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Work phobias, murder fantasies and meltdowns

28 Aug 2019

The crazy truth about mental health at work

If you work a job, you've probably crumbled under pressure and told someone, "My job is driving me crazy!" But what if your mental health really can be put under strain by the office? Can you get mental health problems from being unhappy in your job?

Let's look at the darker side of how work can affect your mind – and what that means for your overall health.
Yes, you really can get a phobia of work

It’s called ‘ergophobia’ and it means a fear of either the act of working itself or fear and anxiety associated with your office or job that is like the social anxiety people with agoraphobia (fear of public spaces or crowds) experience.

People with this condition can experience serious fight-or-flight symptoms from just being in the office, from severe heart palpitations to hyperventilation. Ergophobia is rare though and most psychologists instead attribute anxious behaviour at work to people with existing psychological problems like depression or Generalised Anxiety Disorder that has simply been exacerbated by an unhappy office environment.

When work is murder

Even more disconcerting is the idea that many many people have fantasised about killing their bosses. These are almost always idle daydreams as opposed to recurring thoughts and never serious considerations, according to research, but still. Criminal psychologist Dr Julia Shaw, an honorary research associate at University College London, says thoughts of killing others were a ‘common phenomenon’ and an entirely human reaction. “There’s been research looking at participants and asking them if they’ve ever fantasised about murdering someone. More than half of people generally say yes, they have fantasised about murdering someone. Popular targets are your boss,” she says.

Realistic problems

The truth is, although we’ve all heard stories of the disgruntled office grunt suddenly waking up one day and walking into the office with a gun, the truth is that mental instability at work is far more subtle and common than we realise.

Common mental health problems associated with work include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, attention deficit disorders (ADD and ADHD) and paranoia. Roughly 16.5% of South African working adults are known to suffer one of these – a figure likely to be very conservative considering the stigmas still attached to mental illness here.

“People often misdiagnose anxiety or depression as stress. So many mental disorders overlap. If you get someone is stressed and that ‘can’t cope’ feeling can lead to a depressive episode, where someone gets the symptoms of depression like inability to get up in the morning,” says Liberty's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Dominique Stott.

Physical problems that happen when you hate work

One of the most common myths surrounding mental health issues anywhere is that they are ‘all in your head’, but the truth is that work negatively impacting your mental state has real effects on your body. Here are some of them:

  • Headaches and other physical aches – When you see the workplace as a danger zone, it keeps your muscles wound tight, according to the American Psychological Association. Chronic tension in the neck, shoulders and head often means migraines and tension headaches.
  • Waistline changes – Stress at work can lead to compulsive overeating and Cortisol, the stress hormone released when we are in prolonged emotional tension, which swells the midsection. Of course, weight gain leads to even more health problems often.
  • Insomnia – The most common and first sign reported in an unhealthy work environment is the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep or enter deep sleep due to residual anxiety and tension after a hard work day. Over time, insomnia causes serious physical and psychological problems.
  • Stomach trouble – Indigestion, constipation, bloating can all be associated with stress, because stress impacts digestion and can also change our gut bacteria
  • Productivity – According to the IDEA study of the London School of Economics and Political Science, depression costs the South African economy more than R230 billion annually in lost productivity, since depression often results in impaired concentration and cognition, plus absenteeism due to extreme fatigue or otherwise feeling unwell due to being depressed.

What you can do about it

Whether your boss understands it or not, experiencing depression, anxiety or other mental issues related to work is a condition which needs attention, just like diabetes would.

Taking time off to avoid burnout and incorporating stress-reducing activities into your lifestyle like meditation, exercise, community service and volunteering, seeing loved ones more regularly and self-care has been proven to help.

Also, go and see a qualified medical professional about your woes. Not only will they determine if you need medication, which can transform your life in under a week, but bosses unlikely to regard burnout as a real problem are unlikely to ignore an actual doctor’s note. Plus, as Dr Stott notes, “a good GP will explore what’s going on in the home environment or financial issues etc so the GP should then refer that patient to a psychologist or a mentor or coach who can treat that depression.”

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Work phobias, murder fantasies and meltdowns

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Liberty Group Limited (Reg. no 1957/002788/06) is a licensed Insurer and an Authorised Financial Services Provider (no 2409).