Lina closed the door to her office and locked the door. She closed her eyes in an attempt to calm her thoughts and stop the palpitations beating in her chest. Her body was shaking, and she could feel the tears burning under her eyelids. She thought to herself; ‘if I start crying now, I will never stop’. Tomorrow her 4-day leave started, she had to last until then, she had to!
Lina had just been promoted. Her boss had been made redundant 4 months ago as part of restructuring and Lina had inherited his position. The problem was that there had been no replacement of Lina’s position and all responsibility of the department fell on her shoulders. Lina did not feel she was ready for that kind of responsibility as she had only been an assistant manager for one and a half year. She had at first resisted the promotion based on in experience, but her CEO had persuaded her that the opportunity was too significant for her career to pass up, so she had accepted. Though she struggled she tried not to show it, getting stressed was frowned upon in the company and considered a weakness. She was also now the only female manager in the company, and she thought she would be made fun of or humiliated if she could not cope with the pressure.
Furthermore, Linda seemed unable to delegate a lot of the workload as she felt she needed to make sure the work was perfect, fearing that making a mistake could lead to her loosing her job. Part of what her previous boss had praised her for was attention to detail that her perfectionism embodied, which made her excellent as an assistant but now seemed to be a hindrance as she struggled to cope.
Lina managed to pull through the day, but her staff viewed her with growing concern as she gave them the instructions for what needed to be done while she was away. Some of them asked if she was ok but she just smiled and dismissed it with ‘I’m just tired’. Lina spent the next four days in her pajamas sitting in her sofa, staring at the wall unable to even move. Like a zombie she was not even aware of her surroundings or thoughts. What Lina was experiencing was a kind of mental breakdown, but she did not recognize the signs and was trying to resist its effect. Her underlying fear of loosing her job was additionally causing even more stress and adding to the problem.
Signs of nervous breakdown
So, what are the signs of a mental or nervous breakdown and how can you prevent it? Well, the very first part of prevention is to be able to recognize the signs and if necessary, seek help.
According to Mayo Clinic’s article on the subject, Dr Daniel K Hall-Flavin answers the question as follows. There is no longer a concluding medical term called “nervous breakdown” as any one term as there often are underlying causes or conditions such as depression or anxiety. However, the term is sometimes used by people to describe “a stressful situation in which they’re temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life”. It’s commonly understood to occur when life’s demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming.
The triggers can be any number of things and are dependent on a person’s ability to handle the thoughts or emotions arising from the situation. Some examples of reasons could be;
- Serious recent trauma such as illness or death in the family
- A major life change such as for example a divorce
- Insomnia or inability to relax
- Prolonged stressors or work pressures
In Lina’s case the cause was feeling overwhelmed in her new role where work pressure built up and she felt that she was not allowed to show this at work. The pressure of not being able to express or talk about her feelings of overwhelm, whether self-imposed or not, simply increased the anxiety and stress.
However, Lina’s situation is by no means rare or uncommon. Since the first financial crash in 2008 and the one the followed in 2016, many studies have been conducted on the effect on its employees. Some compelling data is represented by OSH WIKI in the article published on “protecting worker health during restructuring” where the following data was presented:
- That those employees who had experienced major downsizing had a faster decline in self-rated health
- That there was an increased rate of medically certified long-term sickness absence following downsizing
- Employees who were exposed to downsizing but kept their jobs were at a higher risk of being prescribed psychotropic drugs
- That there was a significant increase in the disability pension rate after major downsizing among those who remained in employment (mostly including psychiatric diseases).
- That, cardiovascular mortality was found to be twice as high after major downsizing compared to no downsizing
So, Lina was by no means alone in the stress she experienced, nor is the problem an insignificant one.
Stress and sick leave in the workplace
Let’s look at the implication of stress in the workplace and the actual impact not only on the individual but on the companies also. If, as we found out in the article of OSH WIKI, downsizing causes long term sickness and absence of employees, what are the implications on this for the companies?
In the article “Financial cost of job stress” by University of Massachusetts Lowell, it is estimated the stress in the workplace in America is costing companies USD $300 billion per year in absenteeism, poor performance and other related health costs. Add to that other statistics such as, 40% higher job turnover due to stress (replacing an employee costs an average of 120-200% of the persons salary). Healthcare expenditures are nearly 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress. Job related stress is often the predicator for depression and longer-term illness and ascetism of employees. The evidence is endless on the effects of stress in the workplace but what is actually being done about it?
The WHO (world health organization) writes in its article on Occupational health “Stress in the workplace” that a healthy workplace is where the pressures on employees are appropriate in relation to their abilities and resources, to the amount of control they have over their work, and to the support they receive from people who matter to them.
With the case of Lina this was simply not the case. She was put in a job role she was not ready or trained for. She had no assistance from neither her superior nor an assistant to share her workload. Lina was in effect the victim of bad or irresponsible management, a leadership who was lacking in Emotional Intelligence.
How to prevent stress and minimize sick leave in the workplace
When a company is facing the difficult task of ‘restructuring’ or mass redundancies, the decision is most often a financial one and often cannot be avoided. The problem lies in not considering the human resources aspect of the consequences. Companies often overlook the implications that the human factor has on their business and focus on the bottom line, but this can be a highly costly mistake as seen in the reports included here. But what can be done?
