12/05/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

An Empire Built on the Pillars of Fear: Panic and the Corporation

The amount of pressure that's placed on employees these days seems to have spun out of control. Gone are the days of a company's loyalty to its people, and higher-ups offering their staff recognition for a job well done has certainly fallen to the wayside. There's so much pressure to take on, achieve and produce more that there's not even time to stop by a colleague's office to ask how her weekend was.

Instead, "corporate restructuring" and layoffs have become the norm, and duties that were once carried out by two or even three people have now been saddled on one poor sod who's had no say in the matter. He was likely told that this would be a great opportunity for him to show the big boss what he's really made of and that it would pay off, come review season. Inside, he's aware that the chances of a bonus or a promotion are next to nil, but he's too fearful that he'll be next on the chopping block should he say no.

Maybe this sounds familiar to you: You've sat in someone's office, having a meeting about a project that one of the senior executives wants completed yesterday (as per usual), while you can hear the constant ping, ping, ping sounds coming from his computer to alert him of incoming emails. As you're talking, his phone rings and after looking at the call display, he sees that it's important so he has to take the call. While you're waiting for him to get off the phone, someone stops by and asks you if you're going to be much longer because she really needs to talk to him. As he's about to get off the phone, his Blackberry starts buzzing, alerting him to new messages coming in. He finally turns back to you with a pale face and tired eyes and asks, "Right, where were we?"

This scenario sounds absurd. And it is. But if you look around you, you'll probably find it's happening all too often. Maybe you're that guy. For some, this has simply become the new norm.

The question is: How can we keep this up?

The answer? We can't. In fact it's creating a workforce of anxious employees. Anxiety is a silent ailment that's most likely running rampant through your workplace. Maybe you've even experienced it yourself: You're walking into your fourth meeting of the day and are wondering how on Earth you're going to find the time to meet your deadlines for the day when you suddenly feel light-headed, or get a wave of nausea/shortness of breath/heart palpitations.

But you just keep quiet about it, soldiering on, trying to think of any excuse in the book to cover up your anxiety. You'll nod and say "yes" every time you're asked for fear of terrible consequences while your insides are screaming "no." It leaves you feeling isolated and alone, and makes you question if there's something seriously wrong with you, either mentally or physically.

I would be very curious to know how the number of stress-related short-term leaves or disability claims shape up during layoff season. In an effort to cut costs, surely these companies must know that while they're saving cash in one pocket, they're going to have to start paying out of the other as a result of this budget-cutting.

As many readers already know, I've been touched by anxiety, and my breaking point came when I was working in a job that was definitely not the right fit for me. So I talked about it. I told my friends, my family and my colleagues. It was then that I realized that I was not alone in this terrible mental/physical whirlwind we call anxiety. But here's the kicker: Everyone kept their anxiety to themselves, like a skeleton in the closet. Or like your drunk Uncle Joe who seems to rear his embarrassing head at the most inopportune times.

We all know that there's a stigma attached to mental health issues. I remember thinking in my pre-panic days that those who complained of anxiety were, in fact, weak. "Suck it up, buttercup," I'd think. But that's the very problem -- many of us have been sucking it up for far too long, and we've reached our breaking point. Feeling like you're "about to crack" takes on a whole new meaning for anxiety sufferers.

So how do we break this stigma?

Talk about it. Suffering in silence will make you feel even more isolated. At the same time, you're perpetuating the stigma. If those who suffered took a chance and introduced said "Uncle Joe" to their friends and colleagues, they'd probably find out that everyone else has got their own version of him. Then, he wouldn't appear to be so embarrassing. In fact, people might actually chuckle and playfully roll their eyes in his presence, while sharing funny stories about their own drunk uncles.

There are a lot of great resources out there to help those with anxiety. For many, I think a really good first step would be to set boundaries. Setting boundaries goes hand in hand with the courage to say "no." Even when layoffs are looming and your boss looks like her head's about to explode, I think it's important to listen to your gut. You know exactly what it's saying, only you've been ignoring it for too long. And this is probably why your body is reacting the way it is: You've denied your inner voice one too many times and now it's refusing to go unheard.

The corporation must know that your fears (of losing your job, of not living up to someone's standards, of disappointing your boss, etc.) are what keep you going. They're what keep you churning out work at lightning speed, taking on another person's duties once they've been axed, working on the weekends, and ultimately keep you from straying away from the straight line that you've been walking for as long as you can remember. If more and more people start putting their foot down when enough is enough, what would happen? Surely the higher-ups would take notice if their staff collectively said, "no more."

There's always a rumbling tension throughout the office after a round of layoffs. Those who are left untouched by the axe tend to feel thankful for still having a position. But at second glance, are they really better off, now that they're taking on the responsibilities of at least one or two other people (with no increase in pay or job title)?

Sure, we need to pay the bills. We all have responsibilities. But taking the time to ask yourself what makes you happy and what doesn't every so often surely isn't a bad thing. Life is too short to spend it in a job, or a relationship, or a situation that makes you miserable. If you're thinking, "There's got to be more to life than this," that's probably a sign that you should be scoping out other options.

Don't suffer in silence, talk to someone. Set boundaries. Listen to your inner self and stop worrying about what other people think. It's your life -- now go and live it.

For more by Nichola Petts, click here.

For more on stress, click here.