Let's skip back to the beginning of 2016, to when I was about to start what I thought was going to be my dream job, my big break, the beginning of my success story. I excitedly told my friends, boyfriend and family about my imminent rise and counted down the days until I started, like a child at Christmas. But from my very first day, I knew something wasn’t right. My built-in warning signal began to flash. On my way home I cried down the phone to my mum – and continued to do so for the next few weeks.
Although never diagnosed, in my late teens I had suffered bouts of anxiety, but they were nothing compared to what I felt in the months after starting my new job. It began with a funny feeling in my stomach, like you get on a rollercoaster, and then escalated over time into panic, insomnia and heart palpitations. I had come into the job with the understanding that it was one thing, only to find out that it had been (IMO) misrepresented, which was gutting enough without the daily criticism, difficult and egotistical managers, and contentious office politics that would often become personal. Feeling demotivated and undervalued quickly manifested as full-blown anxiety.
While I had always been super "on it" in my previous jobs, and was now tasked with work that wasn’t above my skill level, I started to feel useless, and this quickly turned into panic whenever I was given a new task. A panic that I knew meant I wasn’t working to my full potential or capacity; it became a dangerous cycle. The high turnover of staff around me eased my fears in some ways and raised them in others; at least it wasn’t just me, I reasoned – but then the devil on my shoulder would counter by telling me I was trapped unless I never wanted to work in this industry again.
On top of this, I started feeling that if I couldn’t handle this situation then maybe my chosen profession wasn’t for me, which kickstarted an existential crisis. It is no exaggeration to say that there was a lot going on in my mind and I found it physically and mentally exhausting trying to reason with myself and stay on a rational path.
It began with a funny feeling in my stomach, like you get on a rollercoaster, and then escalated into panic, insomnia and heart palpitations
When my mum gently suggested that I might need to speak to someone about my inability to drag myself out of my months-long rut, I argued that I was fine and just needed some time off. In the end, it was my failure to prevent my 9-to-5 woes affecting the rest of my life that prompted me to change my mind, take a leap of faith and book an appointment at a well-known clinic in London.
My first foray into therapy wasn’t at all what I expected, namely because there were no crushed-velvet chaises longues to lie down on. But after relaxing into the (still very comfy) grey sofa, I found myself opening up about my work issues and – most importantly – the way they had made me feel. As someone who tends to reveal my true feelings only to my mum, it was refreshing and empowering to open up and still enjoy a certain sense of anonymity.
My therapist taught me about meditation, mindfulness and so much more. She reassured me that my work issue wasn’t me and pointed out that the behaviour I had been subjected to wasn’t normal, acceptable or warranted. She equipped me with coping methods while I gathered my thoughts, and eventually gave me the strength to resign. She fist-pumped the air when I told her that I had.
"Approximately 50% of individuals suffering from anxiety and depression report that work is one of the top three reasons that tend to lead them to seek professional help," says Dr Elena Touroni, a psychologist at the Chelsea Psychology Clinic. Dr Touroni’s clients cite issues such as "long working hours, very demanding professional roles, office politics, difficulties in management relationships and lack of work-life balance", or considering a career change, as influencing their decision to seek therapy. These issues tend to lead to them "displaying both symptoms of depression and anxiety", she says.
"I’ve done very well in my career, which I’m thankful for, but there is an argument for too much too young and I don’t think I was emotionally equipped for the responsibility of the titles I had. Of course, when you’re given big promotions in your early 20s, you just say yes and try to act the part but the more you progress, the harder it can be to keep up with your own success."
While Sarah’s course of therapy didn’t directly address her work issues, it did help her feel more confident in herself and her decisions. "It also helped with really simple, practical things like problem-solving, not taking on too much and allowing myself time to breathe (not literally) when I feel overwhelmed. Basically it taught me the importance of being kind to yourself, which is actually critical to being a good boss and a good employee."
With 77% of the UK workforce admitting that they have experienced some form of mental health issue during their career, and the average cost of sickness absence in the UK totalling around 2.8% of working time, or 6.5 days lost per employee, it pays to invest in the mental health of your staff. So it's no wonder that more companies are starting to take note and show an interest in the emotional health of their people.
Facebook’s Silicon Valley office boasts an in-house wellness centre providing a variety of treatments and, as a whole, the company offers its employees a range of holistic benefits, wherever they are in the world. But it's not just tech companies that have stepped up – the Royal Mail, Johnson & Johnson and Santander have also invested in the mental health of their employees. Since the Royal Mail started to focus on mental wellbeing through awareness-raising initiatives and encouraging openness around mental health (as well as offering health screenings and physiotherapy), it has seen productivity gains, reduced absence and increased engagement from staff. Santander’s 'Positive about Mental Health' programme recognises the business benefit of investing in the mental health of its employees; Johnson & Johnson gives staff access to on-site massage therapists as part of its stress management strategy; and Sweaty Betty offers staff yoga classes (naturally).
"All businesses should be offering services that focus on wellbeing to their employees to facilitate improved resilience to the pressure that they encounter in their working environment," says Dr Touroni. "Companies should have access to specialist mental health services for employees who develop symptoms of common emotional difficulties in the work environment."
The thing with therapy is, they make you talk. Don’t waste time feeling nervous because rest assured, they’ve heard it all before
Nervous? You shouldn’t be. After that first encounter, I now really look forward to my Wednesday-evening sessions and always come out feeling like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Coupled with the knowledge that conversations about mental health are becoming more and more prominent, I’ve even been able to divulge to those I trust that I’ve sought help due to my workplace experiences.
"The increased awareness around mental health has, for me, really reduced the stigma of going to therapy," agrees Sarah. "The thing with therapy is, they make you talk. It’s a waste of time and money unless you talk, so my advice to anyone about to start therapy is don’t waste time feeling nervous because rest assured, they’ve heard it all before and they need to understand where you’re coming from in order to help you – they won't just guess what's wrong."
While I feel 100 times better now, I still have momentary glitches – but at least I’m now equipped to deal with them in a more positive manner. I recognise that therapy will only help me move forward so, for the time being, I still make my Wednesday-evening appointments a priority, and arrange my back-to-normal social life around them.
My work may have driven me to therapy, but therapy has enabled me to move past that experience and refocus my career in a healthy, positive manner. And for that I will be forever grateful.