Let’s look at what WHO considers as the cause of work-related stress to analyze this further. In the article mentioned they state the following:
- Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.
- Stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.
- There is often confusion between pressure or challenge and stress and sometimes it is used to excuse bad management practice.
If we look at the above points and Lina’s case, it is easy to see all the points represented in her breakdown. It is easy to blame the management here but let’s consider Lina’s ability for a moment also. Had Lina been able to manage her own emotions and furthermore her ability to communicate the situation could have been different also. After all, leadership is often more about communicating, managing the state of yourself and others than it is about managing tasks. Granted, the responsibility of helping her develop these lay with her management but consider for a moment if the management had those skills in the first place.
So how can you prevent the cost and consequence of undue stress at the workplace? Well, the answer lies somewhere between being aware and developing the tools and skills to prevent it.
Building awareness, recognizing the signs
If you are reading this as a member of staff you could be effected by the phenomena of what is called work stress, the first thing to understand is that it is not something to be ashamed of or something you need to handle on your own. If you feel bad but do not know any of the signs of ‘burn out’ or ‘mental nervous breakdown’, many do not. There are many ways of experiencing this and there is no ‘right or wrong’ here but look out for sudden changes or symptoms like the ones listed below;
- Sudden inability to focus, concentrate or remember basic things like your phone number etc.
- Difficulty in sleeping or disrupted sleep patterns
- A disinterest in things you normally are passionate or care about
- Chronic fatigue and overwhelm
- Sudden emotional overwhelm like, crying, feeling helpless or uncontrollable mood swings
You likely know what is new and unusual about your feelings and or behavior.
The second thing is to seek help for it. It can be as simple as talking to someone you trust and offloading or seeking professional help but don’t keep this for yourself. Coping emotionally is also a skill that can be learnt, you can get sessions in NLP or enroll in a 2-day EI course to build your ability to recognize and handle your emotions in a resourceful way. Understand that it is not your fault and it is not shameful, if you had a toothache you would take time off and go for an appointment with a dentist, wouldn’t you? Building your emotional strength and skills are no different to going to the gym and building your muscles, invest in yourself to feel great.
If you are reading this and you are a leader or an HR professional, realize that it is your job to become aware of these issues as part of managing your team, both for wellbeing and productivity.
Ensure you are actively seeking and implementation tools for improving your workforce, both as individuals and as a whole. These tools can be measuring tools that are official and / or unofficial like a coffee and building a relationship of trust.
Some of the tools that can help make a difference are;
- 360-degree anonymous surveys based on the psychological wellbeing of the employees
- Buddy systems where more experienced managers mentor ‘younger’ ones as a way of offloading senior management, empower managers within the organization to help each other (but be sure to make the union compatible or it may increase isolation and offload responsibility)
- Regular unofficial chats or ‘corridor chats’ in form of coffee and ideally outside the immediate work environment for the manager
- Investing in building the skills that the new manager needs in form of training such as; leadership, communication, Emotional Intelligence (this may cost time and money but compared to the cost
- Invest in your own EI or leadership training
Often knowing your own impact on others, the teams you lead and how you impact yourself is one of the most empowering skills you can learn. Your success is in the success of the people you lead in every way.
Emotional Intelligence in leadership
Today the importance of EQ is recognized as possibly being superior to IQ in success. Since all leadership is dependent on your ability to influence others it simply makes sense to begin to understand yourself and others more. Emotions is what drives human beings and determine their actions or priorities. The values that drive our human behavior is anchored in our beliefs. What are our beliefs? They are simply made of our childhood programing or a thought we have had many times. Thoughts blended with beliefs create our emotions who in turn create our behavior. You could also say that our emotions are the result of our thoughts and therefore a very strong indicator of how we view the world and what we base our behavior on. Therefore, unresourceful emotions are really like the warning lamps on our dashboard when we drive and if you ignore them you are surely going to run into trouble. You could say your emotions are like your personal compass, letting you know if you are on the right course for your destination.
Just like a captain of a ship would not ignore his compass, but instead change direction until he was yet again ‘on route’ to his desired destination, you would need to feel your emotions and decide if you are on the right course.
Of course, this analogy makes perfect sense, but what if you can’t identify your emotions correctly? Then north might mean East or West, and what good is a faulty compass? A staggering 80% of us identify our emotions incorrectly, which makes our already complicated lives even more confusing.
So, let me ask you a question; what if your new manager is displaying what sounds to you like aggression and it really might me the emotion of fear, would you deal with it the same way?
Steven Covey (author of & habits of successful people) famously said “seek to understand, then to be understood” in his analysis of great leadership. I ask you now, what greater way can there be to seek to understand than understanding the emotions of yourself and the people around you?
Another fact to consider if your success depends on sales or selling; people buy out of emotion. That means that if you understand the emotions that drive your clients’ or customers, you are able to be more successful in your job or business.
I will leave you with this thought; if you thought that emotions are only for women, consider aggression, competitiveness and passion, are they not also driven by emotions?
If you want to really be successful in your life and in work, consider enrolling in our Emotional Intelligence certification with NLP. There is an opportunity her for you to take charge of your destiny more here. And who knows, you may even be inspired to train others. Isn’t ‘life coaching’ just another name for managing your life and emotions?