How to cope with your depression at work

May 09, 2022 - updated May 09, 2022

7 mins

How to cope with your depression at work
Emma Cullinan

Psychotherapist and writer

Has your work been affected by your low moods or panic attacks? You’re not alone: Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) affects approximately 17.3 million American adults, or about 7.1% of the U.S. population age 18 and older. However, 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?

According to Gallup, workers in the US who have been diagnosed with depression miss an estimated 68 million additional days of work each year versus their counterparts who do not suffer from depression, which makes depression at work a serious issue. They also found that about 12% of workers have been diagnosed with depression at some point.

Depression does not just cause an absence from work. The review discovered that the annual cost of more than $23 billion in lost productivity. The CDC’s statistics show that depression interferes with an employee’s ability to complete “physical job tasks about 20% of the time.”It also can cause a 35% reduction in cognitive performance. 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 Anxiety and Depression Assocition of America (ADAA) states that depression affects more than 16.1 million American adults, or about 6.7% of the US population.

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.

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. 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 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: depression among adults in the US tripled in early 2020 due to the pandemic. Before COVID-19, depression levels stood at 8.5% and rising to 27.8% in 2020. For 2021, it has risen to 32.8%, affecting 1 in every 3 American adults.

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 CDC, getting help is vital to productivity in the workplace. The CDC recommends workplaces and employers “pursue to support employees’ mental health such as holding depression recognition screenings; placing confidential self-rating sheets in cafeterias, break rooms, or bulletin boards; promoting greater awareness through employee assistance programs (EAP); training supervisors in depression recognition; and ensuring workers’ access to needed psychiatric services through health insurance benefits and benefit structures.”

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 Primary Care Physician (PCP), because they can give you a referral, but be aware that they 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 PCP can refer you to a therapist—depending on your insurance coverage it may or may not be covered—or, if your mental health condition is more severe, you could visit a psychiatrist. You can also seek private therapy. To find a suitable therapist in your area, look at your insurer’s online directory or ask them to send you a list of in-network therapists. Also, verify if you need a referral from your PCP before you book an appointment with a specialist.

In cases of severe distress and suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources. 988 has been designated as the new three-digit dialing code that will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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. The ADA defines disability as“a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” When job applicants or employees have a mental health condition that meets this criteria, they have workplace rights under the ADA. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) broadened the definition of disability to provide legal protections against employment discrimination for more individuals with disabilities, including people with psychiatric disabilities.

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 bathrooms 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.

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 rid 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 behavior and conflict.
  5. Role: your understanding of it and an assurance that you won’t have conflicting roles.
  6. Change: how organizational change is managed.

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

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, many employers are enhancing emotional and mental health benefits. Types of support can range from managing stress, to treating invisible disabilities such as anxiety and depression. 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.

Check out more content related to Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 here.

*-Names have been changed

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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