One of the worst problems brought on by depression was its crippling effect on my work life. (I’ve written about it on Storied Mind.) When I finally understood that the crisis arose from the illness, I could at least get a little comfort from learning that I was not alone. And neither are you.
On a given day, there are millions of people all over the globe running into trouble at work because of depression. The World Health Organization has found that it is the second most prevalent cause of lost time at work. In the US and several European countries, as many as 20 percent of office workers could be losing time right now because of depression.
Recognizing Depression at Work
Many people who suddenly start losing the job skills they’ve depended on for years may have no idea that depression is the cause. Tony Giordano told the compelling story of his ordeal at work in It’s Not All In Your Head. Terrible stress in his job triggered symptoms of depression that were especially baffling since he’d never gone through anything like this. Suddenly his sharp mind couldn’t focus and at times blanked out; he had episodes of total disorientation; his motivation was gone; he couldn’t finish his projects on time. He felt overwhelmed and sinking under a crushing weight, as well as empty, weak and hopeless. A number of physical ailments added to his general sense of collapse. He was completely surprised to learn from his doctor that depression was the likely cause.
For a long time, I didn’t realize that it was depression causing me to have trouble. That was true long after I knew I had depression. What I didn’t understand, however, was the full extent of the symptoms. I had thought the illness was about depressed mood and that all the other problems I had came from my own failings. I kept telling myself I was inadequate, a fraud, incompetent at everything. I took that verdict without question – even though I had a lot of success when I was well. Successes never counted when I was depressed. The mistakes and failures represented the real me.
When I finally understood the full scope of depression, I was relieved at least that I could stop blaming myself. Here are some of the problems I had to deal with. You may go through the same thing without any idea of what’s happening to you. If your depression is severe enough, you could get into a life crisis that endangers your job.
Symptoms to Watch For
Trouble Concentrating. You might find it harder to focus on your work or to make sense of detailed information. Suddenly, you might have a hard time organizing what you have to do and drift from one task to another. You could forget details of long familiar procedures, fail to keep appointments or return calls, or have to read something several times before you can focus on what it means.
Lack of Motivation. The sense of urgency to complete a job could disappear. You might lose your motivation and feel indifferent toward work that used to give you a sense of purpose and accomplishment. You might lose the desire to do much of anything and sit staring and inactive, as if your will to act were paralyzed.
Increased Anxiety. Meetings and dealings with people that you’ve always taken in stride might now provoke anxiety. You feel awkward, unable to articulate ideas or mentally blank out. You might even dread having to face anyone. Your anxiety can make it hard to prepare adequately, adding to the likelihood that things won’t go well.
Obsessing. While you might lose focus on much of your work, you can start getting obsessed with specific problems. Every criticism can sting and lead to endless agonizing – or defensive anger – and the intense feeling stays with you. You can’t stop thinking about mistakes you’ve made or moments that felt humiliating or people you can’t seem to get along with. You might lose sleep as that obsessive way of thinking turns into emotional torture.
Fear of Falling Apart. As your performance suffers, deadlines are missed, co-workers and your boss find you less reliable. Fear could mount about losing your job because you can’t stop whatever is going wrong. Even taking time off to pull yourself together doesn’t help. You feel might like you’re collapsing. It’s confusing and frightening. You might feel as if you can’t do anything that used to come easily, that you’re a failure. Your self-esteem takes a nosedive.
This is the extreme case. If your depression is not that severe, these symptoms and others might slow you down without throwing you into a deep crisis. However, your performance at work will suffer, and it can become clear to supervisors, co-workers, clients or customers – whoever you have to deal with in your work – that you’re no longer measuring up to your usual standard.
If you don’t know that depression is the problem, hopefully the crisis will push you to consult a doctor or another source of help. Getting a diagnosis of depression could be shocking, but it could also help to know that you have a health problem shared by millions.
A diagnosis by itself doesn’t change the problems at work, and treatment can take quite a while to show results. In the meantime, declining performance at work might make it necessary to talk to your boss about the problem. Often, it’s not only personally hard to do this, it can be risky as well.
Many co-workers and employers, perhaps reflecting the organizational culture, may not understand the effects of depression and see it as a character weakness. The consequences could be serious, even threatening to your job. In that situation you may decide not to reveal that you have depression. Your only recourse might be to continue treatment and hope it will take effect sooner rather than later.
These days, however, federal and state laws have forced larger organizations to take mental health problems seriously. They will likely have a procedure you can use to get help.
I’ll explain more about that in the next post as well as what to do if nothing seems to help.
Has depression affected you, or someone you’re close to, in this way? What symptoms have been especially difficult to deal with? What has been the effect on the rest of your life?