With hundreds of thousands UK workers affected, GP and author Dr Ellie Cannon lifts the lid on key signs that your job is making you ill
When it comes to your job, a gripe here and there is normal and to be expected – but for many of us work-based woes are far more intrusive than simple Sunday-night blues. More than half a million workers are suffering work-related stress, depression or anxiety: of 100,000 women in the workplace, 1,880 suffer – a figure that is far higher in careers such as nursing and teaching.
In 10 years of general practice, I have treated a range of women affected by work-related illness – and a substantial part of recovery comes from adopting trivial changes which leave you both healthier and happier. Here are my top tips.
1. The classic sign of stress is feeling there is so much to think about, you cannot concentrate on a single task: your mind is racing so much that it all feels like an enormous hurdle rather than an easy-to-define to-do list. Feeling out of control starts to feel uncomfortable, as you feel you are not coping with your workload. Nurture yourself by taking control: of course that can be hard with a boss-from-hell, so look at other areas of your life. Improve or change your journey to work (could it be better and calmer?), mix up what you have for lunch (why not boost yourself with a homemade lunch?), or even re-think who you spend your breaks with. Empowering yourself will improve your confidence to cope with the larger, destructive situations at work.
2. Lacking motivation and losing pleasure in activities you should enjoy like socialising or hobbies can be a clear sign of work-related depression. Resilience at work can be cultivated by supportive healthy relationships – whether that is through the mentorship or support of a good leader, or friendship with colleagues. Any relationship you invest in at work will improve your mood: take every opportunity to connect.
3. Trouble at home can start at work: work-related stress can have a very negative impact on all relationships – not just partners but parents and children, too. When hours meant for your personal life are dedicated to overtime, worrying about work or feeling ill, the fallout will be felt in your relationships. A digital detox will get you back in the home-zone and allow you to concentrate on these important people. Make certain times, activities and places in your life phone-free zones: start with all mealtimes and the bedroom. Buy an alarm clock and a watch so you are not constantly looking at the phone as a clock.
4. Insomnia is a classic sign of work-related stress, anxiety and depression. It affects you physically but it can also have a profound impact on mental state causing anxiety and low mood. This vicious cycle worsens your sleep and further worsens your mood. Even minor sleep improvements will break that cycle. Think carefully about what you do in the last hours before bed: opt for relaxing things like reading or taking a bath, rather than working, screens or eating. Eat early in the evening and likewise avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the later hours. Exercise is essential but it is too stimulating in the hours before bed.
5. For a long time there has been a known association between how our minds are feeling and how our digestive system reacts. It is no surprise that work stress can cause digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, pain and nausea. Consider how your dietary habits at work are contributing to your gut issues: grabbing a processed breakfast as you fly out your door is not conducive to good gut health. Sit down and have a proper breakfast, even if it means getting up earlier. Plan what you are going to eat at work and take snacks such as nuts, fruit, yoghurt or wholegrain cereals, so you have something to grab when you need.
6. If you feel like you are ill all the time with coughs and colds, it may be the result of stress you are feeling at work. Stress and emotional issues weaken the immune system; combine that with a germ-filled commute and minimal TLC and it’s a perfect storm. Exercise is one of the lifestyle changes you can make that has a significant impact on this and your mental health. Be realistic in your goals: do nothing drastic, just walk more. Take the stairs, walk some of your commute (10-15 minutes) or take time out to go for a walk. As simple as that.
Is Your Job Making You Ill?: How to survive and thrive when it happens to you by Dr Ellie Cannon is available in trade paperback (Piatkus, £14.99)