Work Overload Brings Panic, Anxiety, Stress

By now we've all heard the tales of the new workplace normal: Dwindling resources and ever-burgeoning workloads drive managers to push their staff to new lengths -- and new lows. Feeling trapped, rank-and-file workers do as they're told and do their best to keep the ensuing stress at bay.

Until getting laid off last month, Kristen, who didn't want to give her last name, was one of those workers. Only the more demanding her job became, the more her health suffered.

For one thing, the depression Kristen had managed all her adult life with "relatively low-strength" medication became unbearable, and her doctor prescribed her a second antidepressant.

VIDEO: Stress in the Workplace
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For another, said the fit, 25-year-old St. Louis resident, "My blood pressure was totally rising. And I'd never had high blood pressure before. Plus, it was getting to the point where I had a bad headache every day. I was like, 'This is getting out of control.'"

Her doctor, who she was seeing more and more, thought so too.

"When I got laid off, my doctor said, 'You know, I'm really glad you're not working there anymore,'" Kristen explained. "It's stressful looking for a new job, but at the same time, I'm glad I don't have to deal with that anymore."

Welcome to the Worry Club

Roberta Lee, M.D, Beth Israel
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Kristen has plenty of company.

A recent report from Harris, Rothenberg International found that the number of calls workers were making to company-sponsored Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) increased by almost 10 percent in 2008.

"We have had a huge surge in call volume since the recession began," said Dr. Charles Lattarulo, clinical director of Harris, Rothenberg International, which provides EAPs for 2,600 employers and 7 million workers worldwide.

"People are in distress," he said. "They're calling with panic attacks, anxiety and depression. They're working a lot more hours. They're not taking lunch, and they're not taking vacations."

In fact, Lattarulo said, his counselors have experienced a surge in requests for phone sessions, as opposed to face-to-face counseling.

"People don't want to come in to therapy because they don't want to be perceived as slackers," he explained. "Instead they're doing telephone therapy on their way in to work, on their commute. We've never had that happen before."

A Stress Epidemic?

To accommodate the additional calls, Lattarulo has had to increase his counseling staff by 20 percent since December 2008. He's also had to offer his counselors additional training to handle the myriad issues they're getting calls about.

"A couple of years ago, employees would call about one issue," he said. "Maybe they were stressed at work or they were depressed. Now they're calling about a complexity of issues: debt, stress, marital problems, their children acting out."

"We have a much more serious problem than we had a year ago," said Barry Shore, professor of decision sciences at the University of New Hampshire, Whittemore School of Business and Economics. "The recession has permanently changed the workplace."

Specifically, Shore said, the heightened productivity demands on workers seem to be here to stay.

"A year ago we were saying, 'Socialize, go bowling and do all those activities that are going to make you feel better,'" Shore offered. "Now that only goes so far. You can't go around hoping things will be better, and you can't sit there and long suffer."

But talk to any MD or mental health practitioner, and it's clear that many of us have yet to master how to emotionally navigate our demanding new workplace and economic realities.

"I'm seeing several additional patients per week with stress-related illnesses," said Dr. Linda Petter, a physician practicing family medicine in Tacoma, Wash. "People are not coping well. They're so worried about losing their jobs and homes that they're losing track of taking care of themselves."

Feeling Like Yourself Again

You don't need anyone to tell you to eat well, get enough sleep and get some fresh air for at least a few minutes a day. You have your mother and Dr. Oz for that.

But how do you bounce back when you can't remember the last time you felt like yourself?

Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona offered these suggestions:

Educate yourself. If you've never experienced high stress levels or extremely low moods before, it's understandable that you might be alarmed. The good news, Cilona said, is that these symptoms are entirely treatable. The trick is figuring out what tactics work for you, be it a change in your routine, professional counseling or medical or holistic treatment.

Ask someone you trust for their opinion. "Sometimes symptoms like these can distort the way we perceive ourselves," Cilona said. Asking a loved one if they've noticed you acting differently or think you could benefit from professional support could be the eye-opener you need.

Don't worry about the stigma. "Most people would never feel inadequate calling a plumber to fix a leaky faucet or a mechanic about fixing their car," Cilona said. Likewise, mental health professionals often know more about fixing your mood and stress levels than you. Let them help you.

Take action. You'll fare much better if you take a proactive approach to battling stress, anxiety and depression, Cilona said, and if you're open to experimenting with different solutions.

For Janice, a Los Angeles marketing professional who didn't want her real name used, the road back from anxietyville has been paved with a variety of healthy touchstones.

She said she's hopeful that cutting back on salt and caffeine will help correct her high blood pressure -- a condition she didn't have before the recession began -- so she doesn't need medication. She's also hopeful that more trips to the gym, some yoga classes and reflexology will help boost her immune system so she doesn't get quite so many upper respiratory infections.

But perhaps most important, Janice said, "I'm learning how to be super Zen-like when there is lots of chaos at work. The stressors have not gone away, but the way I'm handling them has changed."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see Anti9to5Guide.com.

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