The hidden cost of our health crisis
Anne used to love what she did and relished being in the classroom.
But stress, sickness and pressure all proved too much and the Tasmanian teacher was pushed to the brink.
After weeks of unpaid leave, she still doesn’t feel she can go back.
“I felt like I couldn’t keep up with what I was supposed to be doing. I felt like what I was doing was nothing to do with the job,” she said.
“I thought I’m not doing anybody any good in the state that I got myself into so I took five months leave without pay.”
It turns out, the 47-year-old’s story isn’t unique.
A recent survey conducted by finder.com.au found almost two million days were taken off work in the last year for stress and mental health reasons.
“Generally speaking, younger workers were more likely to take a mental health day than older ones,” Finder.com.au Managing Editor Kate Browne said.
“Mental health issues are complex and generally created from a confluence of life factors, but it’s clear that anxiety and stress have a huge impact on Australian workplaces.”
The survey showed workers in Brisbane took the most time off work for mental health, while those in Adelaide took the least.
Although the number of people taking time off work for mental health almost halved since last year, it’s estimated to cost the economy at least $482 million.
Anne’s her mental health took a turn for the worst after contracting whopping cough in May this year and she was forced to go back to work after running out of sick leave.
“I just couldn’t shake this illness, I’d never been sick like this before and anti-biotics weren’t doing anything,” she said.
“I’d come home from work and I’d just sort of sit home on the couch and I’d sort of just sit there for hours.”
It was during this time that Anne, who’s been teaching for 25 years, realised she hated the job that she used to love.
“I dreaded going and I was completely on high alert all the time,” she said.
Despite having friendly colleagues and loving the kids she taught, Anne felt the conditions of being in a small classroom with 32 young children took its toll.
“I was so stressed,” she said.
Beyond Blue Lead Clinical Adviser Dr Grant Blashki said although stress is not always a problem, it can lead to mental health conditions.
“We know that one in five employees is likely to have a mental health condition at any one time,” Dr Blashki said.
“When work-related stress is excessive and ongoing, it becomes a risk factor for developing a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.”
Unlike Anne – who’s taken a length of time off work - Greg, a mailroom worker from Melbourne told 9news.com.au he has been taking days off for the last ten years when he feels stressed.
“It just gets to the point where you think, I need a day off,” Greg said.
In recent years, the 55-year-old, who works for one of Australia’s largest banks, went through a divorce and multiple health issues, including battling prostate cancer.
“Whilst you might have a day off because you’re actually physically ill, the toll works up,” he said.
His most recent day off was a couple of weeks ago.
“I was feeling pretty blue and I just needed a day off,” he said.
“I just had a quiet day at home.”
He believes a supportive network of family and friends is essential to getting through “the pressures of life” and emphasised there was a lack of support from management at work.
Dr Blashki highlighted the importance for workplace leaders to provide a safe working environment.
“Mentally healthy workplaces benefit every single person in the workplace – not just people with mental health conditions.
“While a day off can be a great way to get back on track or seek support, usually it won’t address the reason behind the need for a break – such as too much work, not enough flexibility, poor job design or lack of role clarity.”
BACK ON TRACK
Having now been off work for a few months, Anne, with the help of a psychologist, is back on track with her mental health but is unsure if she wants to return to her job.
“I either have to get myself back to a place where I can do the job or I need to think of a completely different pathway or career to go on,” she said.
“I’m 47, but I felt like I was about 90 all the time.”
The mother-of-one, who worked full-time before going on leave, said she might go back as a part-time or relief teacher.
To keep her options open, she’s now studying to be a copy writer and doing some work for a couple of websites.
“It’s given me an idea that perhaps there’s something else I could do and I could actually be ok at it if I keep working at it,” she said.
Although Anne feels like a different person after receiving help and taking time off work, she worries the changes will backflip if she jumps back into the work she was previously doing.
“When you are at home, and you’re cooking, gardening and reading and writing you feel brilliant because that’s what you want to do and I just don’t want to get too complacent,” she said.
“I just want to make sure that I keep a handle on reality.”
Having been a single mother for a long time, and being used to being the “strong one”, Anne began to allow her partner to take care of her.
“I had to let go some of that control and hand that over to my partner,” she said.
“Luckily, he is the most patient and decent human being in the world.”