Ask An Adult: When Do I Need To Worry About Feeling Work Doom?

Everyone suffers a bit with pre-Monday morning work anxiety, but when do work jitters turn into a real problem? Illustration by Hye Jin Chung


by Sophie Cullinane |
Published on

If you’ve been working in even a remotely stressful job for any length of time, inevitably you will have experienced some variation of the following.

It’s Sunday night – even worse when it's Monday and you've had a long, leisurely bank holiday – and the weekend is slowly drawing to a close. You’ve managed to keep work away from your mind for most of the day with a couple of glasses of wine, a pub Sunday lunch and idle chit-chat with your mates about who got off with who on Saturday night.

It’s been a good day. But, inevitably, the time comes when you can no longer ignore the crushing inevitability of work the next morning and eventually you have to say goodnight to your housemates and take yourself off to bed.

It’s fine, you tell yourself, all you have to do is stick on an episode of something chilled on your laptop, set your alarm and go to sleep. No problem. But then the episode finishes and silence slowly descends on your bedroom.

You roll over and will yourself to fall asleep, but then your phone vibrates near your head and – even though you know you should ignore it – suddenly you’re checking your emails because there’s a chance it could be work.

Obviously it isn’t – it’s Pizza Express telling you about their latest deal – but that doesn’t stop you reading through Friday afternoon’s emails and micromanaging how you’re going to deal with them come tomorrow morning. Which, incidentally, is now six hours away. Shit.

You feel about a million miles away from sleep and your heart is beginning to race – just think how tired you’re going to be tomorrow…

Then the thoughts begin to creep in. You’ve been feeling like you’re just about hanging on to your workload by a fine thread, but surely people are noticing that you’re slipping? Everyone else in your office looks so competent; why is it that you still feel like an imposter?

Your boss surely knows – remember that time you made a massive mistake and they gave you that talking-to? Is that going to happen again this week? There’s so much to get through, how are you going to cope?

Are they secretly looking round for someone to replace you because you think you’re a bit shit? How are you going to pay your rent when you get fired? Will you have to move in with your parents? Will they even have me, knowing that you’ve turned into such a screwup?

Suddenly you heart is beating a million miles a minute and you can feel a tightness in your chest and then off you go, deep into a work doom spiral that only ends when you finally fall asleep at 5.30 am – an hour before your alarm is set to go off. Shit. Again.

We might laugh off Sunday night ‘work doom’ as an inevitable product of a hangover after over-indulging over the weekend, but the latest research suggests that we’re a generation of people in the grips of an anxiety epidemic.

A recent study by mental-health charity Mind showed that one in three of us said that our work life is either quite or very stressful, with 16-34 year olds the most stressed out about work. It’s not really surprising, given those statistics, that Sunday night is now our most stressful night of the week.

All evidence suggests it’s not just a hangover – Sunday night doom really does seem to be a thing.

But what’s caused our generation to be so anxious? Has there been a seismic shift in the way we work now that’s made Sunday night doom more pronounced, or is just that we’re noticing it more?

‘Sunday night syndrome is not new - but I do think young women are more prone to it now than ever before,’ explains careers expert and author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession Tanya De Grunwald.

‘Increasing numbers tell me they are always “manic” at work - and they seem to be struggling with the constant pressure of having a stuffed inbox, long to-do list and a demanding boss.’

But demanding bosses are hardly new, are they? Is this generation just more moany? ‘In a word, no. Staff levels are now too low in many workplaces. Having been cut to the bone during the recession, headcounts have not yet increased now that workloads are picking up, which means the staff they do have are overworked.

'The other reason is that young people in general are being given more responsibility than ever – often without the required level of training or support from their managers. In many workplaces, internships have become what's effectively an extended interview, which can mean months of feeling 'on trial.'

'Similarly, even when you've got the job, six-month probation periods are now common (it used to be one, or three at the most). In both situations, young women feel it's a case of “one false move” – if they make a mistake, their contract won't be extended. This is usually untrue, but that's how it feels.

'That creates a constant sense of hyper-awareness, always being on the look-out for things you might mess up, or balls you might drop. Saying that, permanent, severe anxiety about your job is not a good sign – so if you feel like that, something needs to change.’

But that’s easier said than done, really, isn’t it? How do you know when your work doom is ‘normal’ and when something more serious is going on?

‘Lots of people may experience mild anxiety on a Sunday evening ahead of returning to work the following day,’ explains Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind. ‘

All of us experience anxiety from time to time, but some people are more anxious than others. More severe anxiety causes physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and sweating. It can also cause problems sleeping, which can in turn worsen symptoms.’

Yep. That’s all sounding familiar. ‘Most jobs have an element of pressure, and in small doses, it can have a positive effect – increasing alertness and helping us meet deadlines. Similarly with anxiety we get an adrenaline rush that can increase our productivity.’ So work doom is really a good thing? Hurrah – problem solved! Coffee for everyone!

Well, not quite. ‘Long-term exposure to pressure can cause physical and mental health problems, including clinical depression and anxiety disorders,’ explains Emma.

‘If the anxiety you experience at work stays at a high level for a long time, you may feel that it is difficult to deal with everyday life. If you begin to feel powerless, out of control, or as if you are about to die or go mad, it is likely you are experiencing severe anxiety and could benefit from seeking help.

'There are many different types of anxiety disorders, including generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety disorder might also be diagnosed in combination with depression; this is called mixed anxiety and depression and is the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem, affecting nearly 1 in 10 people.

'We’d urge anyone worried about their mental health to seek help, as without treatment individuals are more likely to spiral into crisis, which can result in having to take time off work, and even hospitalisation.’

Yikes. But if you’re worried that your anxiety has become a problem, what can you do? Surely your boss will just turf you out and replace you with someone who can handle the pressure? ‘Your employer has a responsibility to create a healthy and safe environment for you to work in,’ explains specialist HR consultant Richard Tominson.

‘Each employer legally has a system in place for dealing with the depression and anxiety of their employees, so it’s important to speak up – they can’t help you if you keep silent. If you simply have too much to do or you feel like you haven't been adequately trained for your job, speak to your manager about ways they can help you to ease the pressure. From an HR perspective, they have a responsibility to see your request through.'

Beyond the official routes, Tanya De Grunwald thinks some perspective can be helpful. 'It can be helpful to remind yourself "I'm not paid enough to be this stressed." Also learn to differentiate between what stress is really, truly yours – and what is actually someone else's that they've dumped on to you because they've been disorganised.

'Remember also that when you are junior, the ultimate responsibility for a big project being done in time is never yours – it's always that of the person supervising or managing you.’

Good advice. So who's writing ‘I’m not paid enough to be this stressed’ on their bedroom mirror tonight?

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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