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Workplace Stress Worsened My Chronic Illness

COPD Basics

November 20, 2023

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Photography by VISUALSPECTRUM/Stocksy United

Photography by VISUALSPECTRUM/Stocksy United

by Anne-Marie Varga

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD

•••••

by Anne-Marie Varga

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD

•••••

Mine was an extreme case that led me to make an extreme change. But most situations can be resolved more easily.

Two months ago, I quit my job. I didn’t have anything lined up, and I didn’t know how I was going to pay rent or afford healthcare. I didn’t have a plan, but I was certain I had to get out.

In March, my Crohn’s disease came out of remission. I’m sure I can point to plenty of triggers for the change, but stress in the workplace, undoubtedly, was the main culprit.

I had been in my professional position for 5 years, and to say I was miserable would be an understatement. I dreaded opening my email. I cried at my desk, on average, two times a week. I had trouble sleeping and was riddled with anxiety about making any misstep that could set off my boss.

She had told me that anything other than perfection was unacceptable. As a result, I experienced emotional distress — from my anxiety, my boss’s verbal harassment, or both — any time I made a mistake.

My cries for help through our human resources department went unanswered. My manager’s manager shrugged. So, I left. To me, it seemed like the necessary choice I had to make for my mental and physical health.

Now, 2 months out, I have considerably less income. I’ve (legally) fled the country for healthcare in the United Kingdom. These life adjustments have been unbelievably difficult, frustrating, and scary, but despite the turbulence, I have not once doubted my decision.

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The sources of stress

The World Health Organization defines work-related stress as “the response people may have when presented with demands and pressures that … challenge their ability to cope.” This stress could be caused by many things, including demanding expectations, business changes, lack of support from colleagues and supervisors, and little control over work processes.

Workplace stress may build gradually, but it’s important to identify the signs, for both individuals and teams.

Some flags that may indicate high levels of stress for teams are high turnover, decreased performance, increased complaints, arguments, and increased absences.

At the individual level, employees may become withdrawn; arrive or start work late; take more time off; experience a loss of motivation, commitment, and confidence; or have more emotional reactions (crying or arguing, for example).

It took me 5 years to truly understand that I had not failed but that my supervisors and my company had failed me.

I tried my best to manage my stress in an environment that had set me up to fail. All things considered, I think I did pretty well! But I’m only human, and as much as I wanted to climb the corporate ladder, I knew I had to remove myself from that environment once my health was compromised. Some things are more important than a job title.

Don’t be like me. Don’t neglect your emotional well-being to the point that it starts negatively affecting your physical health. If you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or another chronic condition and are having trouble coping with stress in the workplace, here are five ways to help manage it.

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Phone a friend

It may seem that your frustrations are unique to you and that loved ones in your life won’t understand your work problems — especially if they don’t work in the same company. But I found it immensely helpful to lean on those who knew me and understood me outside of the workplace.

Though I felt constantly belittled in my job, my family and friends reminded me that I had a voice and that I was smart, talented, and capable. They listened to me rage for 5 (FIVE!) years (thank you, my wonderful support system, for being so comforting when I most needed it).

If you need a bit more support, then you may want to consider seeing a mental health professional. I sought therapy during my first year in the job, and my therapist changed my life. She helped me notice (and change) certain behaviors and counseled me on techniques to use in the workplace to alleviate my stress.

Find an outlet

I strongly — STRONGLY — suggest finding something outside of work that sparks a bit of joy. To me, movement is therapeutic. I work out consistently and find it to be the best stress reliever in my life. (If you’re currently super stressed, may I suggest kickboxing? Taking out all of your frustrations on a punching bag? Incredible.)

Think about things you enjoy that might help calm you — it could be baking, crocheting, pottery, walking dogs, making coffee, or listening to music. I also used to make plans for after work, like going to an exercise class or going shopping with a friend, which would give me something to look forward to at the end of the workday.

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Relax

Relaxation is something that, to me, seems easy in theory but is much harder in practice. Slowing down? Being alone with your thoughts?

