Work stress: I can’t switch off

When entering a new business venture with a friend, Tim’s perfectionist streak begins to run wild.

He is checking emails at all hours of the night, losing his temper at employees, and taking all of his work problems home with him, dumping them on his partner. If something goes wrong with the business, no matter how small, he takes it personally. Dwells on it. Succumbs to self-loathing.

Tim’s story on dealing with work stress is relatable for so many. We all carry work stress with us. And despite best intentions, it can often spill into other areas of our life. Our work life and home life do not run parallel. They cross over. The question is, how do we manage this crossover?

It’s a question Tim was forced to ask himself after years of hardship and finding himself removed from the things he is truly passionate about in life.

 
"I would bring home the problems of work. And I would go over, and over, and over them." Not Alone.
 

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Transcription

CONTENT WARNING
Just a heads up: this episode of Not Alone contains a personal story of mental health. If you or someone you know need support visit beyondblue.org.au, or call our Support Service on 1300 22 46 36.

NARRATION
Hey there, I’m Marc Fennell and from Beyond Blue, this is Not Alone, remarkable stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health journey to help you with yours.

And this episode is all about work stress.

(music - Sense of Home by Harrison Storm)

MONTAGE

FEMALE VOICE 1
I’m nearly 30, and I’ve never reached a point where I can say “yeah, I love my job”.

MALE VOICE 1
My boss is a bully…

FEMALE VOICE 2
It’s the worst stress I’ve ever experienced…

MALE VOICE 1
…he thinks no one is good enough.

MALE VOICE 2
I’ve lost all confidence…

FEMALE VOICE 2
…I don’t sleep…

MALE VOICE 2
…and feel completely incapable of holding down a job.

FEMALE VOICE 2
…far too few staff, and far too much work.

MALE VOICE 3
I know that if I have time off, there is no one to cover me.

FEMALE VOICE 3
My fear is that my business will go bust.

FEMALE VOICE 4
I want to be able to go to work and not dread every shift.

MALE VOICE 4
Is it time to leave this role?

FEMALE VOICE 5
I’ve cried nearly every day at work for a week.

(music - high ambient drone)

TIM
I remember a situation of a young guy that I worked with, and he didn't provide something that I had asked him to do. And I blew up in the office. And, in that situation and many others over the years, I never understood why I was getting angry, it would just come up.

NARRATION
For many of us, spending most of your waking life at work is…well it’s just what being an adult is all about. And often, stress accompanies every single one of those work hours. But contrary to the name, work stress it has this way of bleeding into all other parts of our world; our home life, our relationships. And of course it can be fuelled by our behaviours and personalities, and just those really engrained parts of who we are.

For 55 year old Tim, doing a good job has always been just at the very heart of who he is. It’s a fact he learnt as a boy, growing up on a farm near the South Australian coast.

TIM
I was a smart kid that did well at school. Teachers liked me. I did the right thing: I studied, I learned, I got good grades. My parents wanted me to learn piano, so I learnt piano. I was quite good at sport. And I always wanted to be doing the best I possibly could to make my father proud of me. In particular, I suppose getting his approval, and also my mother and then the wider family, because my dad came from a large family. So I didn't want to be the son, or the cousin, that let the family name down.

And predominantly part of what was driving that was that I was gay.

(music - Tim’s theme - trip-hop beats)

NARRATION
During his high school years, Tim’s family packed up the farm and moved to Brisbane. It was now the early 80s, and in the big smoke, teenage Tim was able to interact with other members of the gay community and not feel quite so isolated. So, at the age of 19, Tim made the decision to come out to his family.

MARC
It's a sensitive question to ask. So feel free if you don't want to answer it, but how did that go?
(Tim laughs)
So well, I gather from that not at all pained laugh.

TIM
Well, it's actually really a… when I look back now it's a fascinating story. When I tell other people, they’re like “what?”. It went not very well for all of us, but in different ways.

So the very first thing they did was call the minister. That was tough because the whole family was sitting in the room and then the minister arrived. And I'm like, “seriously, what on earth is going to happen now?”

MARC
So what did the minister do?

TIM
He talked quite a bit.

MARC
Yeah, they do that don’t they?

