Feeling swamped by too much to do, ruminating about problems at work, sleeping badly, doubting your ability to do the job – and maybe drinking too much.
These are classic signs of work-related stress which can nudge us towards more problems like misuse of alcohol or other drugs and poor mental health, according to psychologist Jenny McGee.
“The people we’re seeing are achieving at work but are also showing signs of anxiety and becoming overwhelmed by stress. They’re often at the point where others are noticing that they’re drinking, using drugs including prescription drugs or gambling or gaming too much,” says McGee, the clinical manager of a new early intervention program to help people “reset” their thinking patterns and lifestyle habits and learn to manage stress in healthier ways.
The four-week residential program is an offshoot of The Buttery, a not-for-profit drug and alcohol rehab in Byron Bay with a 40-year record of helping people overcome addiction and problems with mental health. Profits from the cost of the private program, known as The Buttery Private, help fund The Buttery’s not-for profit services.
Although the clients of this new program don’t have the same established drug or alcohol dependence as those in the rehab, the approach is similar – using psychotherapy, group sessions and techniques such as mindfulness training.
There are no prizes for guessing the most common drug used to cope with stress at work. It’s alcohol followed by cannabis and ice as well as prescription drugs such as anti-anxiety drugs, prescription opiates and heroin, says McGee.
The situations that make people feel overwhelmed are familiar. They include the juggling act of working and raising families and maybe doing extra study too.
“When someone is working long hours and/or studying they have to withdraw from their family and their partner at times. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you’re fully engaged with the family in those times when you’re with them. But it’s a problem when you’re not fully engaged with them and with other things like getting enough sleep and exercise,” she says.
There’s nothing new about trying to balance work and family but what’s different now is that we’ve raised the bar, according to McGee.
“So much more is expected of us. We have to do the same juggling act but we have to look good doing it and look like we’re living the perfect life. Social media can be wonderful but it can also heighten this feeling that we need to measure up and can contribute to making people feel more self-critical.”
So how can we avoid becoming overwhelmed? A dose of self-compassion is a good start.
“It’s often people who are most self-critical who are especially vulnerable to work-related stress. Learning to be kinder to ourselves, to not hold ourselves to unrealistic standards and to deal with past hurts and rejections are some of the keys to coping better,” she says.
“When people are really self-critical there’s often an underlying reason. Even a chance remark by a teacher that implied you weren’t good enough can have lasting effects. This is why it’s how we interpret events in our life that can influence whether or not we develop anxiety or depression,” she says. “With the guidance of a psychologist we can become more aware of negative thinking and learn to be less self-critical.”
But we also need to take stock of other people’s demands on us.
“You have to learn to say no. Sometimes we can take on other people’s dramas and it adds to our own load of stress. But if you put everyone else first and take responsibility for other people’s problems you risk eroding your own wellbeing.”
It’s no secret that our best defence against stress is eating healthy food and getting enough sleep and exercise. But these may be the first things sacrificed in busy lives, McGee says.
“There’s a lot of information around about how to get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy diet and get enough exercise but it doesn’t mean people take it on. Yet you can deal with anything if your body, your head and your relationship are in a good place.
“We need to take action when we find we’re constantly pushing ourselves to get through difficult and stressful times and ignoring physical and mental exhaustion in order to get things done. We can all be in situations like that from time to time and we can manage it. But when it’s persistent it’s time to do something.”
For help and advice, McGee suggests contacting Beyondblue which has a 24-hour support service or asking their GP if they’re eligible for Medicare rebates for sessions with a registered psychologist under the Better Access for Mental Health Care Initiative.