“I was forced to take it seriously when I passed out in the middle of the office…”

læsetid 13 min

I am 38 years old and currently work as Head of Communications here in Woba.

3 years ago I worked as a department manager in a marketing agency. I experienced a myriad of symptoms of stress but failed to act on them until a Thursday in September 2019.

 

I had felt burnt out and exhausted for a long time. For 3-4 months I had difficulty breathing, enormous pressure in the chest, constant dizziness and an inexplicable (and very uncomfortable) tingling in my fingers and arms. I thought it would pass. Besides, I also didn’t have the time to call in sick for a few days and pull the famous plug. After all, I was a manager and had to look after my employees in the department. But then it happened. Without warning, I passed out right there in the middle of the office. A quite ordinary Thursday morning. My colleague had to pick me up – and I quickly got to the hooks again. However, I was shaken. After that I took myself seriously and went to the doctor. From there followed a clear and serious sick report – which went hand in hand with numerous investigations for brain tumours, heart diseases, lung infections etc. All investigations pointed to one thing – a clear and serious stress diagnosis. – ‘You should expect to be on sick leave for at least a year’, the doctors said. I was knocked out. My entire career was going down the drain – along with my self-esteem, drive and personal power. It ended in months of struggle with anxiety, depression and great hopelessness. I couldn’t go out among people, couldn’t go to the grocery shop, couldn’t pick up my phone when it rang, became completely frantic when my daughter asked me to do her lunch for school. I was set back in everything socially. And it all ended with a definite hospitalization.
Today, I am back at full blast – but with a clear respect for my own limits and a knowledge of how much it means to maintain a sharp balance between work life and private life. I can still feel the symptoms every now and then. I will never completely get rid of them. But today I use them as a good, invisible guide – a huge signal with a cart pole – that I’m about to exceed my limit and that it’s TOTALLY okay to say ‘NO’, ‘I can’t make it’ and ‘I’d really like to help, but it won’t be until tomorrow’ …

 

And my described situation reflects exactly what it is all about.

Work-related stress occurs when more and higher demands are placed on you at work than you can realistically handle.

When you repeatedly experience being faced with work-related challenges and problems that you cannot understand or see possible solutions to, the energy and surplus begin to shrink – and then all the stress symptoms come roaring.

 

97% of our surveys show ‘Stress and Burn out’

In Woba, we can really see the trend ‘hands on’ – as 97% of our 420,000 surveys show ‘Stress and Burn out’.

Customer Success Manager at Woba, Rikke Schmidt talks about her observations:

I see ‘Stress and Burn out’ in virtually all surveys that I analyze and report on for our many corporate customers. This trend has gradually become the rule rather than the exception. And not a single working day goes by when I am not advising on exactly this type of problem. It is clear that stress and burnout are the primary problems across Danish workplaces.”

And in the question of the trend across industries, Rikke says:

Well, when I look at the trend and the level of stress – across industries, it is actually the office industry that has the most impact in this field.”

And that is interesting.

But first let’s take a look at the definition itself.

The Danish Working Environment Authority defines stress as:

 

Stress is a state of tension and unhappiness. It is not in itself a disease, but persistent stress can lead to both physical and mental illness. Whether stress can lead to an illness depends on how great the stress is and how long it lasts.”

 

The Mental Health Foundation’s definition reads:

Stress is our body’s response to pressure. Many different situations or life events can cause stress. It is often triggered when we experience something new, unexpected or that threatens our sense of self, or when we feel we have little control over a situation.
We all deal with stress differently.
When we encounter stress, our body produces stress hormones that trigger a fight or flight response and activate our immune system. This helps us respond quickly to dangerous situations.
Sometimes, this stress response can be useful: It can help us push through fear or pain so we can run a marathon or deliver a speech, for example. Our stress hormones will usually go back to normal quickly once the stressful event is over, and there won’t be any lasting effects.
However, too much stress can cause negative effects. It can leave us in a permanent stage of fight or flight, leaving us overwhelmed or unable to cope. Long term, this can affect our physical and mental health.”

