3 Employees Open Up About Stress and Mental Well-Being at Work

We spoke to three people about their experiences with stress at work, along with the key things they learned. Explore how organizations can support employee well-being.

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The Calm Team

8 min read

The biggest lie we’ve ever been told is that it’s normal to endure the workweek.

Yes, work can be tough—sometimes overwhelmingly so. Stress can be high, work environments can get to be too much, and lack of work/life balance can wear away at you. But one of the trickiest aspects of burnout or chronic work stress is that it can leave you feeling like nothing can be done about it. Luckily, this is far from true.

It can help to hear first-hand about how workplace support can actually make a difference. In this article, we’ll explore how real people have experienced mental health challenges at work—the situations that led to them being affected, the symptoms they developed, and the ways the people around them helped. We’ll then share some of our top tips for maintaining a healthy mental balance in difficult times.

Why is this important?

To understand how best to implement change—either at an organizational level, or in our immediate circles—we need to understand how people are falling into these mental holes, the warning signs, and the steps we can take to alleviate the pressure or help out on a day-to-day basis.

Remember, no one stays at a fixed point on the mental health spectrum! We all experience some form of mental health challenges at some point.

In every client meeting, in every internal scrum, and in each quick trip through the break room—everyone is experiencing their own invisible mental health journey. In every interaction, good days and bad days are playing out in front of you. Being mindful of that can help you build your own mental resilience, be more forgiving, and feel less alone in moments of struggle.

Here are a few first-hand experiences of workplace struggles and support, told in each person’s own words:

When time and tools help you recharge

Alma, a Design Lead, started to feel an unfamiliar drain spread across all aspects of her work in the middle of a crunch time.

“I started to suspect something was up when I found myself absolutely dreading even the smallest tasks.

I identified as someone who was passionate about creative work, who would never drag themselves to a desk every day. But after weeks of a hefty workload crunch, the joy of it just sort of slipped away. I actually had a moment where I was like ‘Oh… is this burnout?’ I had heard about it, but had never felt it on such an affecting level.

My line manager had noticed the change in my demeanor, and asked me if I was okay. I sort of let everything spill out and told her I felt overwhelmed. She didn’t rush to offer encouragement or “fix it,” she just listened. Soon after, HR sent me an email compilation of resources and tools that were meant to help with mental wellness. I knew my company offered these kinds of things, but frankly I’d forgotten about them. Taking time to care for myself helped stop the downslide, and my schedule was eased up. I was able to build myself back up.”

When colleagues make the difference

Natalie, a Finance Manager, experienced extreme burnout before turning to her colleagues for help.

“My job is naturally high-pressure; I touch every part of the business. I was regularly working weekends, because they would give me urgent tasks at four on a Friday. It felt like there was no consideration for my time—if I ever pushed back, they’d act like I was being selfish. It made me feel like they didn’t value me having a personal life, and that put me in a bad place mentally. I was stressed, I was irritable, had no time for people, and lost interest in my work. There was a point I was calling in sick because I was so overwhelmed and couldn’t face the idea of going in. It was a bad situation, and I felt completely unsupported by management.

It was very much my colleagues that got me through that situation. They definitely saw that I was struggling, and they were regularly checking in on me, offering to chat, to go out for lunch, for walks… It made a big difference. I didn’t always feel up to talking, but being given a reason to get out from behind the desk helped to reduce the stress a bit. I think it’s really important to give people the opportunity to take themselves away, even briefly.”

When it helps to switch up the routine 

Will, an IT Support Engineer, started to lose interest in his job before realizing he needed to mix it up.

“I’m actually a person that really likes work. I like the challenge of it, I like solving problems, and I enjoy being good at what I do. But there was a point a couple of years back when I sort of slipped. I can’t think of a better term for it. 

I felt bored and restless, and that sort of evolved into feeling uninterested in the work I was doing. Things got really sloppy for a while there. I know the work I was turning in was sub-par, I was getting lazy about my punctuality, I just didn’t want anything to do with it all. I started regularly calling in sick; at one point I think I was off for a whole week or more because I just couldn’t bring myself to get up and go to the office. 

My manager was really supportive, though. Obviously, she noticed I’d done a complete 180, so she called me in and had a really frank talk with me. It kind of shocked me awake again. And we sorted things out. I started getting more different types of work, got a bit more balance back into my schedule, and they made it so I wasn’t getting millions of small tasks thrown my way. It wasn’t an overnight change, but it did help.”

What we can learn from these experiences: 

  • Speak up.

If you’re struggling, let people know. You may be surprised at how good it feels to just talk about it and release that weight. Plus, there are many different forms of support that can really make a difference. But you can’t get help if nobody knows you need it.

  • Pay attention to subtle signs of over-pushed limits. 

Part of the reason burnout creeps up on people is because it seeps in slowly. “Tough days” can easily lead to “tough weeks”—before suddenly you find yourself far beyond your limits, depleted. Because of the overwhelming nature of burnout, it’s surprisingly easy to not pay attention to this happening. By periodically checking in with yourself (in times good or bad), you can take measures to course-correct early on and avoid total exhaustion.

  • Check in with people you think may be struggling.

If someone you know—perhaps a colleague or a friend—appears to be acting differently, it’s worth reaching out to them and offering a listening ear. They may not take you up on your offer, but even the simple act of doing so can help people feel more supported. You can also offer other forms of support, such as extending invitations to get out of the office, taking people’s minds off their work, or even offering to help with workloads if you feel capable.

  • Building up mental fitness and resilience is vitally important to happiness at work.

Building your resilience won’t remove the external pressures that you or your colleagues may be facing, but it will help you take things in stride and experience the peaks and dips of the day without buckling under the strain.

What organizations can do to help: 

  • Take a proactive approach.

    That can mean intermittently sending out organization-wide emails reminding people about wellness programs and apps, as well as HR contact info for discreet support. It’s been a hard year, and many of your employees might be suffering in silence. Make it proactively known that your company cares enough to help them.
  • Offer mental health days—and strongly encourage their usage.

Chances are, you have some employees who could seriously benefit from a mental health day. While it’s not always easy to identify employees at risk of burnout, one alternative is to make sure they are available to everyone—not just aimed at those on the edge. Let your people know that it’s okay to take a break if they feel like they need it, and that it won’t reflect poorly on them at all. 

  • Re-evaluate how your workplace aids in burnout prevention.

The key here is asking the right questions: Do your employees have clear, private paths to reach out if they need support? Are you asking them how they’re doing? How do they feel about their workload? Is your organization properly communicating both expectations and appreciation? If these questions are difficult to answer across certain departments or the entire organization, it may be time to change things on a structural level.

It’s vital that we stay vigilant about mental health and wellness at work—particularly, about the warning signs that indicate we—or the people around us—might be struggling. After a challenging year, we’re seeing a promising rise in awareness around mental well-being, but there’s still some ground to cover in terms of normalizing the discussion. The more we feel comfortable talking openly about mental health struggles, the more we empower those suffering in silence to do the same. 

For more handy tips on coping with work challenges, check out our article: Meet These 5 Workplace Challenges with Mindfulness and Compassion. Or, if you want to try and work some healthy stress-reducing, calm-inducing routines into your daily work life, try these 3 Mid-Work Mindfulness Exercises You Can Do in 30 Seconds or Less.

And, if you’d like to get more content like this straight to your inbox, sign up for Breathing Space, our Calm for Business newsletter.

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