If you’ve found yourself to be uncharacteristically irritable lately, or you’re missing deadlines that you would typically meet, your mood and performance issues may be red flags of a deeper problem — overwork. Odd digressions in our behaviour aren’t always warning signals that we’re overstressed and on track for a breakdown, but sometimes the signs of overwork aren’t obvious.
While it’s expected that people who work in high-stakes roles, like those in finance, experience some stress on the job — and, in fact, small doses of stress can actually be good for you — prolonged exposure to stress can lead to serious burnout.
But how do you know if you’re just experiencing the normal symptoms of occasional stress or shifting into a pattern that indicates you’re headed for a meltdown?
Here are five signs that you may be working too hard — and some ways to get back on track to good mental health.
Losing your cool in low-stakes situations. When your frustration at work is building, you may find yourself atypically lashing out when little things go wrong. Blowing up at a cashier or a subordinate about things that are of little consequence can be a clear sign that you’re overstressed.
“It may be that you have just spent all of your coping resources all day, all week, last quarter,” says Dr. J. Ryan Fuller, a New York psychologist and executive director at New York Behavioral Health, “and you just can’t take one more thing.” He notes that in these cases, you’re not likely to lash out at a boss or an institutional investor. Instead, you’ll find yourself frequently blowing little things out of proportion in situations where you won’t get in trouble for it.
Procrastinating. A failure at work, even a small one, can be a major stressor that kick-starts a negative feedback loop.
“Negative emotions make it more difficult to concentrate,” Fuller says. “We might be less motivated, and have less energy, so that makes it more difficult to be productive, to do work, and to get things right.” The result? Without even realising it, you start putting off work because you’re afraid of the negative consequences of failing again.
Drinking too much. An occasional drink after work might be a healthy way to blow off steam, but if you’re super stressed you might find those drinks are starting to add up. The same goes for eating. Suddenly eating a lot of sweet or high-calorie foods, says Ching-Ling Chiang, a London-based psychotherapist who works with clients in high-stress finance jobs, can be a sign that the stress is getting to be too much, especially if that pattern of eating or drinking is out of character for you.
Oversleeping. Chiang notes that stress and depression can interrupt sleep patterns. While people often think of losing sleep as a consequence of stress and worry, we don’t often note that the flipside — sleeping late to catch up — is also a sign that something is wrong. So if you’ve been sleeping past your alarm a lot recently, it could be a sign that stress is interrupting your circadian rhythm.
Apathy. Stress can call into question the true meaning behind the work you’re doing. If things are going terribly at work, you may start to experience what Fuller calls “negative perceptions about the future”. If you feel a lack of control right now, you may feel as though that’s never going to change. And that, Fuller says, can jump-start another negativity spiral that leaves you ultimately questioning your purpose. “What is this all about? Is this industry really meaningful? Why did I get into this?” Fuller says, are all questions his clients have grappled with in the course of dealing with work stress.
Coping with stress and overwork
So what do you do when you’ve started to experience significant stress warning signs?
“Accept yourself,” Chiang says. “Don’t try to deny or control your emotions. Ask for professional help if you feel you need it, and learn how to manage your negative emotions. At the same time, try to develop good life habits.”
Fuller says there are four areas he focuses on when helping clients deal with stress: body, behaviour, relationships, and values.
“Right off the bat, one of the biggest things I emphasise is sleep,” he says. He encourages his clients, who may feel the need to read journals and check email late into the night, to limit exposure to phones and computers before bed.
In addition to sleep, both Fuller and Chiang recommend focusing on diet and exercise to get the body back in line, although Fuller says his finance clients are often exercising too much. “Getting the right balance between physical exertion and rest and recovery”, he says, is key. Chiang recommends yoga as a calming exercise practice.
And for almost all clients, Fuller recommends a meditation practice, as does Chiang. (Find guidance on developing a meditation practice here.)
Next is a focus on relationships and rediscovering your interests outside of work.
“Being able to manage your own psychological space is a necessary skill in modern high-pressure work and life,” Chiang says. She encourages clients to engage in relaxing hobbies like reading, gardening, and walking in nature to try to reclaim some of that space.
Fuller says many of his clients in high-stress finance jobs have lost sight of the things they used to enjoy doing outside of work.
“The idea of doing something fun is not something that gets a lot of time on their Outlook calendars,” he says. His recommendation is to reconnect with hobbies that may have been sitting on the back burner for years.
Once some of the groundwork has been laid to address the symptoms of stress, Fuller gets his clients to focus on values.
“What’s ultimately important to you,” he says, “and what’s going to give you the satisfying, meaningful life that you want?” Finding the answer to that question may take time, he explains, but ultimately, focusing on the big picture will make high-stress job situations more manageable.
Katherine Raz is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.