Do not wait until you are burnt out before making a change

If you are caught in the spiral of workplace stress, it can be difficult to get your head above the water long enough to see reality

Imagine being stressed all or most of the time at work. And imagine the toll that might take on your health, your enjoyment of life and your general well-being.

There is more than a one in five chance that you fall into this category if you're a worker in Ireland. According to the Health and Safety Authority, 22 per cent of workers in Ireland experience stress at work always or most of the time.

And the old, laid-back, relaxed Ireland is definitely dead and gone: the proportion of Irish workers who always feel stressed is the 10th highest in 34 countries surveyed by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

I happened to read this on the same day that I read about strikes in Italy to oppose the opening of stores and other businesses during holidays.


And that reminded me that in Germany it can sometimes be difficult to find a store open on a Sunday. In other words, there is a European way that places a high value on quality of life.

Why does this matter? It matters, as author Jeffrey Pfeffer points out in his book Dying for a Paycheck, because stress contributes greatly to diseases such as diabetes and heart disease not to mention unhealthy behaviours such as eating and drinking too much.

If you're caught in this sort of situation ... you probably need somebody else to point out that you're in trouble

What does that mean if you’re in a highly-stressed workplace? It means that your chances of suffering from these conditions – not to mention anxiety or depression – are boosted by the setting in which you spend so much of your time.

As the Health and Safety Authority puts it, “work-related stress is caused or made worse by work”. That may sound like stating the obvious but for us human beings, the obvious often needs to be stated.

That's especially so when we are in the depths of the storm. When you get into a spiral of work-related stress it can be difficult to get your head above the water long enough to see reality. The HSA quotes organisational psychologist Patricia Murray as follows: "Employees behave differently to their normal behaviour when under high levels of stress. They can be angrier, more confrontational, show less time for others and impose an urgency on situations which is unrealistic and tense for those around them. Or they can withdraw and become evasive or prone to upset and over time easily overcome by even minor challenges".

If you’re caught in this sort of situation, in which coping with day-to-day demands can seem an impossible and never-ending challenge, you probably need somebody else to point out that you’re in trouble.

Stressful conditions

The problem is, of course, that you may not be willing to hear what they’re saying. So they may need, and I’m directing this at them, to say it more than once.

Workplace stress is bad for relationships outside work. Playing a full part in nourishing your relationships, raising children and in the multiplicity of tasks involved in family life may be, or seem to be, impossible if you spend a lot of your waking hours in a toxic workplace.

The sooner you recognise all this and work out what you can do about it – seek changes in how things are done, work fewer days, change job for instance – the better. If you wait until you’re completely burnt out, the challenge of looking for another job when you do finally decide to move, can feel like being asked to climb Mount Everest.

We also need to watch out as a society for a slide into ever more stressful working conditions. I mentioned above that countries such as Italy and Germany seem to put a greater value on quality of life especially in relation to working hours.

We have by no means abandoned a quality of life approach in Ireland but the warning signals are there in those HSA figures.

We need to be vigilant. And if you’re caught in the stress spiral remember this: few jobs are worth dying for and the ones that are probably don’t include yours.

Padraig O’Morain (, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.