I've been really, really struggling with workplace related stress and depression. Recently, my companies HR department sent out a survey to check the mental health of the company. I decided to respond honestly, that I was struggling. This resulted in a meeting with HR where I described the reasons I was getting stressed and depressed.

Whilst they were nice, they only really offered to follow up one thing to change with my work load (in a very indirect way). They kind of implied - nicely - the rest was my own problem and that I should be seeking professional help for the stress and depression.

Today I had an overwhelming amount of work to do and a huge amount of pressure, which ultimately lead to a panic attack. I'm really at the point where I need things to change for my own health.

I'm kind of in two minds about this - I'm at the point where I almost no longer care if I lose the job, but at the same time something is telling me not to rock the boat to much and to not tell HR about mental health issues.

What's the correct thing to do? Should I tell HR that I am having a very tough time or just shut up and deal with it?

Edit with clarifications:

Country is Australia. The survey was voluntary and you could be anonymous if you wished. The survey came after a national mental health awareness day.

I also feel I should make a clarification on a point as maybe I worded things wrongly: It is my belief the the stress and depression I mentioned is due to the work environment and load, not a personal problem I already have that I bring to work. Perhaps I was wrong to do so but I initially contacted HR with the same mindset someone would contact them about an OHAS concern.

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    I just want to add one thing. Well done for asking this question. That in itself is a difficult step that many people can't take. Please take heed of the answers and follow up the advice given – Darren H Sep 20 at 11:29
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    In which country is this? – RemcoGerlich Sep 20 at 11:58
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    @Kilisi: Panic attacks are defined by the irrational trigger (similar to how a phobia is defined as an irrational fear). If you exhibit the same symptoms while an axe-wielding serial killer is chasing you, it's not called a panic attack. If you're afraid of axe-wielding serial killers, that's not a phobia. – Flater Sep 20 at 12:49
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    I think adding which country you are based in, makes a difference. I know certain countries where HR definitely might be helpful and other countries where HR is just a pain in your back end for this sort of thing. – kolsyra Sep 20 at 13:32

10 Answers 10

up vote 99 down vote accepted

What's the correct thing to do?

Do not continue talking to HR about this, they are not your friend. HR exists to protect the company.

Should I tell HR that I am having a very, very tough time, or just shut up, deal with it and work poorly?

At this point, you have already shined the HR spot light on you, I would not draw further attention from them. I would, however, seek out professional help from your doctor. You are way past the point, in my opinion, of dealing with it yourself since you have already had a panic attack.

In the meantime continue doing your best, follow your doctor's advise, up to and including leaving the job. Your health is number one, all else is second.

Hopefully with your doctors help, you will be able to cope with your job and be productive.

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    Seeking out medical assistance may also provide some legal protection, depending on your local laws. – Eric McCormick Sep 20 at 12:32
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    In the UK at least, the fact HR haven't helped him with this, is a great legal protection should they try and get rid of him by other means. – djsmiley2k Sep 20 at 17:45

Human Resources can't help you with this. That isn't their role. HR's job is to look out for the interests of the company and make sure the employees aren't causing problems. They aren't counselors and are not able to help you with your mental health issues.

If your workload is giving you problems, you need to talk to your manager and work with them to find a balance you can handle. The pace you are going is not sustainable and you cannot keep taking on everything that you have been doing. You need to figure what parts of your job are essential, and what can be left for another day. You don't need to take it all on (you can't, and shouldn't try), but work with your manager to figure out what actually needs to be done. You're already burning out, if they keep pushing you they will lose you, and that won't be good for anyone.

Secondly, take HR's advice and seek professional help. A good therapist will help you find ways to deal with the stress. This is really important, especially if you are also having trouble with depression. Do this today.

Your health is too important to let this slide. You are right that you should talk to someone, but that someone should be a professional trained to help you with these issues. Not the HR department.

They kind of implied - nicely - the rest was my own problem and that I should be seeking professional help for the stress and depression.

They are correct.

While HR can help adjust a few things in your workplace to help you, they are not mental health professionals.

Your health is your responsibility. And if you don't handle this, your work will suffer and you will put your job in jeopardy. If you consistently find that you have panic attacks when the workload gets high, this job and perhaps this profession might not be for you. But don't jump to that conclusion without a professional assessment!

You need to get yourself to your doctor and seek help. Do it now. This is not a workplace issue - this is a mental health issue.

Depending on your country HR is actually your friend and the company is required by law to protect you against physical and mental issues caused by work (and especially not allowed to fire you for them).
Even non workplace related issues can be handled very well by being open to HR and your boss.

