Anxiety: Coping in the Workplace

Background

Paul is 44, lives in the South West of England, and was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome when 41. University educated with a degree in Science, he has had a diverse career in both the armed forces and retail management.

A mental health breakdown two years ago as a result of anxiety caused by his Asperger syndrome and work pressures made Paul reconsider his lifestyle priorities.

He is now aiming to get back into the workplace on a part-time basis as has now, at least partially, recovered from his mental health difficulties, which included anxiety as well as clinical depression.

He is completely open to everyone about his AS diagnosis and mental health problems, as, he strongly feels, this is the only way that the stigma of both autism and mental health can truly be overcome.

The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

So, we all get anxious, don’t we? That horrible, sickening, churning feeling in the pit of your stomach. It feels like it will never go away. The feeling of dread, the unknown, the uncertainty….

Anxiety can either be a nuisance that can be overcome, or it can affect your entire life completely. Unfortunately, for me, it was the latter that affected me in a work context.

Until recently, it has been something that I have struggled to control. However, whilst I feel that I have not completely overcome it, I can now certainly control and manage it much better than I ever used to and am able to do so whilst working.

I remember being anxious as young as five years old. Going to school was a nightmare. I hated being around people, particularly strangers. I also hated the noise, chaos and constant unplanned changes. I was frequently physically sick, due to extreme anxiety. During early Primary School, I had much time off school because of it.

As I settled in, and enjoyed the academic challenges and excelled in exams, the anxiety seemed to lessen, but, as I went to Grammar School I found that, although formal, structured classroom work was fine, everything outside of it was extremely demanding.

Particular difficulties were experienced around break-times, and after school activities, in which all pupils were encouraged to partake in for ‘their own well-being’. It certainly did not benefit mine! I just wanted to run away and hide, so I could be on my own, away from everyone else. But, that was simply not an option.

After I finished my A-Levels, I joined the RAF as an Electronics Engineer, and quickly settled into the enjoyment of learning and working hard. I excelled at RAF College and after being posted to my first base, took up a degree course with the OU. Although work itself did not give me any obvious difficulties, it was again, after work, and the expected social aspect of things that presented problems, though they were not as difficult as what was to come.

After my contractual nine years in the RAF, I drifted through a variety of jobs, before working in Retail where I established a long retail management career. I loved being in retail: the buzz of achieving sales, making the salesfloor look spick and span, and I really enjoyed managing my first store. Again, I excelled, coming top in my district on customer service and net profit achieved.

I spent nearly nine years with my initial employer, only moving to another to increase my salary. Although I did have some anxiety in the workplace with this employer, there was an awareness that the long hours were damaging. Critically, this employer tracked all of their managers’ personal working hours, to comply with the Working Time Directive, something that my new employer did not.

Despite initially settling in well with my new employer, after a couple of years, things began to go wrong. I clashed with my new line manager – we simply did not see eye-to-eye; my staffing budget was cut, but my targets and my task list increased – dramatically! As a consequence, my levels of anxiety did also.

After speaking to a counsellor privately in early 2005, he encouraged me to see a private clinical psychologist, as he thought I may have traits of AS. I was diagnosed late in 2005, and made both my Occupational Therapy Dept and my line manager aware. There was no reaction, positive or negative about this news. I was not asked if I need further support for example.

To achieve the same managerial and business standards that I had previously, I had to increase my personal working hours – from 45, to 50, then 60 and finally over 70 hours a week, seven days a week as I could no longer pay for a keyholder to open & close the store on Sunday (closing on Sundays was not a business option).

My anxiety levels started to increase dramatically. I would start each day literally soaking in sweat and shaking at the sheer thought of the volume of work that I had to achieve just get through that day. Store standards and inspections from both my line manager and Head Office increased too. I started to become paranoid that I was being singled out, although I was not part of any performance review; indeed, I was still high in the performance league tables.

Other managers, particularly senior managers, were also complaining (although not officially as far as I was aware). The majority, in my opinion, cut corners, or broke the rules so that they were personally unaffected. Of course, because of the inherent honesty and integrity of my AS, this was something I felt uncomfortable about and unable to do!

For example, other managers would ask staff to work un-paid leave by making threats. Some ‘failed’ to pay staff the correct grade of pay. I took out a grievance against the company, as my personal hours were much higher than the stipulated Working Time Directive allows (48 hours per week), but I was simply told that other managers had not taken out grievances, and that my budgets were correct, so I should just get on with it.

Work was badly affecting my home life too. When I (eventually) got home, I could not switch off from work commitments. It affected my relationship with my wife and son. I became moody and snappy. I had no life (or time for) life outside work. The anxiety had worsened into depression. I was losing concentration. I could not focus.

