I paused for a couple of seconds – my voice trembling with fear, hesitation, and shame – as I wasn’t sure I could bear to hear myself actually say the words I was about to say. “Hi, I’ve called because I think I’ve had issues with anxiety”. These were the first words I could muster, which sounded too trite and “collected” for something so overwhelming and impossible to describe in words, something that felt much bigger than me. Either way, there was no going back now. A sinking realization took over me: this was the ultimate moment of defeat, the day that I had officially thrown in the towel – conceding failure, worthlessness, and succumbing to self-pity.
“You’re the third call I’ve had this afternoon about the same issue” the doctor said on the other end of the line, sounding exasperated and frustrated. “But by simply making this call, please know that you are very brave and you have already done 30% of the work. So well done. Oh and let me guess: you’re probably one of those senior corporate types that probably never get a thank you and instead get blamed for whatever isn’t their fault, right?”
A tear or mixed sadness and relief started forming at the corner of my eye as I took in those words. That was the very first moment I realized that maybe, just maybe, I’m not alone. Yet at the same time, I felt even more isolated. I was now part of an invisible, misunderstood, under-reported statistic: the silent epidemic of the “A” word. What I didn’t know then, was that thanks to that call I would begin a journey that would gradually change my life forever. Because just 30 minutes earlier I had found myself having a meltdown in front of my work laptop, at home, sitting on my couch. It was the physical symptoms, and my survival instinct, that told me to commit the ultimate sin of any employee: to dare to step away from the screen in the middle of a deadline.
I was also about to find out that my case was only the tip of a deep and sinister iceberg. One that hardened as it sunk into the dark freezing depths of mainstream corporate culture itself, becoming one with it, and one with the A word. I was soon to discover a great number of people, sitting literally a few chairs away from me in the office in all directions, who had silently gone through the same ordeal as me, months or years ago. I was to discover that the “A” statistic within my own team was staggeringly high, shockingly unacceptable. And the deafening silence around the issue was witness to a management that had failed to accept, learn, prevent, and address. Instead, a culture of “hypernormalisation” had been built around the A word focusing on what happens after, rather than preventing what happens before: “wellness” initiatives, memos about mental health in the workplace, and helplines that probably no one ever called. Mere communication vehicles aiming to say “look, this could happen to you at some point, but don’t be alarmed, it’s part of life”.
It’s not. It is part of death actually, with mounting evidence increasingly linking stress to all the big killers: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, kidney disease as well as asthma, depression and gastrointestinal disorders. The Big A is a life-changing and traumatic event in itself, and rehabilitation can be lengthy. Yet corporate culture often continues to see it in the same way rape is seen in uncivilized societies, often putting the focus on, and therefore stigmatising, the victim rather than the perpetrator. “I’m sorry that this happened to you” as opposed to “I’m sorry we created the conditions that led to this happening to you”. Like a horse that has been overworked, the Big A is a threat to the company bottomline and that is… the bottomline.
I worked on my recovery. After a brief time off during which I went daily to the park and stared at grass for a few hours at a time (it was all I could do in the beginning), I returned to work. I joined meditation groups. I took up old hobbies. I connected with distant relatives. For the first time in my adult life I started truly defining myself more based on who I am outside of work, than at work. While this process is still ongoing, it has helped me reddress the work-life imbalance we can all fall victims to when we choose to take our work too seriously. People pleasers, perfectionists, driven and ambitious people are high risk groups here.
But there are huge lessons to be learned in preventing the Big A from happening in the first place. We are trully in the dark ages of occupational mental health, an area shrouded in taboos, plagued by poor understanding, devoid of regulation, and with an ocean-wide divide between theory and practice. I look to a future where our own computers and AI sensors in the meeting rooms around us will be able to pick up on our blood pressure, our breathing, our heart rate, and tell us that we need to take a break. And force our employer to give us one. Until then, we are forced to risk our own health, professional integrity and career progression as we navigate a tricky road back to health.
And while support from the official channels was the equivalent of putting a nice big plaster on a cracked window, it came pouring in droves from colleagues who had similar experiences and were willing to speak out. Over the next few months, I embraced these people for support, over a series of intimate discussions. We all had the same things in common: accomplished, in a senior position, and fed up. This was now unofficially my own support group, secretly running in the hallways and meeting rooms of the company. Sharing and caring was a catharsis for everyone. Between cross-checking notes, conducting my own exit interviews with people who were on the way out, and exchanging experiences, I was able to put together a more concrete picture that allowed me to understand what had happened, and how to take my life into my own hands.
Some of us are not as lucky to have this level of support, or not in a position to confront their employer and have a frank discussion. It is those people I’ve chosen to share my story with, even if it helps just one person. If you have suffered from occupational anxiety, the first thing you need to know is that this is not your fault. And that you have every right to not have to put up with situations that can drive perfectly healthy people to a point where they are calling suicide hotlines because their job has made them feel worthless and inadequate. I look forward to a near future where our corporate culture as well as society will be more open and self-critical, putting humans above profits.