 

 

Karoshi – ‘Death at work’

In Japan, work-related stress is so widespread and so severe that a definite term has been invented for the ultimate result of excessive and prolonged stress – Karoshi.

Karoshi means ‘Death at work’ – and that is actually, in all its simplicity, what the term covers. That you are simply exposed to such a large load that the stress ends up in a heart attack or cardiac arrest – caused by extremely many working hours a day and a lack of focus on diet and health in general.

It is assumed that there are 10,000 cases of Karoshi annually in Japan – and the concept is (unfortunately) gaining ground in the rest of the world as well.

Yikes.

So, this stress is no joke!

 

 

In many guises

Stress comes in many guises. Precisely because we are all very different and react very differently to what we are exposed to.

There is scientific evidence that if you are a person who already speculates and ponders a lot, then you are at a higher risk of being affected by stress.

Stress is rarely caused by direct busyness, but by the speculation that you are very busy, that you cannot achieve all the tasks, that you feel constant pressure and that you are not equipped with a natural (and very important) ability to say no.

No matter what your personal starting point is, it’s so damn important that you take the symptoms seriously – and not just ignore them.

Although it can be quite a jungle to find your way around various symptoms.

The road to a stress sick leave can be characterized by many different signs, symptoms and ailments.

In Woba, we see in our surveys a great diversity within signs and symptoms. Let me try to explain the different kinds of signs here…

 

 

The psychological signs

If you or your employee/colleague have been affected by stress symptoms, then the clear psychological signs that you must watch out for are:

 

– More frequent short fuse
– Increased risk of conflicts
– Isolation tendency
– Memory and concentration difficulties

 

The mentioned stress symptoms occur due to prolonged stress.

It can be longer with work tasks that are impossible to achieve during ordinary working hours.

It is not dangerous for you to experience these symptoms for a shorter period of time, but you must be aware of them – and make sure to deal with them before they turn into a real strain, which will also result in sick leave and even more severe symptoms .

The body – physically under stress

Stress also affects the body physically.

Much more than you can ever imagine.

When the psyche becomes overburdened, the entire burden can settle psychosomatically in the body – and this means that you will experience several physical symptoms:

 

– Insomnia
– Bad stomach
– Heart palpitations
– Sensory failure
– Dizziness
– Tingling in the fingers
– Rash
– Irregularity in menstrual cycle

 

Yes, it is not small things you can actually end up with on the physical side if you are exposed to overload for a long time and do not give the psyche and body the opportunity to recover in between – as it requires to be healthy and well-functioning.

Obviously, if you experience any of these physical signs, it will invariably end up in sickness absence at some point.

 

 

Change in behavior

It goes without saying that when you are in overload and both your body and psyche are under enormous pressure, something will happen to your behavior.

Perhaps you are used to having a large surplus – for both work and colleagues. Suddenly you find that the piles on the desk are piling up at such a fast pace that you become directly angry with your immediate manager or your colleagues – ‘Why can’t they see that I’m busy and can’t get this done?

You may find that your colleague takes a coffee break AGAIN – and by the way, she also slurps like crazy when she drinks the damn coffee…

So, it can be tiny things and situations that normally don’t touch you in everyday life. Tiny things that suddenly make you explode inside and seethe with rage.

You can suddenly find yourself in the middle of many more conflicts at the workplace than you are used to – and this puts both your social and work profit in a huge mess.

The increased volume of conflicts can ultimately lead to total isolation.

Of course, you can’t stand all those conflicts, so maybe it’s just easier if you completely isolate yourself during the working day – and get total peace of mind for work. The work that you already can’t really oversee or concentrate on.

 

 

Emotional signs of stress

The emotions are on display.

Constantly and all the time.

It doesn’t bother you, yet you can’t control it. You have a shorter fuse and you exercise a very harsh (and unfair) self-reproach in all situations and conflicts you find yourself in.

This is how you might feel if you are affected by prolonged stress.