Physically, the anxiety manifested itself by making my Irritable Bowel Syndrome much worse. I got eczema across my body and spots on my face. My skin tone was poor, and I became breathless at the slightest exertion. I could not prioritise clearly, and important tasks started to fall away.

On one occasion, I remember giving a disgruntled customer short thrift. I knew that she was in the wrong, but the way I handled the situation was poor and un-professional. I remember having uneasy thoughts and lack of sleep because of this, although the customer did not take things further.

Eventually, I saw my GP, who signed my off for one month, and gave me anti-depressants. I returned to work, but, despite requesting reasonable adjustments under the Disability Discrimination Act (my employer was aware of my AS diagnosis from day one), I was offered no extra help. Late in 2006, I went off sick again, and I never returned.

Review

Now things are so much better. I have taken over a year out of work, which has enabled me to re-group and focus on understanding my priorities.

Time away from the world of work has enabled me to understand the causes of my anxiety much better. It has also enabled me to rediscover what I really want from life – it isn’t working 70 hours, seven days a week, that’s for sure.

I have had a few job interviews recently, and I hope to return to work, part-time soon, though not in retail management as I feel that it is a sector that will continually going to become more demanding and, therefore, anxiety provoking, meaning that it is not for me.

I think what I have learnt about anxiety and having AS, is understanding what my own limits are. I coped fine with running a small electronics team in the RAF – but there I was not working excessive hours constantly, and support was always available. In my last job, I was truly on my own and a combination of long hours and no support was more than my AS was able to cope with.

I have had time to re-engage and meet with friends I haven’t seen for a long time, and having re-created a small support network has helped enormously in my recovery. I can draw on these people for advice and practical assistance when required for example which, internally from a mental perspective, is highly re-assuring and a great help. It has also enabled me to put work into greater perspective meaning that it does not dominate my life so much so that it becomes the only important thing.

Spending time with friends has provided downtime, which, I believe, is essential for someone with AS, as it gives me time out to re-group. I feel I can confide in, and truly trust, my non-work friends, something I couldn’t do at work because of confidentiality reasons and inter-personal sensitivities. This provides an outlet through which I can express and discuss my concerns.

I now exercise most days – usually swimming and running, but also take long walks and explore and amble too. Physical exercise is a great way of preventing, and burning off, stress and anxiety and I have found this to be very beneficial. I have also rediscovered enjoyment in my hobbies once more.

I now take day-time valerian (a herbal remedy), which really helps with keeping my anxiety levels in check. I no longer take anti-depressants – they did initially help with the depression, but long term, the side effects did not help me to become a fitter person, physically or mentally. I also find Omega 3 & 6 additives useful, as well as a good intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, and plenty of water to keep the mind refreshed. I find alcohol a bit of a no-no, for me, apart from the occasional glass of red wine. Anything else aggravates my depressive moods.

I also appreciate the need to have my own space – this is really key for me. My previous job did not allow for this. Having time when I can be on my own gives my brain a chance to re-cooperate from the pressures of being around people – it is restorative. I also feel that when around others, I have to put on an act. It is like being on stage – I cannot be my true self when around others, and this is stressful.

Going forward, on all my job applications and in all interviews, potential employers have been made aware of my AS, and my mental conditions. Obtaining interviews, ‘despite’ being honest on the application form, has re-enforced my own confidence.

I do not think that I would ever wish to be in a managerial role again – not because I think I could not do the job technically, but because I strongly feel I would be putting myself and my health at risk from the pressures of having to manage other people and working for an unsupportive or potentially unscrupulous employer. I now value my own health and my lifestyle too much to do that.

Having a realistic plan for each day and each month can also help, though I am aware that these plans may need to change, as the unexpected will always occur.

I tend to use notepad on my PC, but there are many other ways of achieving this. I also find it useful to have a notebook and pen with me at all times – trying to remember things causes me stress, so writing them down helps avoids it. Using the calendar and reminder functions on my mobile phone can also be useful, as I know there is always a record of important things that I can refer back to.

Overall, I know that my personal battle with my anxiety is far from over. However, I now feel more confident in my ability to keep it under control, and avoiding any relapse in the future. This gives me the confidence to re-enter the workplace, operate under my terms and so will, I believe, enable me to be successful.

The key is to find a working environment that allows me to work at a pace that I can cope with, one that provides the right level of support in terms of assistance – people, resource and time – and one where I am not always chasing deadlines or am forever never completing things. In other words, the pressure is manageable – and so, therefore, is the anxiety.

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Managing with Asperger Syndrome