Recently I started having panic attacks, and it's interesting because I did not have panic attacks when I studied abroad in Hungary and was kicked out by my roommate once she learned of my American nationality. I also (surprisingly) did not have panic attacks when I found out I had ovarian cancer at the age of 23—which included a year of grueling surgery, chemotherapy, recovery, and uncertainty for the future. I started having panic attacks when my work environment became unbearable.
My first panic attack came when the seriously understaffed production company I worked for began requiring an average of 60 hours of overtime a month, often paying me weeks and sometimes months late. I was overworked, underpaid, behind on bills, physically exhausted, and suffering from work-related injuries—all the while while striving to enjoy every moment of life after overcoming a cancer diagnosis. Others at my company were also experiencing heart palpitations, weight gain, insomnia, and even aggressive psoriasis from the overload of work and lack of financial instability.
Anxiety from workplace stress is not uncommon.
Unfortunately, this situation is not unique. In a 2015 survey by the American Psychological Association one in four Americans reported extreme stress levels in the workplace. And of course some amount of stress is inevitable, but employers should be responsible for making sure it doesn't get out of control, and interestingly, it's in their best financial interest to do so.
The Health and Safety Executive claims that 6.5 million sick days are taken every year as a result of stress, costing the United States $200 billion annually. And I am not suggesting that every company needs to put herbal tea in the break room and offer free yoga classes on Fridays (because this is putting a Band-Aid on the larger problem of chronic stress culture), but employers can help reduce workplace stress—and studies have shown that employers, too, can benefit from having happier, healthier, and more productive employees.
We need to draw a firm line between work life and personal time.
One change that employers need to establish and employees need to demand is the establishment of work-life boundaries. I grew up with my mother working for a neighbor and family friend, so the boundaries were constantly crossed with calls coming to our home phone and her cellphone all day, every day—including weekends and every vacation for the last two decades. According to a new study by the U.S. Travel Association's Project Time Off, one in four Americans report being contacted by a colleague during vacation, and one in five by their boss. Technological advancement may bring opportunity, but it can also erase personal time and space.
Other countries are leading the way.
In 2014, France recognized the unhealthy lifestyle this kind of digital access has created and is amending a law limiting a company’s right to contact employees outside of work hours. And just recently, France passed a law that grants all employees "the right to disconnect" from work email after hours and while on vacation. Creating work-life boundaries is essential to reducing workplace stress. As I travel between living abroad and visiting family in the United States, I consistently find Americans to be more stressed, unwell, and unhappy than in previous years.
People in other countries are horrified to learn that American companies are not legally required to provide any paid time off to employees—including sick leave and vacation—while other countries average about one month a year. Numerous studies have shown what serious health problems stem from stress, so employers need to take responsibility for their employees that will spend the majority of their day and sometimes life dedicated to the company, by endeavoring to decrease the amount of stress they experience each day.
Workplace stress culture is not normal, and we should all refuse to accept it.
It's time to stop accepting stress as a daily experience and being busy as a part of life because I promise you, if you become seriously ill, you will regret every minute you spent stressing about work instead of loving your family, friends, and, most importantly, yourself. If your work-life is encroaching on your private life, talk to your employer about ways to improve a balance—you can start by simply turning your phone on silent.