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'Stress caused me permanent disability'

stress blog
11-08-2022

Like most people who work in a demanding profession, I'd always associated stress with simply being overwhelmed periodically with the pressures of the job.

I certainly never imagined I'd be told the effects of stress would result in vision loss and impairment that will unfortunately be with me for the rest of my life.

In 2019, the constant pressure of working for a national property management company and a performance-based, target driven culture had begun to take its toll. I began to display what I now know to be classic symptoms of chronic stress and burnout.

I had intrusive thoughts; I actually considered self-harm as a means to be absent from work, just to find relief from a work situation I'd begun to resent. I had an overwhelming desire to get as far away from my employment situation to the extent that I no longer wanted to work as a property professional.

I started struggling with my digestion. If I ate a spoonful of cereal, it felt like I had swallowed a four-course meal. I would wake in the morning and feel like I was hungover - nauseous, headaches, groggy with no energy. I would withdraw from my colleagues and friends just to be left alone and find some peace.

'My blood pressure was through the roof'

I booked an appointment with my GP, initially to try and relieve the digestion problems. At the consultation, my blood pressure was taken, and it was through the roof! I subsequently wore a blood pressure monitor for a week and was shocked to find my blood pressure reduced significantly during times I could relax, but during working hours (at this point, usually 10-hour days), my readings were dangerously high. Although I was put on medication, it had little effect.

One morning, I came downstairs and switched on the living room light, and it was like staring into the heart of the sun! I couldn't bear to look at a light source or read any form of text as it appeared distorted and blurred.

Despite the intervention of my both my GP and optician, the vision problems continued. After a second visit to my optician, they found what they called an 'anomaly' in my right eye, and I was referred to hospital.

I'll never forget the first words the consultant ophthalmologist said to me when he called me in to view the scans: "Mr Martin, how is your job?"

I was diagnosed with Central Serious Retinopathy (CSR), a stress related condition that results in a build-up of cortisol (the body's stress hormone) behind the retina. The accumulation of fluid pushes against the macula and the 'bubble' causes distortion in the vision and a sensitivity to light amongst other symptoms. While most normal sighted people recover quite quickly, this proved catastrophic for me.

Permanent sight loss

I already had a pre-existing eye condition whereby my left eye is a 'lazy eye', meaning signals to the brain are underdeveloped, and I'd always been reliant on my right eye to compensate. Although I've not really known what it is to have normal vision, it had not debilitated me in any way. But now the CSR in my right eye was having a significant effect on my level of vision. The situation also meant I couldn't have any treatment to disperse the fluid behind my retina: my only option was to allow the dispersal to occur over time. It took six months for cortisol to subside, during which time I was unfit for work as I simply could not read or use a visual display.

In a further blow, even after the cortisol has subsided, my vision had not returned to its previous level. I still struggled with close-up text and with light sensitivity. Text had a permanent shadow and I had difficulty in distinguishing text on background, resulting in discomfort and fatigue. The cortisol build up had left a permanent imprint on the macula and as a result, I was now visually impaired with permanent sight loss.

The impact that coming to terms with sight loss had on my mental health and wellbeing was huge.

The psychological effect is an aspect not addressed by healthcare professionals who concentrate on the physical issues around sight loss. This, and the obvious questions about how I'd be able to remain in work and how I meet my financial obligations, were of course a major concern.

It's at times like this being able to access help and support is essential. I initially contacted LionHeart because I was having problems accessing the RICS website and finding it hard to resolve the issue I had.  

How LionHeart helped me 

I spoke with an exceptional support worker called Tracy who not only helped with the issue I was having but, as I related my journey and subsequent difficulties in the workplace, assisted me in other ways that I hadn't anticipated discussing.

She recommended that I take legal advice on a work-related disability issue and made a referral to LionHeart's legal helpline.

At the time I was also in the middle of completing the PIP (Personal Independence Payment) application, a very complex and detailed document. Tracy provided resources to help me complete the application and provided further advice on how I might approach the PIP assessment interview.

More importantly, she went above and beyond in making time to check in on my health and wellbeing.

It made such a difference, just having someone to talk to and discuss issues with.

It was during one of our later conversations that Tracy suggested I would make an ideal candidate to become one of LionHeart's mental health ambassadors, given my experiences - and here I am!

Through learning to cope and come to terms with sight loss and the effect that disability has on mental health, I've become passionate about raising awareness within the workplace.

Mental ill health and disability doesn't have to be a career breaker

I believe that, while there have been significant strides in the conversation around mental health and disability in recent years, there is still so much that could be improved upon within organisations and employers.

As an ambassador, I hope to offer support to anyone else experiencing similar issues, as someone to talk to, or by referring them to LionHeart's dedicated team of support workers.

My own experience with employers and the support they can offer has been mixed. But it's so important to emphasise that mental health issues or disability do not have to mean that someone cannot perform competently in a workplace.

To illustrate this, I've successfully changed jobs just recently, finding employment with an institution fully aware of what's needed to support employees who work with an impairment.

There's no reason for anyone to feel 'trapped' in an employment situation because they're afraid a disability or incidence of poor mental health might be a barrier to a change of role or career. But the more we can do to change people's perceptions, the fewer barriers there will be.

David


David Martin has been a property professional for over 20 years, with previous employers including Imperial College London, St John Ambulance, and NHS Property Services. He recently became a LionHeart ambassador ,and is also a qualified mental health first aider.

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