I had a phone call with my manager and an employee from the Safe to Work team at our organisation. I acknowledge that I am privileged in having access to a Safe to Work team. My original plan was to work two days this week and then work 3-4 days moving forward. We discussed personal questions around my experience with anxiety, what specifically happened at work to trigger it and semantics with the ‘return to work’ process.
One question really set me back. “How do you feel about coming back to work in two days?”
Instantly, I felt very fragile. A wave of emotions hit me, it felt surreal and I felt vulnerable. I realised in my gut that I clearly was not ready to go back to work. I spent much of the past four days off counting down how much time I had left until returning to work. Each time I thought about it, my time off seemed smaller and smaller in my mind. I would feel dread, and woke up in the middle of the night worried or dreamt about something that had to be done at work.
As I came to this realisation, I was overcome with a wave of guilt and disappointment. How could I let the project team down at such a crucial time? How can I make my manager and colleagues’ lives harder to cover my work by taking more time off? How could I not push through this? What will they think of me? They’ll think I’m not strong or smart enough. They’ve gotten someone to cover me already, clearly they can do it and I can’t. I’ll never live this down and everyone will keep reminding me that at this crucial point, I couldn’t take it anymore and quit.
I sat there on this video call and felt like a failure. That I wasn’t up for the job. Does this mean I’m not good or strong or smart enough? Because I couldn’t get through this without breaking down or burning out. I knew this was the right decision for me. It was also the safest decision and I was taking a stance that I am putting myself first. So why does it hurt so much?
I’ve always been relatively open and honest with those I trust at work about my journey with anxiety. But I didn’t realise it would be so hard to ask for help, and all the emotions associated with it.
Maybe the lesson here isn’t all the negative things I’m telling myself, that I burned out because I wasn’t smart enough. Maybe the lesson is that I was actually making strides in protecting my work boundaries and standing up for myself, but I also had a bad day. That bad day was a sign that I need to take better care of myself, have a break and learn how to ask for help if I want to work more sustainably.
Working sustainably does not simply mean working and delivering results consistently. It means giving myself time off so I have the emotional capacity to assert and protect myself more at work, without feeling the associated guilt, which in turn actually makes me more efficient and effective.
Working sustainably also means asking for help. Some of us are used to being independent, and even enjoy achieving things ourselves, or we don’t feel we can trust others will deliver to the same standards. But to get through life and work, we need to work as a team and that means helping each other. It’s not easy for those with anxiety, but try asking for help on small actions, and forego part of the perfectionism to prioritise wellbeing and safety.
Perhaps you’re leading a big project and have a big deadline coming up, had a good crack but simply can’t do it all yourself, start by speaking to someone you trust, “hey, this is pretty urgent and needs to get done, I’ve done XYZ but it’s still too big to do all by myself, can I please have your help?”. Or if you are simply at your limits with work, “to be honest, I’m really struggling with X, I also have to do Y and these are my deadlines, I’m at my limits with capacity, can you please help?”
Whether you’re speaking to a manager, a mentor or a trusted colleague, and depending on their position or role, here are some things you can ask for help on:
- Advice on prioritising and managing your workload, and better identify what’s really important and what you can push back on
- Lean into the process or project and manage conversations with difficult stakeholders
- Escalate to break down any barriers you’re facing
- Advice on how to push back to others or what to say
- Simply listening to your struggles / venting to feel more supported
- Connecting you with the right people who could help
- Strategies that can help you manage this challenge
- Navigate a conversation or managing your workload to take time off
It really takes guts to ask for help, and often we will feel these uncomfortable emotions, such as shame, guilt, disappointment or embarrassment. With time, these feelings will pass. I’m learning that the most important thing is to speak up and ask for help, because only I know when I’m at capacity and what’s best for my mental health. While we all have a responsibility to check in and recognise when others are struggling, ultimately, we are in charge of our own destiny. We’ll never know how others can help or support us unless we ask for help first.