makes us dismiss possible good ideas and choose narrow-minded options.
- Talk to my boss: sharing my challenges with my manager was a big no-no for me. I’m on the fence about this because I didn’t talk with my boss how I was feeling about work. I felt I was not calm enough to have objective discussions. I worried he would hear my concerns as an insult to him. I wonder if I would have received support. Another consideration is if managers are not equipped to handle the situation, they won’t be helpful.
- Develop relationships: the lack of focus on building new relationships at this workplace is one of my biggest regrets. I jumped directly into doing the work. Only a small amount of time was set toward meeting my colleagues and getting to know the management team. I underestimated the value from support from colleagues. I recognized others were unhappy too but they may have had a better support system inside the workplace than I did.
- Open up: sharing the personal side of myself could have fostered easier relationship building. I chose instead to keep to myself. Staying isolated meant when work was overwhelming, I had no one to share the burden with. At the same time, there is little evidence to show talking with other affected colleagues will help.
- Forgive: forgiving myself was difficult. My mind had, ‘Vy, you suck and everyone is going to know it when you leave’ playing on repeat on the loudest volume setting. I know of failures but I had been on a winning streak for so long, I was beginning to feel like I could handle anything. It was at least six or seven years since I had not loved a job I was in. Faced again with this, I would get up quicker, then let go of self-destructive thoughts sooner.
Now as I sit and reflect on my experience, I am more aware to look for signs of distress at my workplace. I hope we raise awareness that it’s ok to get support for our worst days because the best days are yet to come.