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Anxiety, panic, and workplace stress.

Posted Sep 22 2008 11:07am

Is your job driving you crazy? You're not alone.

A recent study shows that stress in the workplace causes mental health problems, specifically depression and anxiety. According to an article about the study:
The paper, published in the British journal Psychological Medicine, found that women who reported high levels of psychological job demands - such as long hours, pressure or lack of clear direction - were 75 per cent more likely to suffer from clinical depression or general anxiety disorder than women who reported the lowest levels.

Men with high levels of these work stress factors were 80 per cent more likely to be depressed or anxious than those with the lowest levels.

That's not the end of the story, though. In addition to being a source of stress significant enough to cause depression and anxiety, the workplace can even cause phobic behavior and panic. According to another article:
[S]cientists [have] declared workplace phobia a real illness requiring careful treatment.

A fear of the workplace, the people in it and problems that arise there are not simply a figment of the neurotic mind, they said, it is a separate condition that doctors must be aware of...

"Like other forms of anxiety, job-anxieties can present in the form of panic, hypochondriac fears, work-related worrying, post-traumatic stress, or work-related social anxieties.

"Anxiety can lead to avoidance. Job anxiety can therefore be one explanation for sick leave, work absenteeism, or early retirement."

These studies aren't surprising to me in the least. Even in the best circumstances, the myriad rules of the workplace, both official ("each employee is required to wear no fewer than 15 pieces of flair") and unspoken ("you keep your personal life to yourself while at work, no matter how much it might be tearing you up inside") can be unjustifiably controlling and/or unnatural.

In many ways my first job out of college was a good one. It paid pretty well, and it wasn't without the occasional rewarding intellectual challenge. But my boss was a simmering cauldron of aggression held just barely in check. I'd feel it pouring from him all day long, and as a result, for me, being around him was an ongoing exercise in walking on eggshells. Unfortunately, in my first months on the job, my boss's anger had been caused a few times too often by something I'd done, and even after a couple of years on the job I still had a real fear of upsetting him again. I consider it quite possible that the tension I felt with my boss contributed to my development of panic disorder during these same years.

In another job, a few years later, at Citibank -- I'd returned to corporate life to make a few bucks before going to grad school -- I began to develop a phobia of working in an office. My panic attacks were out of control during this time -- I was having multiple attacks each day during the workweek, and going to work each day entailed a serious psychic battle. Without knowing quite what was happening to me -- this was before I first learned that there was something called panic disorder -- I was being worn down by the effort to get through each workday, with the end result being that I developed a fell-fledged, primal fear of corporate office parks, cubicle farms, and the likes that I still haven't overcome completely to this day, 20 years later. So, yeah, the idea that the workplace can cause mental illness, as well as be the focus of a mental illness, doesn't really knock me off my feet.

It shouldn't surprise you, either. We're not the first people to have figured out that work can be bad for your health. Consider the Japanese concept of Karoshi:
The first case of karoshi was reported in 1969 with the death from a stroke of a 29- year old, married male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper company. Karoshi can be translated quite literally as "death from overwork." The major medical causes of karoshi-deaths are heart attack and stroke, including subarachnoidal hemorrhage (18.4%), cerebral hemorrhage (17.2%), cerebral thrombosis or infarction (6.8%), myocardial infarction (9.8%), heart failure (18.7%), and other causes (29.1%).
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