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Depression doesn’t respect your work hours, and it can be tough to get through a workday when you’re feeling low.
Maybe the idea of work fills you with dread, or you’re finding it hard to connect with your colleagues. Maybe you find yourself zoning out when you need to be focusing, or you’re watching the clock, just waiting for the chance to crawl back into bed.
If you feel any of these things, it might be depression creeping into your work life. If we’re dealing with depression at home, we’re dealing with it at work, too.
“We do not flip a switch and leave our personal problems at the door when we go to work,” says Kathryn Ely, a nationally certified counselor.
Depression doesn’t have an overnight cure, but there are plenty of ways to start feeling better. Along with getting treatment for depression, there are many small steps you can take to make your day-to-day life a little easier.
Depression is a common mental health condition, affecting 17.3 million Americans in the United States. Every day, those people spend an average of around 8.5 hours at work — and the symptoms of depression don’t just stop during work hours.
Workplaces can sometimes contribute to your depression, too, depending on their levels of stress or the availability of support.
We’ll look at some ways depression might manifest in your work life.
Feeling down and low on energy at work
You may find yourself sad at work, unmotivated, or feel like you want to go home and go back to bed.
It’s hard to motivate yourself to show up at meetings, organize your daily work tasks, or even connect with your colleagues or clients when you’re feeling low.
“It can feel like someone drained your battery, or like everything you need to do at work feels far more difficult or challenging than it normally does,” says Melissa Matos, a licensed psychologist in California. “Depression can hijack your ability to get things done.”
Over time, it can affect your performance
It’s common for depression to affect how you feel about your work. You might not enjoy what you do like you used to. This makes it hard to give it as much attention as you’d like.
“A lot of times, things that you used to find motivating or enjoyable become more difficult or lackluster,” says Jocelyn Patterson, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida and a registered art therapist.
“So where you used to be motivated to complete your daily tasks at work, you might find that you’re moving a little slower and struggling to meet deadlines,” she says.
If your workplace has performance review processes, you might find that you aren’t meeting the same levels that you’d like to or that you used to.
It’s harder to connect with your colleagues
“You might find that you struggle to find entertainment in the topics you used to giggle about over the water cooler,” says Patterson.
It’s harder to let go of mistakes or failures
This can feel paralyzing. It can also significantly affect your self-confidence.
“When you are down on yourself, you may be afraid to make further mistakes, so you can get stuck in procrastination, unable to make decisions or be productive,” says Ely.
According to the State of Mental health in America 2021 survey, the number of people seeking help for depression has increased significantly from 2019 to 2020.
The pandemic has led to many people working from home or seeing colleagues and clients less often, if at all. For many people, Zoom meetings are the new normal — along with Zoom fatigue.
“Not only are people feeling more anxious about their health, job security, and financial stability,” says Matos, “but many people are now more isolated and disconnected, which can trigger or worsen existing depression.”
Indeed, the social element of work has disappeared for many people, making you feel lonely and even more low.
While working remotely can be convenient in some ways, it can also blur the boundary between personal and professional life even further.
“[It] can be really difficult to maintain focus and attention on a Zoom call when you’re feeling depressed,” says Matos.
You might also feel as if you have to work longer at home, especially if you haven’t accomplished enough, which creates a self-perpetuating problem: Your depression makes it hard to focus on work, so you work slower and less efficiently.
But then you force yourself to work longer, which worsens your mood —and the cycle continues over and over.
Maybe your workplace requires you to interact with people in a way that you’re not comfortable, such as returning to a customer-facing role before you feel ready, or they make it difficult to follow social distancing guidelines.
Due to inadequate return-to-work policies following national lockdowns, some workplaces have required people to make the impossible decision between looking after their health and returning to work. These financial worries and health concerns can drive depression and anxiety, too.
If you’re finding that depression is affecting your work life, there are many things you can do to gain a bit of motivation, rest, or relief throughout the day.
Recognize your symptoms
First, identify where the problem areas are. Are you having trouble focusing? Unable to meet deadlines? Avoiding conversations with colleagues?
Once you know what the problems are, you can set mini-goals and make an action plan to get through the day.
“Work tasks are a means to an end,” Patterson says, “so if you can identify what your goals are — whether that means getting back home and in bed at the end of the day, engaging with your support system, or something bigger, like finding your stride again — think about what steps you need to take in order to get to your goal.”
Just make sure you set realistic goals for yourself so that you don’t end up making yourself feel worse.
