How to cope with your depression at work

How to cope with your depression at work

Has your work been affected by your low moods or panic attacks? You’re not alone: about 15% of people have signs of mental distress at work. This is likely to be the tip of the iceberg because many will hide their depression from colleagues. It can be a daily struggle to work when you feel this way, so how can you help yourself if you have depression and are trying to hold down a job?


There are 17.5 million working days lost each year due to depression, stress or anxiety, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which makes depression at work a serious issue. This is backed up in the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers, commissioned by the Government, which found that 15% of people at work have signs of a mental health condition.

Depression does not just cause absence from work. The review discovered that the annual cost of mental health to employers is between £33 billion and £42 billion, but more than half of this is lost due to presenteeism, where employees are at work but cannot function properly due to poor mental health. *Patrick Thompson, a researcher, knows all about this. “I can work fine for a while but then my head fills with worries and I begin to wonder, what’s the point of work, and then life, and I just can’t function, even though I look like I’m working. I stay at my computer and press keys,” he said.

What is depression?

It encompasses many symptoms, but at its core, depression is feeling low for most of the day, lacking energy, finding it difficult to focus, feeling helpless, worthless, tired, cranky, restless, empty, sad, sleeping too little or too much, having eating issues and being unable to take an interest or pleasure in activities. It could even manifest in your body with headaches, cramps and digestion problems. Depression touches many of our lives: the charity Mind states that one in four adults will experience a mental health issue of some kind each year in the UK.

The more of these symptoms you have and the longer you have them—generally five or more for two weeks or more—the more likely you are to have depression.

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How it affects work

It is easy to see, from the symptoms listed above, why depression can make working difficult. It is hard to focus and interact with people for eight hours a day or more if you are unmotivated, restless, lack energy and so on. If you don’t feel good about yourself or the future, you might wonder what the point of working is, or feel that you are not good enough to do the task. Such thoughts will also fog your brain and make it hard to concentrate. A lack of sleep naturally won’t help matters.

Could work be the cause?

While depression can stem from issues in the past and/or present, it can also be created or exacerbated by work. A survey by mentalhealth.net found that the five industries most affected were public and private transit with 16.2% of workers being depressed, real estate (15.7%), social services (14.6%), manufacturing (14.3%) and personal services (14.3%). They concluded that a common thread was thankless jobs that involved frequent, difficult interactions with the public while also involving low levels of physical activity.

Changes in work patterns could also be a cause: the number of people with depression symptoms doubled during the first lockdown, reports the ONS, with nearly a fifth of adults (19.2%) likely to have experienced a form of depression in June 2020.

How it affects homeworkers

When you’re remote working, motivation is a huge issue. Even getting out of bed in the morning can be a challenge due to a lack of routine or the energy of an office, or feeling alone. “I just couldn’t get down to work at home,” said Jackie Masterson*, a civil servant.

“It was worse in the mornings after a nightmare, which happens about four times a week. I wake with a low feeling and just can’t motivate myself. I did lots of admin—that was all I could manage—but I also write reports and got very behind on them. My brain was fogged.”

Tips to manage depression

According to the Stevenson/Farmer review, getting help is vital to productivity in the workplace.“An individual can have a serious mental health problem but—with the right support—can still be thriving at work,” said the report.

Seek help from the professionals

Long-term depression is not going to “blow over”. There are various places to find support: the first port of call is often your GP, because they can give you a referral, but be aware that they only have about 10 minutes with you and won’t have time to talk through your issues for long. You should seek other support to find the source of your depression—unless you know the exact cause, in the case of a bereavement, for instance.

Your GP may refer you on to talking therapy—there tends to be long waiting NHS lists for this—or, if your mental health condition is more severe, to psychiatric services. You can also seek private therapy. To find a suitable therapist in your area, see organisations such as BACP, Psychology Today, Counselling Directory and Welldoing.

Confide in family and friends

Seek support from family and friends but choose ones who are empathetic and good listeners—you don’t want to enlist an impatient, judgmental pal or relation.

Talk to co-workers

Telling management and HR about your depression is often recommended, but it is your call, as you know them and their attitudes best. You are protected by the Equality Act 2010 if your mental health condition is classed as a disability—which means it has lasted a year or more and affects day-to-day living—yet 300,000 people with long-term mental health issues still lose their jobs each year.

*Kate Barnaby, a graphic designer, did tell a colleague—and it worked for her. She is incredibly serious about her work and has progressed up the ranks, despite having afternoons out when things got too much. “I used to cry and have panic attacks in the toilets but once I told my boss about my depression, she would insist that I go home when I felt low. She admitted to having her own issues and has since promoted me,” she said.

Get outside support

For *Rachel Parsons, a hairdresser, it was a friend outside work who helped her cope. “We met at university and have seen each other through all sorts: break-ups, drugs,” she said. “When I would begin to see the black cloud coming I would message her and ask if she had 10 minutes. I’d leave the office and walk around the streets talking to her on the phone.”

Take time out

As with Barnaby and Parsons, you could head for the toilets (not ideal, but most people have probably had a cry in the work loos at one time or another) or walk around the block and literally have a breather.

On a larger scale, you can take a mental health day or two off and spend time concentrating on feeling better. When *Jon Buck, a lawyer, did this he would lie to his employer and invent a physical illness. “It was such a macho environment where you could never show a weakness,” he said. “This actually made my depression worse, because you are under so much pressure to be a certain type of person, and that wasn’t me.”

There can certainly be a temptation to power through, agrees Rachel Suf of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “In periods of job insecurity, people may be more likely to go into work when they are ill, rather than take a day off sick, for fear their commitment to their job will be doubted. It is this culture and these fears that need to be addressed in order to reduce presenteeism at work,” she stated in the Stevenson/Farmer review.

Break up tasks

Some people with depression have found that it helps at work to divide the day into small tasks, so that you feel you are achieving things as you go. This can involve making lists but be wary of making them too long and feeling overwhelmed.

Get active

Masterson, who had such trouble working at home, has found that yoga, running or swimming for 40 minutes before she starts her working day helps. “It seems counterintuitive because you feel—if you aren’t getting any work done—that you shouldn’t waste more time, instead I could start work earlier. But those 40 minutes set me up for the day. It gets rids of the feelings that I wake up with, from the nightmares, and I can start work with a clear head and no low feelings,” she said.

Practise self-care

One road out of depression is self-love. It is extremely important to be kind to yourself; think about moments when you feel calm and/ or content, such as taking time out with a good cup of coffee, tending to plants or going on a walk. Look after your health by making sure you eat well and try to get enough sleep.

What can management do?

A report by the HSE found six key areas of management associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased absence. These are:

  1. Demands on the employee: this includes workload, work patterns and the office space.
  2. Control that the employee has in terms of how much say they have in the way they work.
  3. Support: this includes encouragement from management and co-workers.
  4. Relationships at work: for example, an intolerance of unacceptable behaviour and conflict.
  5. Role: your understanding of it and an assurance that you won’t have conflicting roles.
  6. Change: how organisational change is managed.

This list offers a good guide to what you need on a personal level.

Helpfully, Stevenson and Farmer conclude it is “massively in the interest of both employers and Government to prioritise and invest far more in improving mental health. The UK can ill-afford the productivity cost of this poor mental health.” Most employers are aware that happy employees equal better productivity, so they should be trying to make this happen.

Concentrate on you and your value

So look after yourself, know that you are not alone and remember that companies should be taking this seriously. Also, make sure that you don’t let the situation add to your woes: you are valuable as a human being and not just for what you do at work.

*-Names have been changed

Photo: WTTJ

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