I am from the Netherlands, I have manic depressions and have recently started to deal with short burn out periods.

On my first job (150-200 employees internationally) I lied about my situation for about half a year.
I allowed myself 0 rest and had to come clean to HR when I finally collapsed for two weeks.
Instead of being fired I was sent to the company doctor and we made a plan so I could get back to work, slowly building up my working hours again (while still being paid in full).
I kept communication with HR very open after that and always got the one or two days of rest when I needed it.

At my second and third (current) jobs (+/- 15 employees, no HR) I was open about my situation from the start.
This allowed me to get in a position where I can be open about my situation with everyone and reach a deal where my contract has about 20 hours and I can work up to 40 hours if I'm able (profit for both parties).

I can and do talk with my boss regularly about private issues and don't have the added fear of racking up to many sick days to cause an investigation.
If you ask me keeping your mouth shut to your boss and/or HR is the worst thing you can do.

Note:
This answer is based on my personal experience and understanding of local laws and may not work for you AT ALL.
On my second job I was understandably given the label 'high risk factor' and my contract was not extended after two years.
Part of my success is because I understand the risk I pose and try to decrease that factor for my employer with a non standard contract.

The only person at work you should speak honestly about your mental health problems to is a workplace psychiatrist if they have one. They are subject to doctor-patient privilege, meaning anything you say to them (with some very specific exceptions such as they think you are likely to harm yourself or others) is private information and cannot be shared with the company.

Anything you say to HR is not privy to this level of privacy and on top of this, they are likely not qualified or licensed mental health professionals. All you achieve by talking to HR about your mental health issues is letting them know that you aren't coping and you are a prime candidate for culling. HR are not your friend or confidante and never forget that.

  • I can see a few advantages of these company's psychiatrists/psychologists: they will know much better the environment their patients are working in, assess better each one's situation, and advise with possible company-related solutions available to them, particularly work-related solutions. Corruption is a risk indeed, particularly in bigger companies where managers are trying to undermine others to get to the top... However, for standard workers, the risk seems negligible. – CPHPython Sep 20 at 14:50

HR's primary purpose is to look out for the company's interests.

Among those interests is the well-being of the employees. Employees having trouble are employees probably not able to give peak performance, and this hurts the company.

In the US, at least, most companies, especially the larger ones, have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that exist for the specific purpose of connecting employees with help for mental or personal issues. Under US law, they are bound to confidentiality. Some do a better job at this than others. (I know of one company where confidential medical information WAS shared internally, despite it being against the law for them to do so.)

HR is correct when they say you need to be working this on your own. The other posters are correct when they say you probably should not continue talking with them about it. However, HR may have a referral list of local resources that can offer you help, and the company may have an EAP, and it is certainly not unreasonable for you to inquire about it.

Beyond that, talk to your physician, and your clergyman (if applicable). Clergy, especially: Despite all the denigration they've been taking in the press, despite all the backhanded slaps at them, the fact is that they are there to help people cope with the world, and that has been their number one job for quite literally thousands of years. AND: Every priest, every reverend, every preacher I've met in my 63 years of life will be happy to hear you out and will do his best to help, whether you are a member of that particular congregation or not. It's what they do.

The way that HR expect to become involved in a scenario like this is when you present them with a doctor's note which requires them to pay you to take time off work. Your doctor would agree a suitable process and time for you to return to work (in exactly the same way as any other health issue). That might easily be a shorter working week for an extended period for example. Your doctor may also identify specific things which need dedicated workarounds, and the HR department would probably then work for the company to ensure these requirements are accommodated (to protect the company from the risk of a claim for constructive dismissal or similar).

Depending on the country, your rights will obviously be different, but if you follow this process, your employer is required to support you (to an extent).

Once you start down this route, you may find that your manager (not HR) is more aware or your needs, but there is no guarantee of this. Your manager should appreciate that asking you to take on too many tasks is likely to result in them needing to find someone to stand in next time you're signed off sick, but they probably can't dismiss you.

Long term, you might choose a different work environment, but that is something to come back to later once you've spoken to the right people and they agree it makes sense for you to review your situation. In my experience, this is not an unusual situation, and companies can handle it well if given the right input from a health professional.

  • Similarly, you and your doctor may identify certain issues that exacerbate your problem, and that there are accommodations that could be made for you in the workplace that would alleviate them. Especially if your doctor diagnoses your situation as a problem that qualifies as a "handicap" that companies are supposed to work around, then getting HR involved with that aspect of things may be entirely appropriate. – RDFozz Sep 20 at 16:55

What's the correct thing to do? Should I tell HR that I am having a very, very tough time, or just shut up, deal with it and work poorly?