The emotional signs can be violent – and noticeable to others around you, but they can certainly also be of the introverted kind. And it is more dangerous for introverted people, since it is only you who can feel the changes and it is incredibly difficult to take yourself seriously.

As in the narrative from reality, from the beginning of this post, it is incredibly difficult to take symptoms of stress seriously. Not until you’re really out there, where you fall into a swoon – or even as it is seen in Japan – Karoshi.

 

 

The stress ladder. Your most important stress tool

Our own CEO in Woba, Malene Madsen, is a working environment researcher and has developed our widely used tool – the Stress Ladder with inspiration from Malene Friis Andersen.

 

 

 

As you can see from the visualization here, you can use the stairs to place yourself and your employees in relation to stress level.

The ladder can give you a constant and continuous tool to know if there is something you need to pay extra attention to in relation to the stress level at your workplace.

It is also a really good idea to introduce the ‘Stress Ladder’ to all employees, so that everyone has a chance to register symptoms at the forefront – instead of being left with a sick note at the back.

We will all move back and forth on the Staircase – all depending on the work and personal situation. The most important thing here is that the situation on the 2nd and 3rd step is taken care of, so that the employee (or yourself) can move back again to step 1.

You cannot avoid experiencing stress symptoms in between. It’s perfectly okay and natural. The problem only arises when you have been in the condition for so long that your body and brain can no longer cope. And then it gets dangerous.
So use the stairs – and keep up to date with where your employees and yourself are at all times. Because of course – as a manager, you can also be pressured and called in sick!

 

From commitment to apathy & cynicism

BFA has taken a closer look at the mechanisms that occur when you are exposed to prolonged stress.

Because it actually often happens that your normal and natural commitment turns into apathy and cynicism over time.

This is of course because you feel worse and worse – and lose more and more profit.

The process can look like this:

 

COMMITMENT
You are naturally committed and consider your work meaningful. You love your work. And the love for it causes you to achieve good results through a daily and persistent effort.

 

DOUBT
You find that it becomes more difficult to achieve the results you are used to and have hoped for. The good results linger, while the bad results keep haunting you.
Maybe you have conflicts with management about goals and quality.
You often have doubts and experience conflicting feelings about parts of your work. Maybe you stay at this stage and adapt to it. Perhaps engagement returns because of new results, more resources, or support from colleagues or management to adjust goals and the demands of your job. Maybe your doubt turns into frustration.

 

FRUSTRATION
You start to feel powerless. You are now in a crisis-like state, where you are constantly exhausted and try to save your energy by turning down the switch to the outside. You become more introverted.
Perhaps here you begin to experience physical symptoms and feel embarrassed, unsuccessful, isolated, depressed and pessimistic.

 

MEANINGLESSNESS & WITHDRAWAL
All hope is out!
You have definitely given up hope of achieving your goals and can’t bear to try to adjust the goals to a more realistic level.
You are resigned and depressed – and are characterized by a sense of meaninglessness.
You will only become even more introverted and introverted from here.

 

APATHY & CYNICISM
If you have reached this point, you are in bad shape.
At this final stage, you are characterized by apathy and cynicism. Nothing gives you real joy more. Neither the work nor your efforts give you value or meaning, and you distance yourself emotionally from the work and your colleagues.
If you have reached the apathy stage, you are not far from a serious illness – and have let things stand for far, far too long.
You are on the verge of being completely burnt out…

 

 

Burnt out!

Burned out or ‘burn out’ is what we call it in technical language when the stress has lasted so long and has become such a big influence that you simply can’t do it anymore.

People who are affected by burnout have typically had a great deal of personal commitment to their work. They have had high demands (also TOO high) of themselves and have also been met with high demands from management and colleagues.

 

Burnout is characterized by profound exhaustion. You are tired, feel exhausted and don’t really have the energy to live as you normally have.
The profit is ‘long gone’ and the desire to go to work is non-existent.
If you have all or a large part of the symptoms mentioned at the same time, you can probably be categorized as burnt out.
And it is serious.
If you continue from here to push both body and mind further, you can very likely expect a long-term sick leave.

