A new study out of the United Kingdom about  work stress found that 40 percent of employees -- out of 2,000 surveyed -- say they're "close to the breaking point" at work.

Reading the details made me quickly remember the single worst moment of my entire working career.

First, the study. Drill down on the numbers, compiled for a British charity called CABA (Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association), and they're pretty eye-opening:

  • 60% of employees say they "get stressed [about work] when they go on holiday,"
  • 31% say they call in sick due to work stress.
  • 30% say they've been "pushed to the point of tears."
  • 10% say they use alcohol to cope.
  • 14% say they "used their own children as an excuse to avoid the office."

It's tough to read, and perhaps surprising. If you're the boss, I don't think many employees will eagerly tell you how stressed and upset they are about their jobs.

Would they share that they drink too much, or call in sick, or use their kids as an excuse? Would they admit that they're sometimes at "the point of tears," outside of an anonymous survey?

I ask because I've been there. This study brought me back to 10 years ago this month, when I quit a job after a single day. (Yes, there's "holding back tears" involved.)

I've told the story before, but the short version is that I accepted a job at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affair. It was one of the worst days I've ever had working. 

Even though it paid about $100,000 a year, and even though I had nothing else lined up, I came in early in the morning on Day 2 and quit. (It wasn't their fault. It was just so obviously the wrong fit.)

I told nobody about this for nine years. Then, I started writing about it, and I wound up talking about it on CBS Sunday Morning. 

With the passage of time, and the natural self-protection I think we all have, I'd forgot the true details of just how bad that day really was. But during the taping of CBS Sunday Morning, Tony Dokoupil looked closely at the notes I'd saved from that day.

I had written them in real time as I sat through the world's most depressing new employee orientation, then reported to the poorly lit desk I'd been assigned, deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy -- and realized I just couldn't stay.

The job was too close to the worst parts of jobs I'd had before. (I'd taken it after the Great Recession and some temporary financial pitfalls in my new career as a writer.) 

Dokoupil spotted six scrawled words I'd forgotten about: "Trying so hard not to cry." 

(His discovery took me right back, instantly--an interesting experience in the middle of a television interview.)

Anyway, that day at the VA was probably the nadir of my professional career. But at least three good things eventually came out of it.

  1. For one, I wound up not only on CBS Sunday Morning, but also featured on The Tonight Show. (That part is a bit crazy: I wrote about it here.)
  2. For another, I can follow the winding road from that day, through a writing business I started (pretty much out of necessity), to the fact that I now write for Inc., and that you're reading these words.
  3. Perhaps most important, I can sit here a decade later and know that I have empathy for other people who find themselves in the wrong job -- stressed or discouraged "to the point of tears."

Of course, I'm not alone in this. Many business owners can empathize. I've talked with so many entrepreneurs who started or run their businesses -- and who joke about how they couldn't have been happy working for someone else.

If that sounds like you, well: You're the leader now.

You're the one responsible for the culture. You're the one who frankly wants your employees to enjoy working for you -- at the very least, not for 1 in 3 of them to secretly fight back tears when they wake up in the morning.

That means you're the one who has to have your eyes open enough to notice -- even when they won't want to tell you.