“It might take some trial and error before you figure out the perfect combination of small and large tasks that you can accomplish without feeling overwhelmed or burned out,” Patterson says.
Identify some small things that bring you joy
“Since depression zaps your energy, motivation, and interest, it’s important to identify things in your job or work setting that bring you either some enjoyment or feelings of accomplishment,” says Matos.
For example, maybe taking a short walk to get a coffee at your favorite coffee shop brings you some joy, or eating lunch with a coworker makes you feel less sad. Maybe you love one particular task at work.
Whatever your “happy” thing is, schedule it into your day as a little reward for getting through the less-fun stuff.
“The idea is to find moments of enjoyment or mastery,” Matos says. This can make you feel better and reduce the impact of depression on your work.
Those moments of good might feel small, especially compared to the feelings that depression brings with it, but they can still help you find little bright spots in your day to help you stay on task.
Talk with coworkers or friends — if you feel comfortable doing so
“When we are depressed, we have a tendency to isolate and close ourselves off,” says Ely. But that “is actually the worst thing we can do.”
Avoiding other people can make the impact of depression on your work worse — and it can make it harder for you to get through the day.
“It’s OK to communicate to coworkers and colleagues that you’re going through a difficult time and that you may need some additional support,” says Matos.
“Having an open dialogue with coworkers and employers about your experience with depression not only normalizes it but [also] allows them to provide the support you might need to do well at work,” she says.
Not everyone can open up to their colleagues, and not all workplaces have a safe space to allow employees to discuss their mental health.
If that’s the case, it can help to talk with a friend about what’s going on with you. This might help lighten the load.
Breaks reduce stress
Everything feels daunting when you’re depressed — and forcing yourself to sit in front of your computer, attend meetings, or serve customers for hours is a great way to start feeling even worse.
“Anytime you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, exhausted, losing focus, or just not feeling as motivated or interested, it is your brain’s way of saying it’s time to take a break,” Matos says.
“If you feel yourself getting more irritable or frustrated, that’s also a warning sign that you should take a break and probably step away.”
Try to make your breaks meaningful, if you can. Temporary zone-outs at your desk aren’t really breaks, so they won’t be as effective. Instead, try moving your body.
“Moving can create better blood flow to the brain and in turn help you get rid of some of the brain fog that can accompany depression,” says Ely.
For example, taking a break could mean that you:
- Go to another room and watch a fun TikTok video.
- Do some deep breathing or meditation exercises.
- Get up and walk around.
- Go outside and sit in a local park.
- Call a friend.
- Walk to your favorite coffee shop and grab a drink.
There are treatment options
For many people, seeking treatment is a major step toward getting to the other side of depression.
The most common treatments for depression are:
- psychotherapy, or talk therapy
- medications, like antidepressants
- self-care routines
As difficult as managing depression and work at the same time can be, many workplaces offer support.
Talk with your manager or HR
As difficult as this step is, it can be an important one. If you’re noticing that your depression is impacting your work performance, it can help to clue your manager in on what’s going on so that they can provide you with accommodations.
“Being able to make accommodations or modifications to job tasks or demands can be the biggest support when you’re living with depression,” Matos says.
“Things like flexibility in schedules, deadlines, or even modifications in job duties can help someone continue to perform at their job while coping with depression,” she continues.
Plus, over time, those accommodations can help you build up your self-esteem and confidence again.
For example, if you have more time to take breaks — or even time to go to a therapy session before work — you might be able to slowly reduce the impact of your depression on your work and start to succeed again.
Consider employee assistance programs
Employee assistance programs (EAP) offer mental health-related services to employees for personal or work concerns.
These programs are generally free. They’re always confidential and offer you access to licensed therapists for a short time who can help you manage various issues, including depression.
They’re also commonly available.
Over 95% of companies with more than 5,000 employees have EAPs, reports the International Employee Assistance Professional Association, and 80% of companies with 1,001 to 5,000 employees have EAPs.
Your employer-provided health insurance covers mental health care, too
The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requires group health plans and health insurance issuers to include mental health benefits, not only medical ones.
This can help make therapy and counseling more affordable before or after work.
You don’t have to go to in-person therapy if you don’t want to, either. Many virtual mental health services, including Talkspace, Better Help, and others, take insurance. And they make it easier to fit therapy into your busy workday.
Interested in online therapy? We compiled a list of the best online therapy programs from 2021 here.