TIM
Yeah, they do that. He tried to calm my parents down. You know, my dad was quite angry. My mother was trying to be supportive. And, I think back now it was like watching a movie. And you know, everybody's sitting in the lounge room, the teles in the corner, and there's the minister coming in, and I'm like, “this is not going to go very well.”

There was no, nothing that he could tell my parents that could change anything. It just was there sitting in the middle of the room.

(music - slow ambient piano)

TIM
When I found out about it, and came out to my parents, guilt was unbelievable. And it was incredibly tough to deal with. Because all of a sudden, I was like, “I'm letting the family down. I'm the only son.” I went into this overload of guilt and punishment to myself, let alone what anyone else was thinking, I was doing a really damn good job myself of getting stuck into me. And so therefore, when I started work, I wanted to mask that so that I could be a really good and successful person. And I carried that for many, many years.

NARRATION
But then into Tim’s life, enters Joe.

(music - upbeat soul love song)

TIM
So he so were introduced. He had curly hair then. He doesn’t have any now. He was wearing jeans and I think it was a T shirt and a leather jacket.

MARC
Nice.

TIM
And we said hello and we talked a little bit. It was incredibly wonderful. And then I called him up, and we went on a date. And I went around and I picked him up, and we went to the movies.

MARC
Love it.

TIM
And we saw Batteries Not Included by Steven Spielberg

MARC
Classic.

TIM
Yes, classic. And then we went on a couple of other dates and then we started dating. And it completely changed the rest of my life.

NARRATION
And while the relationship progressed, Tim chose to keep his sexuality, and really by extension, Joe, secret from his corporate life. Joe on the other hand, he worked in hospitality, and felt the need to put a veil over his real self in the same way Tim did.

MARC
What did Joe think about this? Watching you engage in this day after day after day.

TIM
I think there's two things about “what did Joe think?” Part of it was he didn't know the extent of which the games I would play at work.

MARC
Really?

TIM
Because it was such a game that I would play that I would just go into that role when I went to work.

MARC
Were you ever envious of the freedom he had in his job that you didn't allow yourself?

TIM
Absolutely. I put barriers and roadblocks and all sorts of stuff around me and in front of me. Nobody else did that. I looked over at Joe and I’d think, “oh, he works in hospitality, that's so much easier isn't it?” But it wasn’t. He was just a freer person. He was just more accepting of his situation, his lot, and he just got on with it.

Because at the end of the day, the people that I worked with, by the time a number of them found out, it wasn't really a surprise. The only person that was surprised at the end of the day was me, that they weren’t surprised.

(music - ambient trip-hop)

NARRATION
Tim’s sexuality, a secret he had maintained for so much of his life, was now out in the open. And though, in a sense, a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, the unhealthy pressure he put on himself to succeed, that was still very much deeply engrained. Like this static faintly playing in the background of a movie.

Then in 2007, Tim left his job in the corporate world to establish a small bookkeeping business with a friend. The idea was that Tim would be the salesman and marketer, while his business partner brought the technical knowledge.

Tim says the philosophy for the business, true to form, was simply just be really good at it.

MARC
Why was it important to you to have something of your own, you're building up from something small.

TIM
Okay. I was in corporate and I was kind of restless and feeling unfulfilled, not feeling like I was going anywhere. Things didn't seem to be coming together for me. So I thought, I'll start my business. Now, I've always wanted to do that. I always wanted to be in charge. And I thought “this would be a great thing to do.”

MARC
Did it also present a whole new different set of stresses and challenges because I imagined it might have?

TIM
Running a small business is not for the faint hearted. It is incredibly challenging. There is certainty, there is uncertainty. There are many masters: your team, the ATO, your clients, your suppliers. Often it's incredibly isolating. You know, very, very stressful.

NARRATION
The pressures at work grew, and soon the cracks got wider and deeper.

TIM
There were a number of things that were happening at work that were unhealthy and not very proud to say had occurred.

(music - busy, percussive beats )

TIM
There was one client in particular that I had worked with in corporate who was now also a client of mine. And I remember a situation where they rang and they weren’t happy with something one of my staff had done.

