What do I need to work safely with anxiety?

I was asked this question by both my manager and my psychologist after I burned out. Truth of the matter is, I have no clue.

On one hand, I think it could be simply a certain number of days or hours worked each week. On the other, no matter how many “days” I work, my perception of my workload will make it hard to stick to these days. When I was working 4 days a week, I worked longer hours to try and get everything done and manage the day off I have.

With anxiety, sometimes it’s not as simply as the black and white, days and hours that I work each day. Some weeks are worse than others, and some weeks ‘seem’ perfectly fine. It really doesn’t come down to the number of hours worked, but the attachment to work and ability to “switch off” that impacts the chronic physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and stomach pain.

What I really need is to create emotional boundaries between work and myself. I am here to do a job, and that capacity to do that job doesn’t reflect on who I am as a person. As a result, if I am pushed to do my job beyond my reasonable limits, then I can clearly state “I don’t have the capacity to do this job properly. Is there anyone else who can do it? Or can we change the parameters of the job? E.g. timelines, the detail of the task itself to be more feasible to accomplish?” Sounds easy right?

Since I burned out this week, I think it’s safe for me to have a significant reduction in working days next week to allow me sufficient time to recover. But moving forward, I’ve made a decision on 3-4 days from 8:30am-5:30pm for the time being, with adjustments to my workload and meeting structures (I spend most of my time in meetings). Obviously, anxiety fluctuates and I acknowledge that this can be reviewed and agreed with my manager, who thankfully is super supportive (if anything, he wants me to work less next week!).

Ultimately, I want the empowerment to make these changes to my work routines and tasks, have the support to push back and assert myself, and to make decisions that put my health first. Realistically, I’m already getting this externally. But I need to give myself the resolution and discipline to stick with my decision, and not wane in my fear of disappointing others.

There is a whole separate kettle of fish around why I have a compulsive attachment to work, and that’s something I need to sit with and unpack. I need to accept I can’t simply go down the path of “here’s my plan on how I will fix it” or to feel like it’s wrong to be this way. It will take time to build a healthy relationship with work, and that wherever I am on this journey, I am good enough.

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