• Author:Ben Jones
  • Comments:0

Work can damage your health – that’s not a mystery.

I love a good mystery. I grew up on Inspector Morse, Taggart, Cracker and Prime Suspect. Many of my favourite films or recent streaming or TV series involve the weighing of clues and the elimination of suspects – as well often as gruesome serial killers (lovely!). Over Christmas, I have been marking the passing of the great John Le Carre by getting stuck in again to Smiley and his complex web of secrets, plots and sub-plots. It is escapism but also feels like exercise for the mind. 

At one time I seriously considered a career as a detective, although I think my TV-influenced view of what it would have been like and the reality on the ground would have been worlds apart. Over Christmas, I have binged on The Ripper on Netflix and revisited old films and episodes from my list of favourites. Incidentally, this trait of returning to familiar pieces of film, TV, literature and music, is something I have become aware of in recent months – it is rooted in a need to feel safe, comfortable and secure, without unwelcome surprises or feeling out of control. This is fascinating to me – something I have shared with some of my fellow counselling and psychotherapy students – as a way of helping me manage my mental health: another small intervention to help me work within safe, agreed boundaries and establish and maintain routines that provide me with a sense of support and reassurance. It explains why I am on at least my 20th rewatching from start to finish of The West Wing (the greatest piece of television ever made).

I have known for a long time that there is a direct relationship for me between my health and wellbeing – especially my mental health – and my work. To be more specific, it is the culture of the organisation I work within, for, alongside, or as an adviser to, that can have a negative impact on me. Organisations in which poor behaviour is visible and tolerated, for example, passive aggressive emails; long hours culture; presenteeism; bullying (overt or covert); unsupportive senior colleagues; sneaky emailing sent to senior people to undermine others; excessive cc-ing of people to emails, especially senior people, to pressure colleagues; I could go on – really damage me. They undermine my confidence, eat away at my morale, make me feel less than I should, make each day a little harder to manage and to bear, and make me feel sad and low. There is however another dimension to the health impact on me. Rashes.

Since my breakdown I have been aware that rashes appear on my body – mostly, but not exclusively on my lower legs – when my stress levels, anxiety and depression are heightened. I now know that I suffered signifiant physical symptoms of anxiety and depression in the lead up to my breakdown (sweating, chest pains, headaches, extreme tiredness, more than normal visits to the toilet and the like). At the time they were just part of my daily life and I didn’t stop to question why they were happening – I was too wrapped up in getting through the day and climbing the corporate ladder. 

Some of these symptoms reappear from time to time when I am not firing on all cylinders – especially if I am in the midst of a depressive episode. I understand my body better now and because of all the small things I do now to try to stay well (but not always succeeding) they are the exception in my life now and not the rule. The exception to the exception is the leg rash. That old favourite is constantly around and will turn up the itchiness when it wants to warn me that all is not good. It is actually a helpful (albeit unpleasant) canary in the coal mile to keep me alive to the negative impacts I may be feeling. 

Anyway, back to my amateur sleuthing and a recent personal mystery.

Over the first and second lockdown, I had an unwelcome spread of the rashes – to my armpits (nice) and even nicer, my backside. Alongside this, I was experiencing some – I will choose my words carefully to protect the squeamish – interesting visits to the toilet each week. The rashes were eventually cleared up with some cream from the doctors – I was concerned that my daily runs and addiction to my Nike John Barnes-style leggings were part of the problem – thankfully they are not! But the toilet issues continued. Then a breakthrough. Rather like the moment in the second hour of Morse when the minor Oxford character suddenly starts to take on a more prominent role and moves on the list of suspects, the penny dropped.

The toilet issues started on Monday mornings (sometimes Sunday nights). They lasted until at least the middle of the week. They cleared up in time for the weekend. And the pattern repeated. Again and again. You got it yet? It took me a while. It took until I was leaving my most recent job, which was full-time and at times overly demanding and unhappy for me (see previous post: http://www.amjcomms.com/2020/09/02/its-time-to-make-a-change/) that things changed. The pattern ended. The problem stopped. Suddenly, and now it has gone. 

It was another physical manifestation for me of the stress and unhappiness I was experiencing by working in a role that didn’t suit me – that was impacting on my health – that was making it hard for me to stay well. There is not rocket science or a great mystery behind this. We spend a lot of time at work. It can be a source of enormous support, friendship, intellectual and physical stimulation. It can be a really happy part of our lives. But it can also damage us if we are working in place or in a way that doesn’t suits us. 

In 2021, I will be working for myself again and making different choices about who I work with and the working cultures that I expose myself to. As I move towards the next stage of my career and seek to help others more formally with issues they are facing in their lives, I will continue to be focused on the impact that work can have on health and wellbeing.  I am passionate about this. I really want to help people to understand the workplace factors in their lives which can enhance or damage them and ensure that work – and their approach to work – doesn’t become their itchy rash or unpleasant toilet routine. 

Talking and writing about these things can be embarrassing. It can make others cringe or wish things were left unwritten or unsaid. But I know from experience the importance of being open and of sharing. It can really help. It can make us feel less alone. Less like the only person going through it. Less like a freak. 

If we are to learn one of the big lessons of 2020, it must surely be that life is too short to be unhappy. Solving the happiness mystery cannot be left to others but is to be owned by each of us. I plan to make 2021 a year in which my work never again impact on my health, unless it’s in a positive way. The pandemic and all the carnage it has brought with it has made work very challenging for lots of people and presented us with pressures and stresses we could have barely anticipated, let alone easily handled, but we are now heading into a new year.

2021. A chance to start the year as we mean to go on. To make 2021 a year of positivity. That’s my plan. To enjoy the year. To put work in its rightful place. And to spend less time itching my legs or on the toilet.