When Stress Becomes Distress
Vol.8 Issue 8

By: Michael Mayfield, Air Traffic Organization
Member of Aeronautical Center Employee Development (AsCEnD) program Cohort #2

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How many times have you caught yourself saying, "I need a vacation" in the past few days? That might be a sign that you are on the brink of mental health distress; and you wouldn’t be alone. In March of 2022, the World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in depression and anxiety rates just in the first year of the global health pandemic. Despite the rise in mental health issues, the American Psychiatric Association states that more than half of the people with mental illness (like depression and anxiety) do not receive the help they need.

Dr. Daniel Danczyk, one of the FAA’s Assistant Chief Psychiatrists, states that "Some stress is good for performance, but too much – especially chronically – can turn into distress. And without actively intervening, this leads to burnout. It’s a fine line." Paying attention to physical changes, thoughts, feelings, and certain behaviors can prove beneficial in spotting burn-out.

Physical symptoms may show themselves as headaches, chest pain, or fatigue. Thoughts and feelings can be irritability, cynicism, panic, or feelings of insecurity. Behavioral changes can include things like angry outbursts, crying, being late, or a change in substance use or religious activities. From an organizational psychological viewpoint, Jonathan Davis, MS in Industrial and Organizational Psychology in People Services within the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, also lists a lack of engagement and becoming increasingly distant while at work; for example, someone may not respond to emails or might take longer to do tasks which should not have taken as long to complete. Davis adds, "these are things managers and coworkers can recognize."

There are ways to combat burnout, though. Both Dr. Danczyk and Mr. Davis agree that being aware of your personal wellness is essential. Consider ways to do things that, if you are not already doing, you should strive to be doing: keep a regular schedule, eat well, sleep, limit screen time before bed, and develop a nighttime routine. Also, prioritize what is really important, especially as we prepare to enter the rush of the holiday season to minimize overextending yourself. "Give yourself permission to say ’no’," states Dr. Danczyk. It is also important to maintain a good work-life balance. "Reach out to your manager and let them know you need a break," Davis says, "use the resources we have available to your advantage. Take leave, utilize your maxiflex schedule, or call Magellan and use the free sessions to find a therapist. Counselors are trained for this."

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Another tip to combatting burnout is to find some ways to take a break from everything while spending time in a pleasurable activity. Dr. Penny Giovanetti, Director of the Medical Specialties Division, says that she enjoys going to southern Virginia to spend time with horses for the weekend and designing her rose garden. Dr. Danczyk goes for runs, but also enjoys cooking. "Just the act of focusing on something different helps," Dr. Danczyk insists.

Doctors Danczyk, Giovanetti, and Mr. Davis all stress the importance of asking for help. "This is something we don’t talk about at work; but we should," Davis imparts. Sometimes it’s hard for us to notice when we are approaching a dangerous level of burn out. "As employees and people, we should be talking to each other and actively engaging. Pay attention to your coworkers," says Davis. If you notice your coworker has been off, bring it up to your manager. "Say something like ’hey, I’ve noticed something is up with Jane. I am concerned for her as her coworker,’" Davis informs.

Asking for help can be hard. If you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to your supervisor or a coworker, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available to you 24/7. Each federal employee is offered up to eight free sessions per issue with a licensed therapist. If you feel you need help or would like to talk to a professional, contact the EAP at 1-800-234-1327 or visit the EAP webpage.

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