Tacking the taboos of workplace stress

08th Feb

Martin ‘The Warrior’ Warrillow on his battles for work-life balance

Stress is pernicious in that it creeps up on you unnoticed. It certainly crept up on me. Like everyone of my age, I had my annual health-check every April or May and in my case, the medics were supposed to take even more notice than usual of the results of that ‘MOT’ because of my medical history.

I was born with a mild form of spina bifida and hydrocephalus, while I was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2006-7 after suffering more than a dozen grands mal seizures over an 18-month period – the great big ‘fall out of bed, roll on the floor, lose control of your bodily functions’ type of seizure. Yet no-one flagged up issues over my cholesterol levels, no-one expressed concern about my blood pressure until I was lying paralysed in hospital post-stroke and having my blood-pressure checked multiple times per day. And with hindsight, the stress had been building for many months before the dam(or to be more precise, the artery in the back of my brain) burst at just after 3.15pmon Monday December 16 2013.

My work environment had become more and more unpleasant (I was a freelance journalist, editing a magazine from home for an organisation with an increasingly toxic management structure), I was not allowing myself to have a proper work life balance, working at both ends of the day and never switching off and I wasn’t building a proper support network around me.

Instead, like far too many men in that position, I was bottling it up. I wouldn’t tell my wife that I was concerned about the situation because it’s far easier and much more macho to say: “No, I’m OK, I can cope, it’s fine”; the people within the organisation who were on my side weren’t willing or able to confront those contributing to the toxic environment and I had nowhere outside that environment where I could let off steam.

Sure, I had my mates with whom I would spend time in the pub or watching Tamworth Football Club but when I was with them, I would talk about our shared love of real ale and/or non-league football – not about whether they had any thoughts about what I should do. It was a distraction from my increasingly difficult work situation; none of it was helping me find a way to reduce the stress or look for a way out.

The only place that was happening was in my head, which was already becoming overloaded with worries. And I hope that by writing these columns, I can help to contribute to a change in attitudes where men’s’ mental health is concerned. Because we aren’t very good at talking about this stuff. The prevailing view within society, especially within the business world, is that men should just suck it up and get on with it; work the 17-hour days and think about all the money we are putting in the bank so that we can retire early and spend time with our wives and kids on that beach in the Caribbean.

But what happens if early retirement never comes? What happens if a heart attack or a brain tumour or a stroke gets there first? Recently, I was talking to someone who works at one of the big insurance companies in Birmingham City Centre. He told me that he recognised his boss in the scenario I’ve just described – first into the office at 6.30am and last out at 9.30pm, often working at home at weekends. When questioned, the boss would say: “If I do this for a few years now, I can be a managing partner by the time I’m 50 and retire early soon afterwards.”

The pay-off to this story, of course, is that the would-be managing partner never got there. He suffered a heart attack in his late-40s and all that money in the bank, all those Caribbean holidays, went up in smoke. So there are two lessons I want to get across in this column. If you feel that work stress is getting to you, don’t bottle it up. Instead, do something about it. Talk to a sympathetic colleague, talk to your family, ask for help. And if you feel as if your work-life balance is getting out of kilter, do something about it. Set boundaries, turn your phone off at a sensible hour, don’t answer emails after a certain time. It’s not being weak, it’s being sensible.

After all, which would you prefer? That Caribbean holiday once a year or the thought that you left your family alone because you pursued the impossible dream and killed yourself, or nearly killed yourself, in the process?

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