So I got the information, and instead of logically going and talking to my staff member, I would accuse them of doing the wrong thing. So I went straight from “this person told me this, so therefore, it must be true. So now I'm going to come over, and I'm going to accuse you, you've done the wrong thing, and do you know how important this customer is to us? And you've done something wrong. Do you know how bad that is the business?”

MARC
You seem so ashamed.

TIM
Because that's not who I am. Everything that went wrong I took personally and often then unloaded onto somebody else. Over the years I had some great people that were working for me, and they would move on.

MARC
And do you think they moved on because of you?

TIM
Sometimes I did. Absolutely. I remember one case I had a young guy working for me, he was great guy. He really did well with clients. And then he comes to me and says, “I'm resigning.” And I thought, “crap”.

So I go immediately into “what's wrong with me?” So I flip it around instead of blaming the staff member about the client. I blame Tim about him leaving.

MARC
How was your sleep during this time?

TIM
I would wake up in the middle of the night, and I would check my bank account to see if customers had paid. Because “have we got enough cash flow? Are we going okay?” The other side of it would be I’d wake up in the middle of night and I checked my email. “What if another staff member has resigned? What if somebody else leaves me? How am I gonna deal with that?”

Incredibly illogical, but part of the pattern that I was in around taking everything personally, “there's something wrong with me. What am I not doing right?”

MARC
How is Joe dealing with all this? At this point?

TIM
Joe is an incredibly strong man He's very calm, and he has a real resilience. Well, he had to, because we’re still together. So he had an incredible resilience.

I would bring home, the problems of work and I would literally dump them on the kitchen bench. And I would go over and over and over them. It would go on and on and on. I'm lucky he just didn't pack up and run out the door.

MARC
Why do you think he didn’t?

TIM
Because he loves me.

(music - distorted guitar - 60s pop/rock)

NARRATION
And although it was true when The Beatles sang it, love wasn’t all that Tim needed. The problem was, he didn’t really have much of an idea what changes or additions he could make to his work life to get the balance right.

So with the business quickly becoming this unhealthy obsession, he started punishing himself for any moments he allowed his mind to drift to other pursuits. Until he cut them out completely.

TIM
as things started to build up, and I got more and more stressed, I stopped doing a number of things. Sport was one of them. Not immediately, but just slowly, I pulled back from it. I started to give myself reasons that I didn't have time to do that. Reasons that I should be focusing more on my business or in the office.

MARC
And what sort of impact do you think that had on your mental health?

TIM
That had a catastrophic impact for me personally. Because there was no leveller, there was no timeout, there was no activity that would help reduce my stress, clear my head. Sociability is a big part of who I am, and I pulled away from that as well.

MARC
When you think back to that Tim, that guy, how do you feel about that guy?

TIM
I feel about that guy that he was in trouble and he didn't want to admit it. Didn't want to be that person that was struggling with something that he wasn't really sure of. But sounded like mental health, he didn't want to be that person. Because he was a ‘Strong Tim’ and ‘Successful Tim’ and that's what he wanted to be, but he didn't want to be that Tim over there.

MARC
It's not the brand is it?

TIM
No, it’s not the brand. And with all the other things going on, he's gotta be a perfectionist, he's gotta be this, and he’s gotta be that. So he didn’t want to be Tim that might’ve had some mental health issues. But it was tough. Because he didn't know, and he wasn't really sure. He knew something was going on. But he didn't really know.

MARC
How would you cope?

TIM
One of the things that I noticed when Joe was traveling a lot, because he worked for a big travel company and he was away a lot, is I would be at home on my own a lot more. And I'd be watching TV and I’d have a drink or two. Now, I’m a person that certainly enjoys a drink, but doesn't drink to excess. But the regularity of this started to increase, and that coupled with no exercise wasn't good for me.

MARC
How so?

TIM
I tend to find for myself that consistent amounts of alcohol on an ongoing basis for me, is in itself a depressant. Now some people will say “well, that can be for anyone.” Absolutely. But for me, it kind of affects me quite dramatically. And so, when I was starting to be at home on my own and drink more regularly, it was not a very good combination.

NARRATION
Joe - like all great partners - he was Tim’s rock. But things had reached this point where Joe just didn’t know how to help Tim.

TIM
Joe would say to me, “I just want you to be happy Tim.”

