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     Volume 7 Issue 40 | October 10, 2008 |

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My Work is Messing Up My Life!

Mehtab Ghazi Rahman

Get rid of unnecessary stress. Courtesy: pro.corbis.com

A friend of mine, Samiya (not her real name), called me a few days back, sounding exhausted and irritable. Working as a banker at a top financial institution, her work demands long working hours and a hundred percent dedication every day. I was not surprised when Samiya glumly mentioned how reluctant she was to go back to work after the Eid holidays, more so because her 4 year old son had said 'Ammu, please don't go back to work because I miss you and you are always angry with us after you return back home from work in the evening.' Only then did Samiya realise that she was not fooling anyone; her stressful job meant she was spending less time with family and becoming more short-tempered as each day passed.

'My son's words were an eye-opener for me,' says Samiya, 'All this time, I was under the misconception that I was shielding the intolerable stress at work from my family. Only now have I realised that I have been taking out my frustrations at work on my family. I find myself shouting and being difficult most of the time. And this is not the end. Sometimes I wake up at five in the morning, worried sick about whether I will be able to meet deadlines at work, and there is always a constant fear that I shall not be able to live up to expectations. I don't know whether I can cope much longer.'

The symptoms Samiya describes is not uncommon, specially among ambitious young professionals with high octane careers and busy lives. The psychological symptoms of sleeplessness, irritability and fear that Samiya describes are common in those suffering 'work related stress'. Stress in the working environent can cause raised blood pressure, headaches, palpitations and indigestion. If ignored, stress can lead to serious complications such as severe depression and panic attacks.

Samiya tells me, 'I have no one to speak to about the stress I am going through. I don't want to bother my husband as he himself is quite stressed from work. My boss is not ready to hear my problems, all he wants are results and targets. I haven't been eating well, have bad skin and have lost so much weight. I am just too exhausted and don't know how much longer I can go on.' It was obvious that Samiya was slowly cracking under work pressure and it wouldn't be long before she gave up completely.

The solution to dealing with work related stress is certainly not giving up one's job, as this is the means to pay for your rent and expenditures and running your life. If you work in a highly competitive work environment (e.g., bankers, journalists, lawyers) or are responsible for handling a large number of individuals (e.g., teachers, doctors, managers), you are one of those at risk of developing stress. One of the major reasons behind stress in the work place is bottling up one's tension and stress, so it's always useful to have someone to talk to at the office and sharing your thoughts.

It is difficult to draw the line between the pressures of a highy competitive career and one's personal life, and sooner or later, many people start losing sense of their own selves. It is easy to end up feeling unsatisfied with one's performance at work, relationship with close ones and parenting ability when stress starts to eat into one's life.

To many, including Samiya, stress in the work place is something that has little meaning and a concept that is often rejected without a second thought. What people need to understand is that stress has been linked to diverse conditions such as heart disease, infertility, skin conditions, hair loss and psychological illness, and hence needs to be tackled as a priority.

Infertility is specially worrying for career-minded young women. One in seven couples in the UK struggle to conceive, and long term stress and anxiety is the major reason behind the infertility. Research has shown that women who lead a stressful life have high levels of a hormone called 'cortisol' in their bodies, that inhibits ovulation, and thus conception. Fortunately, stress related infertility can be treated and reversed. In men too, high levels of stress may lead to lowered sperm count.

One of the early and major manifestations of high stress is hair loss. The number of people suffering from hair loss has doubled over the past decade, with more than half complaining of balding and considerable thinning of hair. Hair loss is usually genetic, but this process can be catalysed by the hormonal imbalances caused by stress. Stress affects the body's ability to absorb nutrients and induces a rise in a hormone called adrenaline, which is broken down to a compound called 'dihydrotestosterone' that brings about hair loss. Hair loss is rarely recoverable, so it is important to learn how to deal with stress before it causes too much damage. Maintain a good diet rich in Vitamin B, dairy products and iron rich food such as red meat and spinach. Try not to miss out on breakfast, as this is the time when the hair follicles have low supplies of nutrition.

Adult acne is also another debilitating symptom of high stress. Stress increases levels of testosterone in both men and women, which make oil glands in the skin more active and encourage growth of bacteria in skin, causing acne, or pimples. Over the counter preparations such as Benzoyl Peroxide are helpful to fight acne, but unless the underlying cause, i.e., stress, is tackled, the acne will keep on coming back.

So, the burning questions is how can work related stress be tackled?

First, try to identify the real reason behind your stress. Is it the long commute to the office that tires you out even before you start working? Are you taking up too much work beyond your ability? Do you feel you are not qualified enough to tackle jobs handed over to you? Do you find it difficult to stand up for yourself and find it diffucult to say 'no'? If so, you are not the only one. Speak to someone and share you concerns, and you would be surprised at how many of your colleagues share the same feelings as yourself. Knowing you are not the only one is the stepping-stone to tacking your stress.

Second, analyse your time management skills. Do you feel that your colleagues are distracting you? Having to wait around to use the computer to write up a report? Taking constant tea breaks, or having personal conversations on the phone during office hours? Saving even 30 minutes by being more time efficient means you have that extra time to spend with your family and loved ones at home, or simply relax to alleviate your stress.

Third, take part in activities that you enjoy doing. Not only will this refresh your mind and temporarily take the pressures off work, it will also make you feel worthwhile, be positive and feel appreciated when you do the activity well.

Fourth, ensure that you draw the line between work and family. Your family should not have to bear the brunt of your stresses at work. Separating work from family life is paramount to leading a healthy, happy life.

Fifth, and most importantly, ask yourself whether you are in the right job in the first place. If you enjoy your work, it should be a pleasure, not a bane in your life. Do you like what you do, or do you see it as just another job? Do you feel you were happier working for a different person or a previous employer? If such is the case, it would be wise to analyse your career path again.

If you feel that stress in the work place is causing significant health problems such as anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, high blood pressure and depression, it would be best to go and see a doctor immediately. The good news is that stress related counselling and medication can easily treat symptoms, and it is always wise to bring these symptoms to a stop before they cause significant and irreversible damage to your body.

Stress affects different people in different ways. It can affect anybody and is not a sign of weakness. The main way of dealing with it is by leading a balanced life and knowing when to seek help. Millions across the world suffer from work related stress. Like Samiya, if you suffer from stress related symptoms, remember that you are certainly not the only one and help is available to help you get through it.

As Samiya puts it, 'I was blaming myself for all the troubles I have been going through, but it's a relief to know that I am not the only one going through such hardship. I want to take control of my own life once again, and be the same happy person I was before.'

(The author is a Biomedical Scientist from the University of London and is currently a finalist student-doctor at 'St. Bartholomew's & the Royal London' Medical School, UoL)


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