I had my first panic attack at work. A gradual feeling of unease, anxiety and despondency had been building for months, but now I was sweating, my heart was racing and I was gasping for air.
The total number of working days lost to stress across the UK workforce is 17.9 million per year. A 2020 study shows the number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety is estimated at 828,000, with common reasons being tight deadlines, excessive pressure, lack of role clarity or an unmanageable workload. We can only expect those numbers to grow year on year as the pandemic creates new causes of job-related stress and anxiety and external pressures coupled with major changes in our working lives exacerbate traditional stress triggers.
I had always been an engaged employee, jumping through several rounds of promotions in eight years. I didn't know why I was suddenly feeling so anxious, but I did know for sure that my sales performance was slipping and I wasn't hitting my targets any more. Tasks that once felt easy now felt impossible.
Research shows that high performers and those most passionate about their roles often suffer the most in the workplace. Those people who achieve exceptional results every time and say ‘yes’ to every opportunity are often doing so with no regard for their own wellbeing.
After my panic attack I spent the next few days at home, feeling guilty about the colleagues who were picking up my workload. I also researched heavily online – Googling the same terms that so many UK workers have been researching in recent months: panic attacks, anxiety, burnout. Signs of burnout, I learned, include exhaustion, cynicism, loss of enthusiasm and loss of efficacy or capability.
In search of a solution, I went to see a careers coach. After an hour of conversation, she stopped me and said: “Your job title is group sales director. Your natural progression would be a commercial director but you haven’t mentioned sales once. What is going on?”
It hit me. I didn’t want to be in sales anymore and everything I enjoyed revolved around developing and nurturing people, not pipelines. In my next few coaching sessions I began to pull out my strengths – things I was good at that also fulfilled me. This process enabled me to see that many of the skills I had learned as a sales person were totally transferable to my ‘ideal job': one where I worked in people management.
My panic started to subside as I mapped out my future career direction. I became OK with the thought of starting again and adapting what I already knew into an entirely new role, maybe in a new industry. Three years later and I am still with the company where I had my first panic attack. However, my position now is global learning and development manager and I am enriched and enlivened by my work every day.
While recent opinions increasingly swaying towards entrenched organisational factors holding responsibility for employee burnout, there are also those times when companies can support employees through stress, exhaustion or anxiety with action tailored to the needs and strengths of the individual. If it is our highest achievers who are succumbing most frequently to burnout, employers must learn to understand the signs, offer real support, show commitment to change and avoid wasting top talent by empowering employees to suggest their own solutions, without fear of reproach.
Enhancing the appraisal and review system to include training for identifying early signs of burnout is an essential first step for corporate change. Businesses must also evolve to a better understanding of reviews as an opportunity to have a two-way career conversation, focused on learning and development.
Having coaching-style career conversations with employees gives employers the opportunity to discover more about individuals' goals and motivations. This strengthens loyalty and opens the door to honesty.
If an employee feels valued, seen and understood, they are more likely to accept help when experiencing stress or burnout. Employers should be open to change and recognise the skills and strengths that our employees enjoy using, as well as the ones that get us results. If we achieve that, we are more likely to implement role developments that enhance employee wellbeing as well as contribute to the overall objectives of the company.
A brave new world
One thing Covid has given us is an opportunity to move towards a more individualised review process. Circumstances will be affecting pandemic performance for many employees. Those with no dependants, for example, may be able to be more productive than those with children at home, and employees who have had to pivot to alternative versions of their 'in office' roles might be developing and demonstrating surprising new skills.
At this present time, management may be summoning more flexibility, compassion and leniency. Some of us have adopted an 'all hands on deck' approach, with the rigidity of individual job descriptions relaxed. We are aware too that, because of the pandemic, many of our employees may be wrestling with existential anxiety and fear. This awareness is something we should hold on to, even once the world returns to normal.
Lucy Shutt-Vine is a global learning and development manager and career coach