Don’t wait until it’s too late
While a certain amount of work-related stress is the norm, it should never turn into an actual mental health problem, such as an anxiety disorder or clinical depression. How can employees judge if they, or others, are heading towards this? And what can employers do to prevent the situation from reaching crisis point? PETA LEE explores the topic
Mandy Joubert is a high-powered sales representative; constantly on the go, negotiating and making deals. The pressure to reach high targets motivates her daily grind. Focus and dedication are her rule of thumb, with no distractions.
Last year her performance dropped dramatically, however, and her declining sales figures were accompanied by increasingly stressful financial pressure.
She was also experiencing marital problems. Her ex-husband and father of her two daughters was refusing to contribute to her children’s expenses, and it didn’t take long (she had recently remarried) to discover that her new husband was an alcoholic.
“I was desperately unhappy,” says the Durban sales representative. “My jaw was perpetually sore from clenching my teeth. My tolerance levels decreased, so I was losing my temper quickly over small issues. My depression led to me shunning social interaction, not wanting to be around people, and I took my unhappiness and bad moods out on my daughters.”
Her job was badly affected. “I snarled at colleagues, battled to make sales, and thus reach my targets, and my relationship with my girls disintegrated. I was tired, unhappy and heading towards a complete breakdown.”
Joubert made two major decisions: she left her husband, and sought medical help. Three months later, her life has turned around. She has regained her spark and vitality, her relationship with her children has improved 100 percent, and her previously impressive sales figures are back on track.
“Luckily, I have an understanding boss who saw what I was going through and allowed me to work through it,” she says.
Johannesburg’s Dave Forbes, who heads up a bustling architectural practice, believes prevention is better than cure – and he speaks from experience, having been on both sides of the equation.
“My wife and I lost our two-year-old son five years ago, and I suffered from terrible depression for a long time. I nearly lost my business – and my wife – and it took professional help for me to climb out of the dark hole into which I’d sunk.
“I was lucky I was able to turn that emotional corner – which now enables me to recognise anxiety and depression in others, like my staff, for instance. A close colleague was recently treated for depression and I was able to understand his suffering and offer some sound advice.”
How do you know when you’re heading for a total meltdown?
Alistair Mork-Chadwick, a counselling psychologist from the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands specialising in mood disorders like depression, anxiety and its related challenges, explains:
“For major depressive disorder (MDD) to be diagnosed, most of the following symptoms must be present most of the day, nearly every day. However, if you start to notice certain symptoms creeping into your daily life, then, although you might not be diagnosed as clinically depressed, it’s very probable you’re heading there and should take action to prevent this.”
Physical symptoms would include: change in appetite or weight loss/gain; change in sleep patterns, for instance, insomnia, or sleeping more than usual; fatigue/loss of energy; and psychomotor agitation, or retardation.
“Thinking-related symptoms also come into play, like diminished ability to think or concentrate, indecisiveness and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide,” Mork-Chadwick adds. “And then there are emotional symptoms, like feelings of worthlessness, excessive or inappropriate guilt and hopelessness.”
Alternative symptoms of depression, sometimes referred to as “male-type” symptoms, include irritability, anger attacks and aggression, sleep disturbance, alcohol or drug abuse, risk-taking behaviour, hyperactivity, stress and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.
“The common symptoms of a major depressive episode, for example, clinical (or major) depression, can make work and daily life almost impossible,” says Mork-Chadwick. “Depression often prevents you from seeing the positive side of life and it can affect between 20 and 25 percent of the population at some stage. The good news is it’s treatable.”
How can employers detect and help to prevent MDD in their staff?
“Bosses must realise that MDD is, in at least 75 percent of cases, the direct result of chronic stress. So try to ensure that staff don’t have ongoing or chronic stress at work, and, if stress is part of a particular job, then consider how you can help them deal with it. Perhaps you can make resources available to train employees to deal with stress.”
Stress and depression can affect anyone, but various measures can help prevent and treat both. These include a healthy diet and exercise, training in stress reduction (mindfulness-based training is beneficial), therapy and medication.