By Debi Rhodes, COO & Clients & Industries Lead, Life Sciences & Healthcare
As part of last week’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Deloitte ran a number of events to raise the profile of this important issue and the support that is available to people. One of the messages that resonated with me was the importance of talking and sharing personal stories. Having just returned from maternity leave, it felt timely to share my brief experience of one of the mental health issues that temporarily affected me, but is an ongoing challenge for so many people – anxiety.
Anxiety, depression and stress affect many people at some point in their lives, and for some people they are a constant challenge. We read about it, we hear about it, but do we really understand what it is, its impact and/or how to cope when you experience it? In 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK; women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as men.1 Every year, mental illness costs the UK economy an estimated £70 billion (equivalent to 4.5 percent of GDP).2 Mental illness is also the third leading cause of UK sickness absence, accounting for 16 million sick days in 2016.3
The overall number of people with mental health problems has not changed significantly in recent years, but worries about things like money, jobs and benefits can make it harder for people to cope. It appears that how people cope with mental health problems is getting worse, as the number of people who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts is increasing.4
Our Centre for Health Solutions has written extensively about mental health related topics, including the report At a tipping point? Workplace mental health and wellbeing conducted together with Mind, and previous Blogs: Mental health and employers: The case for investment; How did you sleep last night; and another great article: Speak Up – Tackling the stigma around mental health in the elderly and those at the end-of-life to name a few.
In the past twenty years I have had direct experience of mental health illnesses – seeing first-hand the impact that depression, bipolar disorder, stress and anxiety has had on close family members. In some cases it lasted a few months, and with others, the illness will be with them for the remainder of their lives. And to be honest, I had the clichéd view that it wouldn’t ever happen to me. Why did I think this? Well, I am known amongst my family, colleagues and friends as a strong, ambitious, outgoing, dynamic, hard-working, and overall resilient and positive person that manages stressful situations with a calm, and solution-orientated approach. All the signs of a resilient person you’d think.
I also have much to be grateful for, as I am physically healthy with two wonderful children, a doting husband and a job (that I love). I work for a fantastic team in an organisation that is truly making a step-change in how they support working parents. Sounds too good to be true, right? I promise, I haven’t been primed to say this, but Deloitte, in the UK, pulls out all the stops when it comes to looking after working parents, providing support, coaching, mentoring and flexible working patterns, as well as a comprehensive health and wellbeing offering for all employees. Yet, despite this, anxiety still managed to take a hold of me in the months leading up to the inevitable date of my return to work. And what made it more surprising was having already experienced returning to work after my first child, I thought I knew what to expect!
What is Anxiety and its symptoms?
Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.5
There are many symptoms that affect the body and the mind. Those that effect the body include:
- a churning feeling in your stomach
- feeling light-headed or dizzy, pins and needles
- feeling restless or unable to sit still
- headaches, backache or other aches and pains
- faster breathing, a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat, sweating or hot flushes
- problems sleeping
- grinding your teeth, especially at night
- nausea (feeling sick)
- needing the toilet more or less often
- changes in your sex drive and/or
- panic attacks.
And some of the symptoms that the mind can experience:
- feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax
- having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
- feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down
- feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you
- feeling like you can't stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if you stop worrying, worrying about anxiety itself – for example worrying about when panic attacks might happen, wanting lots of reassurance from other people or worrying that people are angry or upset with you, worrying that you're losing touch with reality
- rumination – thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
- depersonalisation – feeling disconnected from your mind or body, or like you're watching someone else (this is a type of dissociation)
- derealisation – feeling disconnected from the world around you, or like the world isn't real (this is a type of dissociation)
- worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future.
How do you treat or cope with Anxiety?
I didn’t experience the full severity of many of these symptoms, but what I felt was enough to make the weeks leading up to ‘D-day’ pretty challenging, with sleepless nights (on top of the usual interrupted nights with a young baby), the feeling of dread, sense of guilt and a big lack of confidence. Fortunately, I realised I was experiencing anxiety, and dealt with it by: sharing and talking about how I felt; hearing and learning from others’ experiences - this made me feel less isolated; doing exercise (even for just 30 minutes) – swimming/running or walking my two dogs; and writing my concerns down on paper to structure my thoughts – all really helped. There are other numerous recommended ways in which one can overcome and/or treat anxiety depending on its severity, from prescription medicines, therapy, or a combination of the two. There is also an abundance of support and guidance out there, including the free guide I came across ‘Managing mental health in the workplace’ and a list of organisations that are helping to promote health and wellbeing in the workplace.
I hope my experience can provide some assurance to anyone else that has or is experiencing anxiety as a result of a career break and hopefully provide some comfort in knowing that a) it’s pretty normal, and b) there are things that you can do to tackle it.