Battling Depression at Work

Patient Expert

Depression has no respect for the working day. It takes so much time away from employment that depression is now rated among the top five causes of lost work hours worldwide. The only good thing I can take from this grim fact is the knowledge that, when I'm blocked from work by depression, I'm not alone - and neither are you. On a given day, there are millions of people with the same problem all over the globe.

Yet so many of us feel only shame and inadequacy when depression makes it impossible even to get out the door to go to a workplace. In this culture, a sense of self-worth is tied closely to a sense of accomplishment and success in your occupation. How can I feel good about myself if I face frustration and failure at work because I'm so often depressed?

For a long time, I didn't recognize that it was depression causing me to have trouble. I thought my mind just didn't work well or that I had lost motivation and couldn't get anything done. When immobilized in this way, a despairing mood focused on me as the cause, rather than the illness, and pulled apart what self-esteem remained. I kept telling myself I was inadequate, a fraud, incompetent at everything. I accepted that verdict without question - even though I had a lot of success as well. The good things I do don't count when I'm depressed.

When I finally understood the full scope of depression, I was relieved at least that I could stop blaming myself. But there was still the problem of not getting my work done. I had to develop a set of skills to manage my condition, or my job might be at risk.

The first step I took was to list the specific symptoms that were bogging me down. It was essential to recognize what was happening at the earliest possible moment. Depression has a lot of symptoms that creep up on me when I'm busy at work, and it's easy to avoid facing what's going on.

If I don't catch them right away, I can easily get overwhelmed. It's like the beginning of a migraine. I have more options if I act at the first sign. If I miss that, the medication is useless.

There are at six sets of symptoms I have to be alert to. Of course, they can occur anywhere and anytime, but at work they tend to cluster in this way.

  • Emotional detachment, indifference, loss of motivation, paralysis of will
  • Anxiety and causeless fear
  • Obsession with a person or event, sometimes leading to paranoia
  • Bleakness and sadness - often to a point of immobility
  • Shame and an all-pervasive sense of worthlessness
  • Mental confusion, inability to focus, lapsing memory, loss of attention

Many of these can plague me in combination with each other, but they all tend to come on by degrees. I've worked hard to train myself to stop at the first warning sign - at least if I can muster the awareness on that particular day. I might realize I've been staring at a memo for the past ten minutes and haven't read a word of it.

Or I could feel stung by a casual remark someone has made, convinced it was aimed at me, and unable to stop thinking about it. Or I might find myself wandering through my day, completely indifferent to everything that's going on, effectively disappearing and failing to do what's expected of me.

If I catch myself in time, I can take some emergency steps. Sometimes I can reschedule an important phone call or meeting. If I'm already in the midst of a project with other people, I'll try to excuse myself to take a breather or possibly tell them I'm ill and have to catch up later on what they've covered. I'll at least get out of the office and go for a walk. Sometimes that refreshes me enough to keep going. But if all else fails, I'll simply have to plead some temporary illness, call it a day and go home. That's a costly thing to do, but I find it's better than staying and doing a miserable job. I'd rather be thought of as ill than incompetent.

Often, though, I'm not so alert, and I sink deeper and deeper into depression. That can be a disaster. Then I might be facing a group of demanding professionals with my scrambled mind and feelings pulling me far away from the efficient self I'm expected to present. And I can't leave. I just won't be able to do my best, and there's no hiding that.

The combination of depression and the fact that I'm not doing my job as well as it needs to be done creates a lot of stress, and that only serves to prolong or deepen the depression.

Eventually, despite my efforts to keep interference with work to a minimum, I missed too many deadlines, left too many tasks half done and too often turned in lackluster performances in the public settings that were a big part of my responsibilities. I had to face a disappointed boss and explain what was happening.

That was an extremely painful conversation, and on the spot I made the decision to let her know about depression and its effects. Unlike so many employers, and luckily for me, she was at once supportive and guided me to mental health resources I hadn't known about before then. This would all be kept confidential and not be mentioned anywhere in my work record.

That was great, but keeping up with the demands and pace of work couldn't improve overnight. At least I had made a start.

What have your experiences at work been like? Have any resources been available where you're employed? If not, what have you been able to do to keep going on the job?