From Burnout to All Out
Overcoming anxiety means having to first break free from self-blame, once and for all
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”
It all sounded too rational, calm and collected, when inside me I was feeling chocked by my own lungs, half of my brain on shut down mode while the other half was racing like a car without breaks.
It had been about half an hour since I had committed the ultimate sin of any office employee: to walk away from the screen in the middle of a deadline. It was the physical symptoms, and my survival instinct, that moved my hand to close the laptop, and walk away from the e-mails that were constantly piling up in my inbox.
As my vision started getting blurry and my head was about to explode, I listened to the voice inside. “That’s it, I can’t do this anymore”. Although I knew I had taken the right decision, it felt like the ultimate moment of defeat, the day that I had officially thrown in the towel — throwing out years of hard work to get where I had gotten, conceding failure, worthlessness, and succumbing to self-pity.
Reaching out for professional help felt like the end of my career
“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 a bit exasperated and frustrated (and probably in need of a sandwich.) “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 never get a thank you and instead get blamed for whatever isn’t their fault, right?”
A warm, acid tear of mixed sadness and relief started forming at the corner of my eye as I took in those words, like a surprise gift being handed to me by a stranger. That was the very first moment I realized that maybe I was not alone in my situation.
Yet at the same time I felt more isolated, now being part of an invisible, misunderstood, under-reported silent epidemic.
What I didn’t know yet was that thanks to that call I would begin a journey that would help me rethink how I viewed work, life, myself, and I would begin to establish a more healthy relationship with my goals and aspirations.
An Epidemic of Stigma
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 anxiety in the same way rape is seen in uncivilized societies, often putting the focus on, and therefore stigmatising, the victim rather than the perpetrator.
The attitude in the corporate world is “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, those who have been struck but they Big A are a threat to the company bottomline and that is… the bottomline.
Glamorisation of Anxiety: From Work Shame to Stress Pride
I grew up in a generation that was proud to be stressed. We were proud to be in a position where we had no shortage of things to fill our time with, where our work was “begging” us to be done, rather than us having to beg for work. When we started our careers, the very definition of ambition and success was to reach a point where you can’t manage your time anymore.
That was when you knew you had “made it”: people would boast about how long they had to stay in the office, how many things they had to sacrifice for their job.
During the 80s and 90s in particular, an unrealistic image of the successful business executive was continuously spoon fed to us by Hollywood. These modern-day “heroes” were portrayed in their offices sitting next to ceiling-high piles of paper, simultaneously talking on two separate phone lines while also being chased by their secretary. While this image today would alert any occupational mental health professional, back then it was supposed to convey power and success. It was made to tell us “look at me, I am so important, so indispensable that the world can’t get enough of me. People are queuing up just to talk to me”.
This image was further distorted by adding an element of glamour through the “work hard and play hard” stereotype which just wasn’t true. The reality was much closer to “live fast, die young”.
Going the extra mile is something normal for anyone who is inspired by their work, who won’t give up until they produce a result that they are proud of, and which represents the very best of their abilities. But as we become busier and busier, these voices of “stress pride” are becoming fewer and fewer. It took a while for us to learn our lesson.
Every time there was pressure, our inner voice was telling us to turn pressure into opportunity
Or at least this is what my inner voice was telling me: that it was all worth it, that there would be a reward in the end, if not the personal satisfaction of having come through the other end a victor, a hero. The New War was still raging inside me, well into the 2010s, and I didn’t want to miss my share of the spoils.
Besides, I was a competent and diligent professional, pursuing success with a ruthlessness that made me feel proud of maintaining quality in my work even under tight timelines and deadlines. I was proud. I had come through the other side victorious a few times. Many times. Hundreds of times. So many times that I thought I was invincible, and the master of this game. But not enough times to learn that once you start overusing even the sturdiest of machines, you are increasing the risk of a breakdown. Even more so when you are that machine yourself.
4 Decades of stress finally unravel
It took a while for me to realise that all this time I had been on some kind of a carousel. I had carefully stepped on it for the first time as a child, smiling goodbye to my parents as the beautiful machine started accelerating, occasionally glancing back at them for a dose of validation and reassurance, then continuing the magical journey.
As the carousel picked up the pace, I felt the cool wind of success on my face, carrying me through continents, colleges and universities, people and jobs, always propelled by the excitement of new possibilities and a wide-open future. It had been an amazing ride. But now the carousel was staring to spin too fast, the world was whizzing past me faster than I could take it all in, faster than I could react.
As I spun out of control, time just disappeared.
The carousel had become an evil time machine merging past, present and future. Every past job, every success and failure was now staring me back in the face, all of them turning into a blur. Jobs, people, meetings, places, e-mails were all beginning to merge into a cacophony of to-do lists that was getting louder and louder, day and night, week in week out.
Obsessive e-mail checking, oppressive deadlines, client expectations, paranoia and fear of failure were now the new driving forces behind the carousel of success.
As the world around me started merging into one big blur, turning darker and darker, I felt helpless. I was stuck on the carousel, and I had no idea how to get off. I was on my knees.
Watch out for the Anxiety Time Warp
When I first sought professional help, the doctor asked me to write down all the things that I felt at the time, both physical and emotional. The list was full of classic symptoms caused by an overload of stress hormones, producing “fight or flight” physical responses, thoughts and feelings (see end of chapter). Reading back through this list today, it is evident how my anxiety had resulted in a completely distorted perception of time. The more I worried about time slipping away, not having enough of it to complete the things I needed to complete, the faster it went, therefore the more likely I was to feel that I was underachieving. This resulted in working even harder to keep up, which gave birth to even more anxiety and an even more warped perception of time.