 

Prevention is your strongest asset

It goes without saying that no company benefits from long-term sick leave or dismissals due to dissatisfaction.

And it is actually possible to prevent stress and burnout.

It is not only possible, but also a necessity if you want to avoid losing valuable employees.

Follow the IGLO model and strengthen your preventive efforts, and you will already be far in your well-being work.

 

 

Organizational level:
Create a good framework and a healthy working environment by creating a clear and concrete stress policy, so that all employees know that they can always safely approach and ask for help – without fear of reprisals.

 

Management Level:
Introduce movement during the day (employees with pain are at higher risk of developing stress), joint stretching exercises and forced breaks.
Introduce Walk&Talks, where you look your employees in the eye and ask about their job satisfaction and general well-being.

Focus on the fact that you have a culture where people go home when the working day is over and should not feel pressured to work overtime.
Use the ‘Stress Staircase’ – as shown earlier. It is your tool for spotting your employees’ and also your own stress state.

 

Group level:
Start the dialogue – make it completely legal to talk about what stresses you out at work.
Create the necessary calm. If you are very disturbed during the working day, you cannot achieve your work tasks, and this will become a problem in the long term.
Keep a close eye on each other. Watch for signs and symptoms. Perhaps your colleague has started eating at his desk instead of in the canteen with everyone else. Or there is a clearly changed behavior.

 

Individual level:
If you feel unwell and experience clear symptoms of stress, report it as soon as possible to your immediate manager.

Openness and honesty are really the key words here, because the longer you hide it away and keep it to yourself, the faster you approach a stress level that is inappropriate – both for you and the company.

 

 

Rarely recognized as occupational injury

And despite how serious a stress diagnosis is, it is rarely recognized as a real occupational injury.
For the simple reason that it is so uncommonly difficult to map the causes of the stress diagnosis itself. After all, it can be work-related, private or a combination of the two scenarios. And then it suddenly becomes difficult to obtain the right documentation – which is required in connection with an occupational injury and possible compensation.
Because what is actually required for something to be called an occupational injury?

From the legislation’s three principle decisions, you can derive the following (according to AST):

There must be a mental illness or mental symptoms requiring treatment in order for there to be a mental personal injury within the meaning of the Workers’ Compensation Act.
There is a lower limit for the concept of personal injury in relation to which mental illnesses or conditions can be recognized as an accident. A psychological discomfort within a shorter period of time is not a personal injury in the sense of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Adaptation reactions are also not, as a rule, a personal injury, unless there has been an incident or impact of a certain serious nature that has led to relevant treatment.
A psychological injury can be caused by a physical impact such as violence, threats and accidents. It can also be caused by a psychological impact, for example wrongful accusations, harassment or bullying.

Ultimately, it is important to state that stress is generally NOT seen as a compensation-triggering occupational injury.

We need to get down to only 5% of all recognized occupational injuries, which are actually psychological.

It shows a clear picture that there is still no balance between physical and mental disorders in Denmark.

 

 

Woba wants it differently

At Woba, we have known about this problem for a very long time.
We put a lot of focus on this in our many employee well-being measurements across the companies both at home and abroad.
In our surveys, it is possible to map and identify stress – already at a preventive stage.
The system will simply ‘light up in red’ if your employee is in the danger zone of being affected by stress. That way, you can manage to take action on the situation and with sensible planning and handling – avoid the long, expensive sick leave.

Should it happen that an employee has already reached burnout, we can go back and map the reasons in relation to the work perspective.
In this way, far more transparency will be created in relation to the mental disorders that can occur in a workplace and the direct documentation is also easier to get hold of in this way.
A paradigm shift is needed here, as we see a clear (and scary) increase in the number of stress sick leave – across all industries.
Because regardless of whether stress is recognized as a real occupational injury or not, it is still a serious condition for you, who is affected – and it must be taken seriously.
Of both the company, colleagues and, in particular, yourself.

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