The Stress Series - Part 2

Anna Kelsey-Sugg

Stress claims commonly build up over time, until the person reaches a point where they can't continue to ignore the issues.

Understanding the history of the problem is important to know how to deal with the situation.

There are two very different paths a stress claim can follow, depending on the action taken immediately following the stress coming to the fore. Read on and see that it's pretty obvious which path is preferable.

One-off incidents in the workplace that are distressing – an armed hold-up for example, or a colleague having a heart-attack at the desk next to you – can lead to stress. These incidents, however, occur in the minority of cases. More often stress arises from a slow build up of tension. To demonstrate a case of stress in the workplace, let's look at Jane, a thirty-year-old journalist with two children to support.

Jane is excited about her new job with an important publication. She throws herself into her new job, eager to learn as much as possible about the new workplace so she can fit right in straight away. Her first month is stressful. She is thankful that the position is part-time because it allows her two days a week to spend with her children; however, she's beginning to wonder if a full-time job hasn't been given to her to carry out in part-time hours.

She plugs on. These first weeks on the job are overwhelming and Jane is left more or less alone to learn the ropes, but she consoles herself by thinking she's new here; pretty soon things will all fall into place. Well into her second month things aren't falling into place at all. Jane is taking her laptop home to check emails at night time and does work over the weekends. She feels like she is always behind even though she is putting in more hours than she's being paid for.

About seven weeks into the job Jane starts to wake in the night thinking about things she needs to do at work the next day, remembering details from meetings and worrying about how she is going to fit everything in the next day. Though Jane was offered no training or ‘checking in' with her supervisor, she feels like she is lucky to have been given the position with such an important publication and doesn't feel like she can talk to her boss about her problems for fear of coming across incompetent. Jane's stress has been building for two months and the symptoms are starting to show.

The most common stress scenario is one in which stress has built in an individual over time until they no longer feel like they have control over their situation. This is when the symptoms of stress begin to arise. It may be a worker has been exposed to unreasonable work expectations, or there are interpersonal conflicts in the workplace with an employer or coworkers. Tension that builds and builds will eventually spill over in the employer.

Jane's friend meets her after work one day. They haven't caught up since Jane started her new job and the friend begins to ask all sorts of questions about how things are going there. Suddenly Jane begins to cry and both she and her friend are surprised. Jane hadn't realised how much the job was affecting her. She feels tired and overworked, and is filled with feelings of self-doubt. 
Jane returns to work determined to resolve the situation, but things only worsen. In her fourth month she is working from home nearly every night, and most weekends. At work she feels unconfident and introverted; she doesn't want to let on to anyone how much pressure she feels under. Her sleeping is becoming more disturbed and getting up in the morning more difficult. She is presenting at work with an increasingly
dishevelled appearance.

At her computer Jane regularly feels her eyes closing and on a few occasions even has to lock herself in the toilet so she can close her eyes for a few moments. She is making mistakes and getting to work late. She notices her supervisor becoming weary of the change in her behaviour and speaking to her in a colder manner. She begins to worry her supervisor will fire her, and is fearful about how she will support her children without the wage from this job. She sees a doctor to get sleeping pills and the doctor recommends she take some time off work, but she lacks the confidence to ask work.

One day Jane learns that an article she had been trying for weeks to gather interviews for had been assigned to another journalist. She is furious and though she tries to calm herself she feels her heart beat faster and faster. Her eyes become hot as they well up with tears and without even being completely aware of what she's doing she stands and walks into her supervisor's office and demands that he tell her why the article has been reassigned. She is speaking in a raised voice; tears are streaming down her face and she is shaking violently. The climax of Jane's stress has arrived.

The first 48 hours after the stress climax are the most important. Obviously dealing with Jane's work situation before it reached this point would have been preferable, but, having reached this point, it is paramount that the individual's position is acknowledged and their voice heard – immediately. This does not mean a case can't still be questioned, but at this early stage if the individual doesn't feel that they are being listened to or believed, it will be impossible to resolve the situation and bigger problems will arise.

Remember, Jane has not talked about her problem at work, so her supervisor is unaware of what has been building.  The supervisor has seen Jane less engaged, more dishevelled, and could easily assume there are other factors in Jane's life that have caused the outburst. 

Two options present themselves after the eruption of Jane's situation.

A – This is the very long, expensive option.

Jane puts in a WorkCover claim and takes the month off her doctor recommends. She then has another month off work while she waits for a letter from her WorkCover insurer. The letter tells her she needs to see a psychologist for an assessment and waiting for this appointment and then for results takes another two months. Then an investigator is brought in to look at the claim. Her supervisor can only see that her work standard was dropping and says, ‘But she never said anything to me about having a problem.' During this time Jane's stress is compounded by having to defend herself and her state of mind, and by the exhaustion of worrying that her claim won't be accepted and she won't be able to financially support her two children.

B – This is the option that sees Jane healthy and back at work sooner, and incurs less burden on herself, her employer and the community.

Jane's supervisor is shocked by the eruption and has no idea that she has been feeling under so much pressure. He sits down with her to talk about what her main issues in the workplace have been since starting in the role, and established what her needs are. Jane explains that she feels her workload is too heavy for her three-day week, and that she feels ill-equipped to undertake certain aspects of the job. She takes her doctor's recommendation of a month off to get her sleeping back to normal and to focus on some relaxation. Her supervisor keeps in touch during the month off to see how her health is and to reassure her that when she returns they will work together to develop a more realistic workload, and that time will be put aside for several different training sessions. 

Jane's supervisor also lets her know that she was hired because she is a great worker. In the last couple of months he thought she was slacking off because she didn't like the position. Jane feels more secure in herself and in her position with the publication, and she makes an agreement with her supervisor that they will keep in regular contact to review how the workload is and if it feels right.