And they were incredibly genuine, incredibly caring words. But they were really, really hard to hear. Because I knew that that's what he wanted, and I wanted to do that for him. And I knew that I wanted it. But I didn't know how the hell to get there. And so it was kind of like he had a megaphone and he was standing there, right next to my ear going, “I just want you to be happy!” It was deafening because I didn't know what to do.

The defining point came where it was incredibly stressful at home. And Joe and I got to the point that I finally admitted that I couldn't fix it myself. Because I had spent quite a long period of time going, “I’m a clever man, I’ll fix this. I’ll get back to my sport. I’ll make myself happy.” I finally admitted that I could not do it on my own.

I was smart enough to realise, finally, that if I allowed this to play out further that I would lose a lot.

And if it was Joe, it would have been everything.

NARRATION
So with Joe’s encouragement and support, Tim reaches out to a mental health professional.

MARC
When you first walked into a therapist's office, what was going through your head?

TIM
What was going through my head was “am I going to play a game and only share some information? Or just drip feed them a bit, or just be, you know, Tim’s actually okay, but I think I better tell you this bit? But you're gonna you're gonna tell me that everything's all right. Am I going to play that game?

“Or am I going to finally lay it all out and get some help?”

MARC
So what did you decide to do?

TIM
I laid it all out and got some help. I couldn't play that game and then go home to Joe. But I couldn't play that game because I was exhausted.

MARC
Right.

TIM
It was time. So it was time to lay it all out.

MARC
I think there'll be lots of people listening to this that have heard the concept. They're probably seen it in movies and TV shows, but the actual experience of it, a real life Australian experience of it, is probably quite foreign. So, what surprised you when you went and got ‘therapy-therapy’, which is not its technical term, but let's imagine that it is.

TIM
Yeah, it’s a very good term. You know what it was like? It was like when I told somebody at work that I was gay and finally got it off my shoulders. All of a sudden, I had someone in front of me that their sole existence for that period of time with me, was to take care of me.

MARC
When you were 19 your parents called a priest and you sat in the room and you felt like a problem to be solved. How different this feel?

TIM
This felt like I was in control, and I was going to make a change in my life, no matter what. And it made me feel really, really good.

(music - uplifting electronica)

NARRATION
During those therapy sessions, Tim gets a diagnosis of depression and anxiety.

MARC
How did it feel when those words were said? Did they ring true?
(Tim laughs)
Please tell me you laughed exactly like you’re laughing right now?

TIM
Well, it's like…remember when I finally started telling people at work? And most of the time they were like, “yep”. They were either, “don't really care.” Like, “seriously? This is my life.” Or, “tell me something I don't know.”

So, you know, which bit is it? And all of a sudden I'm sitting there going “seriously, I kept all that bloody secret and tiptoe around for that?” It was just the same. “Seriously, I've been, I can sort this all out and I can fix this and those people over there are the ones that are struggling with, you know, anxiety or depression or that that's not me.” Like, “serious? Like, I'm a really smart dude. How did I become so, so not so smart?”

NARRATION
From there things got better. Slowly, Tim stopped bringing his work problems home with him and dumping them on Joe. He started sleeping through the night again. He stopped blaming himself for every little thing that went wrong.

TIM
In work situations, I was calmer, I could have a rational discussion with a client about what we could or couldn't do for them, before I jumped in to blaming my staff member.

All of a sudden, ‘Smart Logical Informed Tim’ could have a rational conversation with people and support his team. And I'm not saying that everything changed immediately, but it was kind of like, I slowly came out of this fog and haze and I could start to see clear day light everywhere.

(music - hopeful piano and ambient drones

NARRATION
In addition to the therapy sessions, Tim made significant changes to other areas of his life too. He found a business mentor who helped him better manage the balance between work and life. Actually, he became a mentor himself, finding purpose in helping others. He overall became more sociable, and when challenges popped up in his life and his work - because, they do - he found he had better responses.

MARC
Do anxiety and depression? Do they still rear their head for you? And if they do, how do you address them when you feel those feelings coming on?

TIM
Definitely, anxiety and it comes and goes. And understanding that I struggle with anxiety, I now know in situations when I'm getting anxious. Something was happening before and I had no control over it. And I've trained myself, to the best of my ability, to step out of those situations that drive high levels of anxiety in me.

