Experiencing Work-related Anxiety and Depression
For over a decade mental health researchers have reported on and researched the rising incidence of anxiety-related emotional health issue. In my experience, the world of career choice and job satisfaction is similarly affected – at least one quarter of my clients will talk about some experience with anxiety symptoms, such as sleep disturbance, loss of appetite or mild-to-severe depression.
So, why is it that we’re seeing this rise in work-related anxiety? In my coaching practice I typically look for the following things:
Human beings (and human brains) are extremely complex things, but a family history of anxiety and depression symptoms is a common link. Whether it comes from learning less effective coping skills or directly through hereditary traits, having a close family member who struggles or struggled with anxiety is a good reason to consider talking to a therapist or psychiatrist about familial predisposition to anxiety problems.
Most people have at least one “horrible boss” or “bad job” story to share in a conversation with friends, but occasionally people experience truly horrible work situations. Having a supervisor or coworker who is unreasonable or uncaring, circumstances that prevent you from doing the work you want to do, or a job that is a very bad fit for your gifts, talents, and skills takes an emotional toll on a person. The pertinent question in these situations is whether you are truly without control or recourse to change your circumstances.
Very often clients come to me because they have been unable to escape a bad work situation. They are demoralized, exhausted, and often anxious or depressed, and cannot perceive a way out. Of course there is always a way out, it’s just that sometimes we’re too close to our circumstances and that limits our ability to objectively evaluate our ability to reason through them. Having an objective guide who can help you find your way is extremely helpful, but its also helpful to ask if there are other things at work that are contributing to our feelings of anxiety or hopelessness.
I use the term Inner Dialogue in reference to the messages and beliefs that we use to motivate and evaluate the state of our lives and work. These messages may include things said directly to us by our parents or an authority figure at some point in our lives, or they may have formed in our own minds as a result of personal experiences and our life aspirations. Our inner dialogue is often unspoken and sometimes unconscious, but these messages and beliefs often guide our how we think about our work and can also dictate our workplace behaviors.
Sins of the Fathers
In my career coaching practice I routinely have client’s complete a personal history form. This allows me an opportunity to learn the “messages” my clients learned about work from their family of origin. These messages often relate to parental opinions about what constitutes “valuable” or “worthless” work that can become a driving force in the client’s vocational pursuits.
The simplest form of these may be seen in men and women who seek to “live up to” the standards or work patterns of their parents or a father’s declaration that “Engineering (or some other vocation) is the only career worth having”. While may seem an antiquated or even passé notion, I’ve had dozens of male and female clients who struggled with parental messages about the value or quality of their work that they’ve incorporated into a set of personal statements and beliefs about work.
These people spend their time consciously or unconsciously attempting to live up to the standard set by their parent(s). Regardless of the amount of control she or he had in the matter, when a client has been unable to meet these standards they often speak of their own career path and jobs in dismissive or denigrating tones. The message I clearly perceive is that she or he doesn’t measure up to some personal inadequacy.
Perceived Social Values
Another source of inner dialogue can be the constant barrage of comparative ideas we view on our smart phones and televisions. Our connectivity through the Internet and social media technologies leaves us vulnerable to constant self-evaluation of our lives and our work. Daily we are positioned to question whether our vocational choices and paths qualify as “significant” or “valuable”, especially when compared to the glamorous or impactful lives idolized in these media.
The rise of social perception as the great judge of our vocational value has left us vulnerable to reservations and doubts about whether we are on the right path. This is compounded by lower regard for traditional views of work that society formerly gained through shared religious beliefs and civic ethics. Authors as diverse as Victor Frankl and Barry Schwartz note that a diminishing reliance on the idea of moral authority or legitimate civic authority leaves us in a position where we have to determine our own morality, purpose and value. In short, absent of these voices of authority we become the judge or arbiter of our work’s value, leaving many fundamentally unsure about whether their work (and by extension, their lives) has value.
My client’s often report that they fear performing work that will be judged as insignificant or meaningless. Further, they feel the weight of ensuring they take the “right” steps to ensure a final verdict of having performed meaningful work. I once questioned a man as to how he could be certain of taking the “right steps”, to which he replied, “ that’s the reason I came to you – I don’t know”.
Another source of work-related emotional distress is the failure to meet one’s own work and/or life expectations. With no clear definition of what makes work meaningful or of the steps to attain meaningful careers, people often rely on a set of subjective personal expectations they’ve adopted or set for their work or their lives. If, in turn, life prevents them from meeting these self-applied expectations, they can become doubtful, distressed, and even depressed about their likelihood of ever attaining them.
Many of the messages in an inner dialogue can be sorted into two categories: those that are reasonable and healthy, and those that are dysfunctional and unhealthy. The challenge is for any of us to objectively evaluate the relative reasonable-ness and health of our beliefs about life.
The 20th century psychologist Albert Ellis, a founder of cognitive behavioral therapy, found that having dysfunctional beliefs could lead to experiences of mental or emotional distress. These beliefs can become a motivating force in our lives, causing us to live in fear of possible outcomes and constantly working to prevent or avoid those outcomes. Because our actions are based fear of possible outcomes, and not certainties, they can be as unreasonable or unhealthy as the fears themselves.
What, Then, Should We Do?
The path to a healthy understanding and approach to our work must include replacing dysfunctional and unhealthy inner dialogue and beliefs with ones will that lead to a healthier work and life experience.
In my work I tend to focus on practical ways to address a client’s challenge. In those instances where a client is struggling with work related anxiety or depression I’ll evaluate whether they need medical or therapeutic attention, and connect them with a professional if I conclude that they have chronic or acute symptoms. But, in every case I will also take them through a process aimed at identifying their inner dialogue of work-related messages. In those situations where the client and I discover unreasonable or unhealthy messages, expectations and beliefs are a part of their inner dialogue then we take steps to replace these with their healthy counterpart.
If you (or someone you know) is struggling with work-related anxiety or depression, then please seek help from a licensed medical or mental health professional. They can help you address any underlying medical issues that may be contributing to your experiences.
If you suspect the messages or beliefs within your inner dialogue may be undermining your work-related emotional health, then take a few minutes to examine the following questions:
· Are there ways in which life is failing to meet your expectations regarding your career?
· Which of these are within your control and which are not?
· Which expectations should you release, seek help with, or develop an action plan to change?
· Find and read Albert Ellis’ Dysfunctional Beliefs and consider which of them sound (or feel) familiar to you?
· What internal messages and/or beliefs do you hold that may be influencing how you think and live?
· Are there unhealthy behaviors you have or actions you take to protect yourself from things you fear may occur?
· What is a healthy message or belief that would help you experience a better work life & improved emotional health?