Anxiety cunningly uses this warped perception of time and space to make us feel guilty. My anxiety genuinely made me believe that it wasn’t the size of my workload or lack of additional help at work that was the problem, but my own failure to work efficiently.
Feeding on this internal guilt, the anxiety carousel eventually starts to spin so fast that it develops its own gravity, becoming a black hole that starts ripping apart pieces of your consciousness, your personality, until you begin to feel empty. People with stress always complain about how they have had to give up all their hobbies, all the things they enjoyed doing, now sacrificed in the altar of anxiety. They complain about being unable to find pleasure in everyday things they used to do. This is because anxiety has consumed much of their true identity.
Slave to the Stress Hormones
In a normal setting, anxiety hormones like adrenaline and cortisol act as performance-enhancing drugs: they make us think faster, work harder in the face of danger when we need to make quick life and death decisions. This is why they have also been called the “fight or flight” hormones. However these hormones are made for situations lasting between a few seconds and a few hours, such as being chased by a large animal in nature or other similar danger. They are not made for corporate office environments where we are constantly bombarded, hours at a time, months on end, with deadlines.
When I was at my worst, I was a walking pharmacy of stress hormones, and I sure felt like one: constantly on edge, so much so that I could probably bite a snake with my venom and either kill it or give it severe situational anxiety
Along with our stress hormones, we also have a brain with the capacity to imagine, something that we have developed more than any other animal. I once saw a documentary that explained this in depth. Although dolphins and other species may have some level of ability for abstract thinking as well, humans are on another scale. It is believed that our ability to imagine danger, to catastrophize, to fear the absolute worst, is actually part of who we are and what made us a successful species.
We are made by design to be a “paranoid” species, and this is why we need to be careful.
Although this same gift has allowed us to be able to imagine solutions for our problems, it has also resulted in some of the darkest times in our history such as dogmatic religious beliefs, inquisitions, witch trials, and more recently the Cold War and Iraq War. What all these events have in common is that they were based on fears that never actually materialised. Just have a think about the significance of this for a minute, and the human life cost it has led to over the centuries.
There is risk of getting used to anxiety, because both our mind and our body have tremendous abilities to suppress, even block pain, so that we can continue to do our job. This however doesn’t mean that anxiety isn’t there. It just means that it has now become part of us and our personality, sometimes lurking in the background for months or years, gradually chipping away at our mental health. Others in our environment can see more clearly that we have become irritable and unhappy, while we try to soldier on.
Over an extended period of time, stress becomes second nature to us and we are easily triggered.
This is a form of PTSD — post-traumatic stress response. It is a toxic brain pathway that essentially makes us even more susceptible to stress-inducing stimuli, now that our tolerance threshold has become lower. As we try to fight anxiety with more work and more anxiety, we are fighting a losing battle.
Stress, Drugs and Rock and Roll
Unfortunately this is a battle that most times we have to fight completely alone. Anxiety is like a ghost that only the person suffering can really see. It is invisible to others, who just don’t believe us: they often think we are just tired, fed up, or lazy. I recently watched a documentary about the life of Avicii, an incredibly talented musician who was nothing short of a musical genius. Avicii had entered the music industry very young at the age of 16, but his rare talent quickly propelled him to international stardom. He had such a passion for what he did, working tirelessly and producing a great volume of successful work over a short period of just a few years. However his success soon led to expectations from agents, music promoters, managers, and a whole crew who now followed him constantly everywhere he went, depending on him for their livelihoods.
There was constant pressure to produce the next song, the next album, to spin at the next big gig.
The documentary is a raw account of the struggle those of us with anxiety face in communicating our anxiety to others: whether we are a rock star, or a marketing director. On several occasions Avicii had tried to manage his life as anxiety started getting the better of him: cancelling or postponing shows, taking time off for himself, negotiating better working conditions. But there was always pushback from the people around him, many of which saw him as a selfish “diva”. The truth is, they were the ones being selfish, depending on Avicii’s talent and using him as a cash cow.
This is how many corporations work today, often pushing their most brilliant people to the edge.
There needs to be a “no means no” rule when an employee complains about anxiety. My repeated pleas with my employer were not taken seriously, which led to my condition worsening.
I eventually had to leave my job, as this was the only option that would allow me to reclaim my life. Avicii also left his job, retiring to a beach in Oman where he could live as a normal person who can finally enjoy his twenties. But sadly, it was already too late for him to find the person inside him that he had lost. He ended his life on April 20th, 2018, aged just 28.
We have reached a critical point in history when even the rock stars are not dying from drug overdoses anymore. They are dying from anxiety.
Most work environments tend to reinforce what anxiety does to us, making us believe it is all our fault for not managing our time or our work-life balance correctly. As a result anxiety slips under the radar and we don’t realise it until it is too late. When I was at my worst, I could feel whatever humanity was left of me trying to scream out for help, but the voice was getting fainter and fainter the more I suppressed my own anxiety and convinced myself I was OK.
It takes incredible courage to come into conflict with others about your own workload, when all you want to do is meet their expectations as well as your own personal standards.
It takes self-compassion, and a keen, brave ear to start listening to the voice inside you, the one that says: “you’ve done your best, you’ve done your job. Now it is time to take a break, no matter what others say. You are the one who decides, not them.”
Blood on their hands. And the fight continues
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.
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.
Form your own Support Group
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.