I don't expect everything to be perfect. I expect to get anxious in situations. But I also expect myself to monitor them and do my best to a) not to punish myself; and b) get things back on track.

(music - Tim’s theme - trip-hop beats)

NARRATION
Work stress is one of those things that can manifest in a lot of different ways, not just the way it manifested for Tim. So, are there things that you can take from Tim’s story that can help you? Well, that is why we have Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Adviser, Dr. Grant Blashki.

MARC
Dr. Grant. Nice to see you again.

DR. GRANT
Great to see you.

MARC
One of the things that really strikes me is that Tim’s mental health deterioration was really gradual. It’s not like he woke up one day with a cold and it was there, ready and present. Is that common to have it be so gradual?

DR. GRANT
Absolutely. It’s one of things, I guess I like being a GP as well. Is you just see the messiness and the subtlety of how things happen. So it’s not a sudden wake up in the morning, “I’ve got depression.” It’d be a process. You know withdrawing from things, a few losses, you know getting a little bit pre-occupied with some negative things. So it’s more gradual.

I guess one of the things that strikes me with Tim’s story is when it first started, he tried a few things that actually made it worse. You know, he backed off his exercise, he wasn’t getting enough sleep, he was up on his phone half the night, he tried a bit of alcohol. And this is pretty typical of the sort of things people will do.

MARC
Tim’s story is pretty fascinating because it sits at the nexus between, obviously his issues around his sexuality, and also his work, and how those two things interacted. Are there more general tips and strategies you can give people about how they can deal with work-life balance, if you’re getting that balance not quite right.

DR. GRANT
Yeah, so the whole issue of work and mental health is a really close connection. Many people spending many of their waking hours in their workplace. I think a couple of tips for trying to keep that balance is keep boundaries between work and home. And in Tim’s case, he was looking at emails and bank statements in the middle of the night on his phone. The electronic access for most people is a blessing and a curse. So keep some boundaries around that.

He also talked about how with his partner, how he was sort of using his relationship in a way to debrief every minutiae problem he had at work. And that became a little bit of a problem for the relationship that he identified. So I guess if someone’s got a very stressful work environment, yes you get some help from your partner. But maybe it’s time to get a business mentor or to speak to a psychologist if you’re really running into trouble with it.

MARC
And lastly, of all the things that Tim and I talked about, what for you was probably the most surprising thing, the thing that stayed with you?

DR. GRANT
The thing that I loved about your interview with Tim was when he realised not only were people not judgmental about him being gay, but when he told them he had a mental health issue they went, “oh sorry to hear that, how can we help? Let’s move on.” It’s that huge gap between how worried he was about all this stuff, and then in the end people were very supportive.

MARC
So for that one moment in a year like this, faith in humanity has been restored.

DR. GRANT
Absolutely, loved it.

MARC
Dr. Grant, it’s lovely to see you again, thank you so much.

DR. GRANT
Thank you.

(music - Sense of Home by Harrison Storm)

TIM
So on the 20th of October, in 2018, over 30 years after Joe and I first met, we got married. Some might say I was dragging Joe, because it was like I was a young kid running to the playground. And we walked up in front of everybody, and then we stood there. And I could not have been happier.

And that was where I got to, after struggling for a number of years in a place where I didn’t think it would come back.

NARRATION
I want to say a huge thank you to Tim for sharing his story.

You can always join the conversation yourself and share your story if you want at beyondblue.org.au/forums

If this has brought up any issues for you, or you know someone who needs support, you can visit the website I just mentioned, but also there is a Support Service you can reach on 1300 22 46 36. Plus, there is quite a few resources you can get in the show notes.

Not Alone is a Beyond Blue podcast, it is hosted by me, I’m Marc Fennell. It is produced by Sam Loy, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton, Sarah Alexander, and Tom Ross.

This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Gadigal Country, and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands.

Thank you for listening to Not Alone.

Not Alone is hosted by Marc Fennell, produced by Sam Loy, mixed by Saskia Black, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton, Sarah Alexander and Tom Ross.

Our theme song, Sense of Home, is by Australian artist Harrison Storm.


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