But practice helps. You can try deep breathing exercises to help calm your nervous system. Or consider mindfulness — the state of being actively aware of your surroundings and thoughts without judging them. This allows you to have more control over your stress so it doesn’t have control over you. Whenever I received an upsetting email, I’d step away from my computer and go for a walk.

Aside from relaxing, make sure you take time to recharge. Take your vacation days. Take a personal day. If you’re not feeling well, take that sick day! Allow your brain the break it deserves. Ideally, you’ll come back to work at a pre-stress level of functioning and be able to perform your work duties more effectively.

Establish boundaries

When I got hired at my job, it was my first position out of grad school and my first real Big Girl job. I remember being so excited to add my shiny new work email to my Gmail account. I look back now and laugh. What once was so shiny and exciting soon became a constant source of anxiety and stress.

Though we may leave some work at the office, it’s become easier and easier for our stress to follow us. In our digital world, much of our work lives on our phones and laptops. I encourage you to break the habit of checking email on your phone — especially during off-hours. If you have a designated work phone, consider turning it off once you leave the office.

You’re the only one who can break this habit. So set boundaries for yourself and hold yourself accountable. If you take time off, permit yourself to enjoy it and remember that it’s a vacation from the stress. I promise it’ll be there for you when you get back.

If you’re feeling bold, maybe you’ll consider deleting your work email from your phone. If that seems a bit extreme, then set strict time limits for yourself for checking emails (for example, I had a hard stop for checking email after 6 p.m., and if I were to check it on weekends, it’d be only on Sunday evening after 8 p.m.) Nine times out of ten, that urgent, extreme problem that requires immediate attention can most likely be dealt with tomorrow.

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Talk to a supervisor — or a trusted colleague

So, yeah, I tried talking with my supervisor and my supervisor’s supervisor and the HR department, and that didn’t work. But I feel (and hope) that it may have been unique to my situation and my company.

Most companies — if they have good management — want you to succeed. Talk with your manager or your team about your stressors and have a conversation with them about your work lifestyle. Help is usually available to those who ask for it.

Also consider seeking guidance outside of upper management. I looked at a colleague a few years older than myself as a mentor of sorts. She could truly empathize with my frustrations because she had experienced similar feelings only a few years ago.

She was also familiar with our colleagues, processes, and projects and completely understood many of my disappointments in a way that my loved ones, who didn’t work in our company, didn’t quite grasp. She was a beacon of light for me during my time at the company.

I guarantee that you’re not the only one stressing about your job. Talk with your colleagues and find a pillar of support. It did wonders for me to know that someone in my department had my back.

If you don’t receive the help and support you seek, please remember that it’s not a reflection on you. I thought, because I was struggling with managing my stress in the workplace, that I was failing. It took me 5 years to truly understand that I had not failed but that my supervisors and my company had failed me.

The takeaway

The word “quit” has such a negative connotation. To me, it’s synonymous with giving up. I was raised to stick to my commitments and always put forth my best effort. In hindsight, that may have been the biggest reason it took me so long to leave my position — I considered it to be giving up.

I try not to think of my decision to leave as quitting. Instead, I think of it as course-correcting. Sometimes doubt sneaks in, questioning why I couldn’t make it work. I have to continually remind myself that “rejection” is simply redirection and “failure” is simply an opportunity for change.

Since this course-correction, my IBD symptoms have been improving significantly. Of course, I still have daily stressors — I haven’t rid my life of stress completely — but the daily anxiety has greatly subsided.

If, after trying all of the above, you’re still having trouble managing your stress, then maybe it’s time for you to course-correct. You have not failed, and you have not given up. You are allowing yourself to try something new.

I know how scary it is, but I can honestly say, now that I’m on the other side, that a much healthier and happier lifestyle is waiting for you. Let yourself have it.

Medically reviewed on November 20, 2023

3 Sources

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About the author

Anne-Marie Varga

Anne-Marie Varga has a dual degree in English Literature and French from the University of Michigan and a Master’s in Digital Media from New York University. She’s an aspiring novelist based in Brooklyn, New York, and is currently working in children’s book publishing. When she’s not writing, she’s most likely watching the Great British Bakeoff or doing her part to dismantle the patriarchy. You can check her out on Instagram, Twitter, or at her website.

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