Defeating Workplace Stress in NYC

On October 14, 2018, 42-year-old Gabe MacConaill, a successful partner at a high-powered Los Angeles law firm, kissed his wife of almost ten years goodbye, drove to work, pulled his car into the company parking garage, and shot himself in the head.

In her poignant retelling of the years and events leading up to the fateful day her husband took his life, Joanna Litt shares the overwhelming career-related pressures that plagued MacConaill.

“I know ‘Big Law’ didn’t directly kill my husband,” Litt writes, “because he had a deep, hereditary mental health disorder and lacked essential coping mechanisms. However, these influences, coupled with a high-pressure job and a culture where it’s shameful to ask for help, shameful to be vulnerable, and shameful not to be perfect, created a perfect storm.”

In the heartbreaking open letter, Litt describes her mounting concern for her husband’s mental health in the last weeks of his life that coincided with his management of a major bankruptcy case. At one point, both Litt and MacConaill agreed he needed professional medical assistance to deal with his exhaustion and depression. Unfortunately, MacConaill ultimately declined to seek help or any treatment options, saying that a visit to the hospital “could spell the end of his career.”

 

Raising awareness of attorney work pressures and mental health

A 2015 Centers for Disease Control report showed that the legal industry ranked seventh in suicides (up from 11th place in 2012), behind management, financial operations, and architecture and engineering, and a few other professions. However, a recent increase in high-profile attorney suicides has shone a spotlight on the subject.

According to attorney Dan Lukasik’s silence-busting website Lawyers With Depression, 28 percent of attorneys suffer from depression, 19 percent struggle with anxiety, and 23 percent experience work-related stress.

To address the growing type of mental health and addiction issues stemming from the demands of a career in law, the American Bar Association created the Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs (CoLAP) in 1988. In March 2018, CoLAP launched a campaign to raise funds for a video campaign intended to be shared through various social media outlets and other platforms end the stigma among law professionals against seeking help for mental health issues — the very same stigma that kept Gabe MacConaill from checking into a hospital and seeking medical advice for exhaustion.

 

Recognizing a need for open discussion about mental health among all professions

The field of law is indeed not the only profession dealing with rising rates of work-related mental health issues and one of its most disastrous outcomes. Across all professions, the vital of suicide is increasing. The suicide rate among the United States working-age population (aged 16 to 64) increased by 34 percent from 2000 to 2016. For men, the highest rates of suicide were found among carpenters, electricians, and miners, while more women in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media took their own lives. The lowest rate of suicides for both genders was found in the education, training, and library occupational group.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported on the rising trend of employees ending their lives at their workplace. Citing recent workplace suicides at a Bank of America call center, a Ford Motor Company plant, and at Apple headquarters, the Journal found that with 291 incidents, 2016 set a new record for the number of workplace suicides. The most common method by far was shooting, followed by hanging or another form of asphyxiation. Theories about why people would choose the workplace for their suicide range from ensuring that someone other than family finds their body to sending a stark message to the company that they feel drove them to end their life.

Studies from across the globe indicate deteriorating work conditions and extreme pressures that have likely added to the prevalence of workplace suicides. According to a recent Newsweek report, the globalization of work and abandonment of strong trade unions and other post-war career paths and stability have led to a pervasive lack of job security. Today’s globalized workforce is subject to forced redeployments, worker surveillance, short-term work relationships, and even zero-hour contracts. These profound shifts are thought to have contributed to rising cases of acute stress, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, mood disorders, burnout, and suicide.

Entrepreneurs aren’t immune to work-related stress so severe that it leads to suicide. Forty-five percent of entrepreneurs report being stressed, and 30 percent suffer from depression; one independent survey found that 72 percent of entrepreneurs were affected by mental health issues. In most cases, the stress is somewhat self-inflicted; many entrepreneurs who “monetize their passion” drive themselves so hard that their work becomes their sole identity and is the main basis for their self-worth. Struggling to succeed, many business owners sometimes suffer from near-debilitating anxiety and despair when in the face of potential failure that inevitably ruins three out of four venture-backed startups. Instead of sharing their concerns with a qualified professional mental health expert or seeking proper mental health treatments, these individuals practice what an Inc. magazine exposé referred to as “fake it till you make it” impression management.

