It’s time we had a serious conversation about Mental Health at the workplace.
My battle with workplace anxiety started when I was a fresh graduate in my first job. Like anyone else, I was glad when I got a job as an administrator at a local college. I thought I had it all figured out – I’d work hard, get a promotion, and be someone important.
Little did I know that I was about to enter one of the gloomiest periods of my life.
How did I end up with anxiety? It’s hard to explain, but here’s what happened:
I hated my job because it involved boring and menial tasks. But I was also afraid of taking new tasks because I was lazy. Hence, I was stuck in a vicious ‘damned if I do and dammed if I don’t’ cycle.
Besides that, I didn’t realise how much separation anxiety I would have from not being in the comfort of my home. I wanted to go back to my semester break routine where I was at home reading a book and watching TV. But instead, here I was at a 9-6 job and feeling completely out of my comfort zone.
Not only did it make me miserable, it made me anxious to the point where I started to think ‘Is this all I’m going to do, until I die? What is even the point of living then?’
When you ask yourself that question, you know you’re in trouble.
Anxiety at work meant that I started to overthink and imagine WORST CASE scenarios that would happen. Here’s the thing, when I overthink, I immediately work on my exit strategy, even if it’s irrational.
There was one time, I was so afraid and worried on getting scolded by my boss, that I started to type out my resignation letter. I eventually calmed down enough to not send it, but the feeling of dread and worry was overwhelming.
Anxiety also meant that even breathing was hard. I would take short rapid breaths to the point where it takes all my strength not to break down and cry in the office. If you’ve felt it, then you’d know that the feeling is terrible.
Workplace anxiety is not something to be ashamed of, and thankfully, more and more people are starting to talk about it in our society. It’s perfectly normal to get anxious at work, especially if there’s suddenly too much work to do (where to even begin with that), or if you screwed up at work (we’ve all been there), or if you just hate your job. But you need to find ways to not let it overwhelm you.
So how did I cope with my workplace anxiety?
I Distract Myself From Time to Time
When things get overwhelming at work, I try to take short breaks to do something I like, even if it’s just 5 minutes. I realised that even a short break will make me much calmer and more focused when I eventually get back to work. For example, I’m an animal lover, and I love watching cat videos on YouTube. So if I feel myself getting too overwhelmed at work, I’ll shut off and just turn on some cat videos.
Here’s another useful tip, if you’re feeling too stressed at work, try to notice 5 things around you: Look at its colour, its shape, what it’s used for, then try to tell a story about it.
For example, if it’s a picture you’re looking at, observe it and create a story with that picture. How did it come to be? What caused the frame to stop in that exact moment?
I tried this technique many times and it really allowed me to calm down and objectively examine my problem in a more stable frame of mind.
I Talked to My Colleagues
I remembered a day when I was having one of my bouts of anxiety. It was 10am in the morning and I just felt like I could not take the amount of work and pressure. So I went to chat with my colleague, and told her about how I felt.
Till today, I will never forget what she told me.
She just looked at me and said “Dear, happiness is a state of mind. I am a mother to a new born baby girl. Don’t you think that I miss my baby and wish that I could be home with her right now? But I can either choose to dwell and be sad about it, or I can choose to focus on what I need to do as a mother, and work to support my child. We all have a choice on how we feel.”
This colleague also told me to stop wearing blue on Mondays, because it can affect your mood. Now I love blue, but ever since that day, I have never once worn blue on a Monday.
If you are feeling stressed, take some time to talk to your colleagues. Try engaging in light-hearted conversations that will make you feel better instead of talking about negative things. Also talk to just about anyone who you see in your office, you’ll be surprised at the advice you might get.
I Took on New Assignments
Going back to my menial administrative job, I knew that part of my anxiety came from my boredom with what I did, and I knew that this couldn’t continue. So, one day I came to my sense ad decided to ask for more interesting roles. I took on any role which was given to me, just as a challenge. At that point, anything was better than a routine.
I was subsequently given many roles, like going out of office to do sales, visiting surrounding buildings to network with people, and eventually even being a tutor at the college.
It was scary at first, but when I actually had a challenge to focus on, I realized that my mind was more focused on positively overcoming the obstacle rather than on whatever nonsense that was playing inside my head.
So, if your anxiety comes from doing the same thing over and over again, never be afraid to ask for new tasks to spice things up at work.
The battle in overcoming workplace anxiety is a marathon, not a sprint. I still do get anxious at work, but it’s much better than when I was a fresh graduate. However, there’s a difference between good and bad stress, and if you find yourself getting too anxious to the point where it compromises your health, then it is probably best to seek professional help. That is what I did, and I had no regrets.
For more articles like these, read So You Want to Be a Professional Writer in Malaysia? Here’s Some Advice from an Editor and How I Learned to Deal with the Crippling Loneliness of Being a Freelancer.