Anxiety In An IT Role

One of the biggest challenges I face while dealing with anxiety is my job. I work in a small IT department for a company with about 150 employees, all with varying levels of IT knowledge and all with very different patience levels when it comes to things they don’t understand, or that don’t work how they expect them to. Users are frustrating to any IT person at the best of times before mental health is even a variable.

The biggest obstacle I face is the variation in my job role, which is down to the small team I am part of. Some organisations have the luxury of having an entire team dedicated to their storage infrastructure. An entire team dedicated to networking. An entire team dedicated to database administration. More teams for wireless networking, directory services, security, teams for different application stacks, teams of developers. The list goes on. As it stands, I am the company database administrator, Sharepoint administrator, Skype for Business administrator, general application administrator, PKI administrator and developer, which isn’t even the complete list. I also do my fair share of network management, virtualisation administration, general domain administration, and then end user support for anything from “we need a microwave link to a platform offshore,” to my printer is printing a black line on every page. I’m also jointly responsible for network security, telephony, door access systems and I’m the holiday cover for the guy that does everything else. 

As you might immagine this is quite a stressful workload. Keeping the wheels turning is so time consuming it often involves overtime to fix issues or install security patches, and leaves very little time to complete tasks I consider essential to all good implementation projects, such as proper documentation for the next guy to take over, user documentation to act as training materials, and organising and providing end user trainin

Development is bitter sweet when it comes to dealing with anxiety. The development process is a great escape from the general bustle of the office. Headphones on and keyboard smoking is the best ways to pass the day without even blinking. The problem comes when the deadline is looming. If the project is behind schedule, that can cause any amount of anxiety, but not as much as the prospect of releasing an application into the wild for users to scrutinise and find problems with. This is inevitable with any application you release, which might be the best applications in the world but that doesn’t stop the feelings of self consciousness, or prevent a developer suffering from anxiety from losing sleep. Having somebody use something you spend weeks coding and testing and coding and testing, only to complain that there is a typo on some button in a settings menu is a terrible feeling, and often feels like a massive kick in the balls.

Perhaps the most unbarabley extreme anxiety attacks come from my least favourite part of my job though. Presenting an application to users, or providing training on a new product. Standing in front of 150 people trying to teach them something is ridiculously hard for me and something I sinserely hope no anxiety sufferer has to go through, although they inevitably will since the world doesn’t stop for anybody. I have yet to schedule some user training for a product that I deployed months ago. The problem is, I keep delaying booking the training sessions in because I can’t face all of the judgmental faces in the room staring back at me, asking stupid questions to try and disprove what I am telling them. I’ve even considered handing my notice in to be completely honest, just to avoid the prospect of it.

In this day and age employers should be able to spot the signs and do more to help employees suffering with anxiety. Unfortunately though due to the culture of the workplace today, mental health is still a taboo subject, and anxiety is hushed up like some kind of dirty secret. Since the only other people in the company that know about your condition  are in Human Resources, most anxiety sufferers are still expected to perform tasks that cause extreme anxieiousness. It’s about time the world stopped ignoring mental health illnesses, which in itself would probably go a long way towards helping sufferers. 

Anxiety. It’s All In My Head

I used to think anxiety was all in the head of the sufferer in a figurative manner. I always understood the concept of a person being anxious about doing something extreme, like skydiving for the first time, but being so anxious about doing something as simple as going to a shop, that they are physically sick? Bollox! It must have been a hangover or something…

Then one day, anxiety was all in my head. Literally. I didn’t know that’s what it was straight away though. What I did know was that I had absolutely no desire to venture past my own front door. Whenever I did, because of my competing obligation to spend time with my family, even doing simple things such as going shopping, I started feeling dizzy and physically sick. This was especially obvious when walking and a sudden feeling of vertigo would present at seemingly random intervals.

Possibly the worst part of this period was my appalling mood swings and inability to tolerate people. I hated anybody outside my family. As somebody who frequently meets new people through work, this was especially difficult, Often resulting in a need to “disappear” to the little boy’s room for five minutes to regain my composure. It also affected my temper and rate at which I angered over silly little things. I’m not usually a moody or bad-tempered person. I think my wife has only actually heard me shout in anger once in the years we have been an item, and that was to a debt collector over the phone.

Unforseen change also sparked “episodes.” Simple things such as having to pick the kids up from school early because they were sick were incomprehensible to me. Or a change to a meeting time at short notice. Or a five-minute delay on a bus or train.

Eventually I decided enough was enough and visited my doctor. By my doctor, I mean a random doctor from a different practice because my GP practice at the time were useless. This chap was the one who made the diagnosis of anxiety and put it down to a seizure I had suffered out of the blue a few weeks before hand. Prescribing some medication, he proceeded to sign me off work for a few weeks to allow the meds to start working. He also advised the use of a free counselling service available in the UK called Talking Matters.

For all I didn’t notice an immediate change, my wife had mentioned how she had noticed an improvement in my mood. Progress was slow in the early weeks of recovery though. Gradually, the prospect of leaving the house become more bearable. Then I began to enjoy day trips with my family again.

The hardest hurdle to over come was returning to work. I had planned to return a few times over a two month period, but found the thought extremely stressful. After speaking to my doctor on a couple of occasions, as well as a counsellor, who both advised that I didn’t return to work just yet. I took their advice for a while but I soon found myself slipping into a depression due to the lack of human interaction during the day while my wife was at work and my kids were at school.

Eventually I decided it was time to climb back on the proverbial horse and drag my arse back to work, for some company and a distraction more than anything else. This tactic seemed to work. At least for a few weeks. And then my employer seemed to get bored with the whole phased return thing and decided I was ready to be thrown back into the deep end.

Within a month I was on a train to travel to a different company 300 miles away, to meet with a room full of people who I didn’t know, to gather requirements for a project in which I’ll be seconded to said company to develop on a platform that I’m not familiar with. In the interest of avoiding confrontation, and not admitting defeat, I kept quiet about how all of this affected me mentally for a good few months. All the time I was slipping back into a depression and suffering anxiety attacks again. Inevitably, I ended up having a breakdown and being signed on the sick again by my doctor.

This caused disquiet at work to say the least, but I didn’t care to be honest. I turned my work email account off on my phone and ignored work entirely. Apart from sending in sick notes anyway. I’d obviously learned a few tricks by this point.

It was during this bout of sick leave I had an epiphany. Instead of trying to keep everybody else happy at the expense of my sanity, fuck them all. This is the tact I have employed since returning to work this time, after the promise of weekly meetings to make sure I’m managing with my workload ect. They lasted roughly three weeks, the first two meetings didn’t happen, if anybody was wondering.

I think the inexperience of employers when it comes to mental health issues is a cause for concern. Employers are great at catering to some poor sod that has lost the use of their legs, for example, but piss poor at recognising when somebody is struggling on the inside.

The moral of the story is. Anxiety isn’t something to be embarrassed about. Don’t be afraid to get help, or tell somebody something is too much. Trust me, it’s a real thing and keeping quiet about it will only make it worse! And remember, no job is worth your mental health.