‘I just needed some time off’: what to do if you are too stressed to work

When stress at work starts to impact your sleep, mood and ultimately your health, how do you ask your employer for the support you need?

“It was quite unexpected,” says David Laird (pictured above). He pauses, his eyes search the ceiling as he takes his time to find the right words. “I think it was because I felt so exposed, like an imposter in the role.” 

An education & community officer for Tower Bridge and The Monument, Laird has spent the morning enchanting six to seven-year-olds with tales of the Great Fire of London. He’s worn out from their excitement but in good spirits, a far cry from last year when he was using holiday leave to manage his stress. 

According to the latest research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 194,000 workers are currently suffering from stress-related issues. Last year, stress was the cause of 17 million lost workdays, roughly amounting to 18.6 days per person. It’s a number that has been on the rise in recent years, bringing into question how we recognise and manage stress in the workplace. 

During the eight years he’s been working at Tower Bridge, Laird has taken time off for stress three times, the first was just months into his contract. 

‘I can get very low within myself and quite irritable. I also can’t sleep and when I do, I’m grinding my teeth’

– David Laird

In 2016, Laird was struggling to integrate into a new position. Unable to express himself in a different role and feeling an increasing need to keep up with colleagues, Laird’s mental health was deteriorating. 

“Probably a lot of it was lack of confidence in myself and in my own ability that made the change so stressful and feel so big,” he says. “I decided to take a few half days just because when I came into the office, I was feeling overwhelmed.”   

The HSE research concluded that people took time off because of workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility or lack of managerial support. It’s something clinical psychologist Dr Tony Parker sees in a number of his clients.  

“Clients who present to us with primary work-related stress have an ongoing representation in our caseloads,” he explains. “Work-related stress and associated mental health issues constitute the single biggest reason for absenteeism and low productivity.” 

For Laird, stress manifests in various ways. “I can get very low within myself and quite irritable. I also can’t sleep and when I do, I’m grinding my teeth,” he says. “At times, I’ll overeat and just see my weight going up.” 

In recent years, there’s been much uncertainty and upheaval caused by the pandemic, something that has been linked to the rise in those experiencing stress at work. “There is evidence of some further increase post-pandemic,” says Parker. “It follows significant changes to the structure of people’s work patterns and expectations around where and how they work.” 

After settling into his new role and receiving therapy, Laird had been enjoying his work until the pandemic. For many the uncertainty of a pandemic created new levels of anxiety. In Laird’s office, pandemic related anxieties had left Laird dealing with responsibilities that exceeded his role description. 

“I had basically taken on the workload of two roles,” Laird says. “There was a lot of urgent administrative and operational stuff that wasn’t getting done in an appropriate timescale. Having worked there for such a long time, I felt a need to shoulder a lot of the burden. I just needed some time off.” 

“It is often the case that people do not directly express their difficulties or needs in the workplace,” Parker says, “for fear of judgement only presenting when difficulties are acute and intense.” 

‘Work-related stress and associated mental health issues constitute the single biggest reason for absenteeism and low productivity’

– Dr. Tony Parker

Previous workplaces had left Laird feeling shut down and ignored but even through his previous struggles, he’d always felt supported at Tower Bridge. Now the pandemic had left his work support system in tatters and Laird was left with no option but to turn to his union for help.  

Mental health charity, Mind has published a How to be mentally healthy at work pamphlet. In it, it lists ways to cope with stress at work including taking time to understand your stress, recognising the signs of stress and learning its causes. Mind suggests creating a wellness action plan to map out what causes your stress and what keeps you well, after which an employer can be brought on board to help.   

For many, the decision to ask for what they really need for their own mental health can feel like a mountain best left unclimbed. “It was difficult,” Laird acknowledges. “It involved me speaking to the director and gaining quite a lot of external support. I think if I hadn’t been supported by the union it would have resulted in probably quite a prolonged absence.” 

It’s been over a year since Laird took time off for stress and a lot has changed. “We have a wellbeing group at work that’s really well-managed – in fact I’m actually one of the representatives,” Laird says with a proud beam on his face. “It offers a practical solution to wellbeing in the workplace.” With his employers taking the lead from its staff, Laird is keen to stress the help is there for those who need it. “If I say I need time off, I can get the time off.  They’ve always been open to the flexibility of how to support you and they’ve always been quite happy for it to be led by the individual. 

For those who have taken the time off for their mental health, returning can often be the most daunting step. It’s here that Mind suggests returning to the wellness action plan with your employer and developing it further. If returning doesn’t feel like an option and a fresh start is in order, Mind suggest exploring the following questions:  

  1. How many hours can you work? Do you have other commitments that take up your time?
  1. When can you work? Do you need time in the day to go to appointments or evenings free for childcare?  
  1. Where can you work? How long do you want to commute and what environment would suit you?  
  1. Who would you like to work with? Do you prefer to work on your own or with other people?  

Considering this before entering your next employment would make a huge difference to the control you feel in your own working environment.  

When reflecting on his journey Laird says, “The way I approach stress is very different now to how I did back then. Everyone has their stresses and anxieties and how they manifest is probably very different, but it’s how you cope with them that’s the main thing.”

Click here to see the rest of ELL’s article for Stress Awareness Month

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