 

Work stress and a wide range of mental health struggles

Although suicide is the most devastating and, unfortunately, most awareness-raising statistic illustrating the prevalence of career-related mental health issues, work can cause an amalgam of mental as well as physical stressors. Long hours can lead to an increased risk of atrial fibrillation (that is, heart arrhythmia) and stress. Windowless offices interfere with restful sleep, and a bad day at work can contribute to metabolic syndrome, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and osteoporosis, among other ailments.

Many other factors that lead to stress at work range from significant changes within the organization or in assigned duties to an environment in which work is over-supervised or even dull. Symptoms can be physical, psychological, and behavioral, as indicated by cognitive difficulties, aggression, irritability, the onset of an eating disorder, diminished work performance, trouble sleeping, discouragement, and isolation. Occupational pressures are believed to be responsible for significant portions of reported back pain, fatigue, weight loss or gain, and even headaches, and increasing levels of workplace stress have contributed to an escalation in absenteeism, accidents, and even workplace violence which, in turn, can result in domestic violence.   

Stress is highly personalized, and can’t always be characterized by a particular occupation or position within a company. It can vary widely for different people in identical situations, and often depends on the individual’s perceptions. For example, many police officers surveyed by the American Institute of Stress said that having to complete paperwork was more stressful than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals.

 

Finding a balance to career stress in NYC

According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress By City survey, work and money are the most significant cause of stress in New York City, with 78 percent of respondents reporting that their stress was somewhat or very significant. The report also showed that although managing stress is extremely important, only 12 percent of respondents have been referred to an NYC mental health professional.

For the other 88 percent of New Yorkers suffering from work-related stress, Therapy Group of NYC recommends career counseling with psychologists or other mental health professionals or therapy that explicitly takes into account the rigors of work in NYC. For people with mental health concerns, working with a professional specializing in the specific stressors or concerns that stem directly from work can be a life and career-altering experience.

Therapy Group of NYC recently discovered that, overall, 60 percent of people are stressed, extremely fatigued, and feel out of control with it comes to their work. This stress stems from varied issues that all boil down to the perception of “having little control but lots of demands.”

Career counseling or therapy that focuses on your career can help workers regain a sense of control before workplace stress escalates to a point in which someone begins to contemplate or act in self-harmful ways.

Long-term or chronic conditions are understandably serious, but dealing with short-term or intermittent stress on the job is also challenging. A great therapist in NYC can not only help treat the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and any other type of mental health issues, but they can also teach healthy coping, communication, and conflict resolution skills to help you deal with any of the various stressors you may experience at work. At Therapy Group of NYC, professional therapists also coach clients on how to develop the resilience to deal positively with the setbacks and barriers that will occur in any profession.

 

Simple steps for managing stress

The American Psychological Association recommends taking steps like tracking stressors, developing healthy responses, establishing boundaries, taking time to recharge, and learning to relax as methods of coping with workplace stress. Talking about mental health with a competent therapist can help you with each of these as well as other related topics, but here are some quick tips.

Keeping a journal of specific stress-inducing situations, as well as noting how you respond to them, can help you recognize how your feelings, thoughts, and actions are related. You can also share journal entries with your therapist if you both determine it would be beneficial to your work together. Your therapist will listen to the details you recorded (including your thoughts and feelings, the people involved, the immediate environment, and what you did immediately afterward). Together, you can work on identifying patterns among these stressors and your reactions and establish methods for dealing with these situations when they occur.

Because many people fight stress with excessive alcohol, substance abuse, or other counterproductive or self-destructive choices, a therapist will help you establish positive ways to deal with stress. While exercise, hobbies, or spending time in nature are self-care stress reducers for some people, those might not be best for you. You can work with your mental health professional to determine alternatives that you’ll enjoy and engage in doing so that you’ll achieve the most benefits.

Your therapist can also help you learn how to establish boundaries not only in your work life but also at home. For some people, especially many hard-charging New Yorkers, “turning off” work at the end of the day is difficult, and perhaps even outside of their control. Salaried employees with company-issued phones and laptops may feel obligated to be on-call and ready to work nearly 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Likewise, business owners have to find a healthy balance between work and life and learn to disconnect both literally and figuratively from the office.

