Office anxiety: What can we do about it?

Office anxiety is now so rampant that psychologists have identified it as a whole new syndrome. What can we do about it?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

You're irritable and restless - sometimes impulsive - at work. You fidget through meetings, lose track of appointments and jump at the sound of a mobile phone. Sometimes you wonder if you are becoming overwhelmed by the stress of your job. But then you look around and you notice that others are working just as hard, enduring the same amount of pressure - and looking just as ragged as you are. Is there something wrong with you? Or is there something wrong with the modern work culture?

Attention deficit trait (ADT) is a newly recognised workplace disorder caused by the pressure of modern office life. When the pressure gets too great, fear takes over as the driving force, and the result, it's suggested, can be ADT, a perpetual state of low-level panic, guilt and fear, with difficulty in organising, setting priorities and managing time.

As many as one in three employees, especially managers, may have some symptoms of the disorder, but it's claimed whole organisations can be engulfed by it, leading to widespread depression, anxiety and a host of other complications. "It's a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live," says psychiatrist Dr Edward Hallowell. "But it has become epidemic in today's organisations"

ADT joins a growing list of workplace health problems that now include stress, anxiety, burnout, bullying, workaholism, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress. With one in five managers at risk of depression, 12 per cent of them having a major depression and more than 6.5 million working days lost in Britain each year due to stress alone, mental ill-health has become a significant problem.

New research shows how mental health problems have become one of today's biggest occupational health risks. In six years, the number of mental illness problems being seen by occupational physicians has trebled, while physical causes have stayed at about the same rate. The physicians are seeing three times as many new cases of people with stress and mental illness as they were six years ago - 36.7 per cent compared with 11.4 per cent.

The research, at Manchester University and Imperial College is based on reports from more than 500 occupational physicians, the doctors who examine sick employees, and shows that rates for men were 25 per cent higher than those for women, and that six out of 10 diagnoses were for anxiety or depression. The research also gives a unique insight into who is most at risk from which disorders. It shows that around one in four bouts of mental ill-health are blamed on the job itself, with work overload the main cause.

Changes at work, including new responsibilities and new technology, accounted for one in 10 cases, while problems in relationships with colleagues were to blame for almost one in five health problems among women employees. A surprise finding was that very few - four per cent of cases - came from tension between home and work. The results also show that illness rates, especially anxiety and depression, were higher than expected among managers, secretaries and clerks, and people employed in the financial industry and in education. Alcohol problems were greater than expected among those working in sales, while post-traumatic stress was higher among machine operators and train drivers.

Not all sick workers are seen by occupational physicians, and the majority are treated by GPs, but other research shows a similar picture. It's estimated that half a million men and women suffer work-related stress at a level that makes them ill, and that one in five workers believes their job is extremely stressful.

The researchers say doctors needed to be trained to spot early signs of problems at work if mental ill-health is to be reduced. They also say that greater expertise is needed to improve the workplace environment, including reviewing job demands, and improving working relations and organisational change.

Dr Hallowell, who runs the Centre for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Massachusetts, and who says that new technologies like e-mail, voicemail and instant messaging is contributing to the problem, believes ADT can be controlled by making changes in the working environment.

"ADT is a very real threat to all of us," he says. "If we don't manage it, it will manage us. I recommend companies to invest in things that contribute to a positive atmosphere."

Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, says the problem of mental ill-health in the workplace is reaching epidemic proportions. "We all know there is a big problem going on. It is the new disease - the black plague of the 21st century." He says there are a number of causes: "Change, and change over which people feel they have no control, is a significant cause of stress. Twenty years ago, we had a nine-to-five culture with an hour off for lunch. We did not have the new technology that overloads us. Jobs were also relatively secure, while now they are intrinsically insecure.

"We Americanised the UK to the extent we now have a long hours culture, and we know that if you consistently work long hours - and that is more than 41 a week, not 50 - you will get ill. We have the longest working hours in Europe. The way in which people are managed causes problems, too. We manage people more by targets and performance indicators, more by fault-finding than by praise and reward. Recognising that there is a problem is the first step.''

Recognition may head off the kind of acute problem of karojisatsu, or work-related suicide, seen in Japan, which has been linked to more than 1,000 deaths. "Long working hours, heavy workloads and low social support may cause depression, which can lead to suicide,'' say the researchers. "Appropriate countermeasures are urgently needed."

How to control work-related stress

Break up your work into smaller chunks. Complete a job before you start the next one. The satisfaction of seeing a job done reduces stress.

Talk to your boss - around 40 per cent of large companies have stress-relief programmes.

Don't be tempted to work longer hours. Tiredness increases stress.

Get fit - regular aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety by up to 50 per cent.

Keep up outside interests to maintain a sense of proportion. A social life is an important safety valve.

Don't lose confidence. People in work always underrate their skills.

Take breaks, including at least half an hour at lunch. If you feel stress building, take a few minutes' break.

Cultivate friends at work who you can talk to in times of stress.

Eat healthily and avoid excessive caffeine, increased drinking, smoking or drugs.

If concerned, see your GP or occupational physician. Many employers, unions and voluntary agencies offer confidential advice.

Comments