The global financial crisis has caused massive restructuring of staff across all large and small organisations. And yet the same amount of work needs to be done by fewer staff who are breaking under the increased demand placed on them. Is this you? Is this your colleague, your best friend or your husband? ‘Overworked and stressed’ can quickly become a form of burnout that could cause physical and mental illness if something is not done to change the situation. If it applies to you, you are probably feeling a sense of helplessness right now, thinking:
‘but I have no control over the situation’
‘but I have no support from my employer or my colleagues’
‘but I can’t see how my responsibilities can change or be reduced’
These ‘buts’ are very real and valid, but you can see just by reading them how they create mental blockages that prevent you from finding a solution to the problem of being overworked and stress. You can take action, especially if you have the right support. First let’s look at the signs of stress.
The Samaritans website (www.samaritans.org) provides a useful comparison tool to compare the physical, emotional and behavioural signs of stress. Taken together, these signs create a whole picture of distressed thoughts and feelings:
variable negative moods ranging from upset, angry, irritable and hopeless
negative thought patterns of feeling like a failure, feeling too overwhelmed to finish anything
feeling ‘wired’ but exhausted – rushing around with no focus, not able to finish tasks because of poor concentration, early waking or sleeping around the clock
fast heart-beat or palpitations, chest pain/chest tightness, acid reflux/indigestion, swollen stomach or stomach ache, tight headaches
How do you know you are overworked?
It’s true that symptoms of stress can appear for any reason. So how do you know that being overworked is the cause? Give each item on this checklist a tick if you identify with it:
feeling under pressure to work to your usual high standard but feel that your work is deteriorating
your loved ones are getting used to seeing less of you because you are working such long days
your feel that your world is shrinking – smaller social circle, fewer leisure activities, no time to reply to text messages or emails
despite working long hours you feel your work is never finished, so you are thinking about it while you are in bed and tempted to get up in the middle of the night to get more done
you have forgotten how to relax but you find that you have a short fuse with anything that annoys you – traffic, you miss family occasions because you are either too tired or you are using every available hour to get your projects finished
constant physical and emotional symptoms that you hardly notice, because you are working so hard
Be very honest with yourself now and make a list of what signs you feel describe you. Show this list to a family member or a friend and ask their perspective. Work will have been consuming your life so you won’t have noticed the cracks so much. But your loved ones will have noticed every stage of how your workload has been affecting you, because your lives are so closely intertwined.
I am overworked and stressed, what can I do?
Draw a scale of 0 to 10 and mark where you are on it, with 0 being no stress and 10 being overworked and stressed to the maximum level that you can deal with. Draw another scale and ask someone who knows you well to mark you on it. Take their score as your guide. If your score is above 5 you are advised to take some sick-leave (no, the organisation won’t crumble without you!). You need this for rest and recuperation, and breathing space to think about how to avoid this happening again. Keep in weekly contact with your GP initially and make sure that they are aware of the whole picture of how being overworked and stressed has affected your health and your life.
The most important thing is to acknowledge that this is happening to you, and that you need time out to let your stress levels come back down to normal again. You don’t owe your life or your health to your organisation. It is not worth working yourself to the point of becoming chronically ill and damaging your chances of working at your chosen level in the future. Don’t allow overwork and stress now to damage your ambition and energy for the future.
Seeing a counselor can help you to offload the emotional effects of your stress, and rest with a good, nutritious diet will help to heal the physical effects. When you have your recovery well under way it would be an excellent idea to see a career coach, to form a plan that safeguards when you return to work. You might want to think about changing career, cutting down the number of hours you work, changing roles, or setting up your own business. With enough rest you will regain the energy you need to make your situation better.