The fact that the survey was not anonymous is already very strange for me, but No. HR is not responsible for distributing work. This is why I believe, it will not change much if you explain yourself. Especially, if they do not seek ways to reduce the work-load and/or stress-levels.

I suggest you to seek a doctor. A good one will certainly advise you to change the job. Your job related depression and panic attacks are a sure sign that you need to change your job.

  • I do not believe that a stressful job with such an HR, will contribute much to OPs health, but I agree in the other points. – dgrat Sep 20 at 15:25
  • The survey was optionally anonymous – MeltingDog Sep 21 at 2:45
  • I think the way they dealt with the situation is bad. If I would be HR I would a) not expect that someone would answer the eval. like you AND sign it with your name and if so, I would b) expect that the person really suffers. They moved responsibility away from company by sending you to a doctor. Instead they should rather discuss how to reduce stress-level/work-load to a normal level. I really suggest you to change your current situation, because you seem unhappy. – dgrat Sep 21 at 10:28

I would advise you one thing to do: write down everything you are doing. Like this you have "proof" of your situation, and in top of that, just writing it down gives you power and pride.

Once you have monitored for a few weeks what you have been doing, you can go to your manager, and say (something like):

  1. These are the things I've been asked to do.
  2. These are the things I've managed to do.
  3. These are the things I've not been able to do.

I don't feel well by the pressure, put on my shoulders, which results in a decreasing number of points 2 and an increasing number of points 3. Can you give me some professional guidance in order to handle those points properly?

Like this, you won't be seen as a poor soul who can't handle his problems, but as a professional who is able to describe the root cause of a problem. I don't think you need to mention personal feelings like depression, panic attacks, ..., just stick to the professional story and let other professionals (like your boss, who's responsible for your tasks) deal with it, and do find some pride in it: after all, when this works out fine, you'll have managed getting another person to solve your personal problems :-)

  • Unfortunately, this is something the OP should have apparently done weeks or months ago. I'm up voting this because it's an good answer for someone who hasn't reached the point the OP has already gotten to. – computercarguy Sep 20 at 17:34

Personally, I don't think HR can assist you here.

You may be able to get some assistance from the mental health community, but I believe the root cause lies elsewhere.

Project Management

Most of the stress from the work place comes from scheduling and project management. Project management has two perspectives: Your estimates and the project deadline. A stressful workplace usually results from poor project management and estimates.

On your part, you need to communicate with the Project Manager (PM) (who may also be your manager), about how much work you can accomplish in a day. Record how much work you accomplish on a less stressful day. When the PM assigns you a task, indicate how much work effort this would take (use your data for a less stressful day). So for example, maybe your rate is 5 hours of useful time per day. Also discuss with the project manager, if the tasks can be split up into smaller pieces (so for example, instead of stressing you out, delegate some of the work to other team members).

Through my own experience working with teams, quality suffers when project managers don't schedule correctly (a.k.a. impossible deadlines). The team focuses on the deadline rather than the quality of work. Project managers should discuss any slips with their stakeholders as soon as possible.

There is a project schedule triangle: schedule (time), resources, and features (requirements). If the stakeholders want to shorten the time side, the other sides must change also (to connect the triangle). For example, the schedule time may be reduced by removing some of the requirements.

If your PM is not open to suggestions, I recommend changing your environment or seeking out other employment. When interviewing with the next company, inquire about how projects are managed. Ask how much overtime is usually spent on the projects (a good indicator of poor project management). If moving on is not an option, suggest (demand?) that the company invest in project management education. I've been thrown into project management courses that the company hosted. They really help the company become more productive.

Summary

IMHO, most of the stress in the workplace is due to poor project management. People focus on deadlines rather than quality and often sacrifice quality to meet schedules. If the schedule or time side of the project management triangle either can't move or is adjusted, the other sides must compensate. Project schedules also depend on the worker's estimates of effort. Better effort estimates from the workers will produce better project schedules. Dividing tasks into smaller pieces can help reduce stress. People often have increased pride in accomplishing smaller tasks, then dreading not finishing bigger tasks. Discuss scheduling options with your Project Manager, including dividing tasks into smaller pieces, to help reduce your stress level.

I suggest you learn more about project management and also suggest that the project and people management learn more about project management as well. It will benefit the company by producing higher quality projects in shorter durations.

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