Taking time away from work to recharge is challenging for an increasing number of Americans. Project: Time Off, which is sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association, found in its State of American Vacation 2016 report that 55 percent of American workers left vacation unused in 2015. This total of 658 million unused vacation days eclipsed the previous year’s 429 million days and signaled an alarming trend. Survey respondents cited lack of money for a vacation, returning to a mountain of work, and a lack of support from bosses and colleagues as the biggest reasons for not taking advantage of their allotted time off. A therapist can help you better learn to deal with these challenges and understand why getting away from the workplace can help to enhance your productivity and overall sense of wellbeing.

The American Psychological Association also recommends talking openly with your supervisor about the stress you’re experiencing at work and working together to lay out a plan for managing or resolving these issues. Although this is a valid idea, just the thought of this conversation can be daunting to many employees. Your psychologist can help you determine if this is the appropriate path for you to follow, and if so, work with you to create talking points and plan responses for the best possible outcome.

 

The role of employers in addressing employee mental health

Many people cite a lack of health insurance or unaffordable medical costs as reasons they don’t seek out a mental health care professional. However, as of 2014, most employer-provided health insurance plans include coverage for mental health and substance abuse services. Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects workers from discriminating or retaliating against employees with mental health conditions. A mental health diagnosis and necessary treatment can be kept confidential from an employer in most cases. Even so, employers should take an active role in preventing and addressing mental health issues in the workforce.

Recent research from Bangor University and the University of St. Gallen found further evidence for the connection between psychological wellbeing and increased workplace productivity and financial stability. Inc.com reported on how that and other similar research might foretell the rise of psychotherapy as a corporate wellness perk, provided that the stigma surrounding seeking therapy continues to decline.

The American Psychiatric Association Center for Workplace Mental Health estimates that excessive workplace stress causes more than 120,000 deaths and results in nearly $190 billion in healthcare costs every year—a whopping five to eight percent of national healthcare spending. If this hit to the corporate bottom line wasn’t enough incentive for companies to promote positive and professional mental health practices for workers, an understanding of the harmful health impact on stressed workers should drive them to institute a mental health program.

The American Psychiatric Association Center for Workplace Mental Health has discovered that workplace stressors like high on-the-job demands, insufficient resources, and perceived or actual imbalances in high effort vs. low compensation and recognition can result in a multitude of health problems. Damage to vital brain structures and circuitry, the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, reduced immune system functioning, sleep disorders, increased inflammation, issues about both men’s health and women’s health, and depression are just a few of the consequences. Avoiding such debilitating health issues in employees is one of the reasons companies offer insurance plans and encourage preventative health care.

Although managers and human resources personnel are in no way expected to offer personal mental health counseling or guidance, they are responsible for creating and focusing on efforts to prevent, identify, and support mental health issues among their employees. Prevention begins at the top, as executives are ultimately responsible for establishing the company’s culture and climate and sharing with team members performance expectations. A culture that promotes fair practices, a positive work environment, open communication, and realistic goals goes a long way towards stress reduction.

In collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness-NYC Metro, the Northeast Business Group on Health, and other entities, the American Psychiatric Association Center for Workplace Mental Health developed a Working Well toolkit to “help employers foster a workplace that supports mental health and wellness.” The kit provides a framework for employers to drive change through four fundamental principles: knowing the potential impact of mental illness on their company, breaking the silence and letting employees know that it’s okay to seek help, delivering affordable access to mental health professionals, and building a culture of wellbeing that leads to higher employee engagement and retention.

 

How to find help today

If any of the stressful work situations we’ve mentioned sound familiar to you, or you just want to head off a potential developing stressor, contact Therapy Group of NYC today. We’ll listen to better understand your specific needs and preferences and pair you with an NYC therapy professional who will help you get on the right track and find an appropriate balance between life and work.

We know that living and working in a dynamic environment like New York City has its unique challenges that can sometimes be overwhelming. We’ll help you deal with those challenges, and work with you to get your life from good to great using our exclusive scientifically-based techniques and smart technology. Learn more about our NYC therapists and our unique approach to helping you thrive by visiting nyctherapy.com.