Depression at Work-1: Symptoms

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.

Getting Help

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?

26 Responses to “Depression at Work-1: Symptoms”

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  1. Erythros says:

    Hello, ladies and gents
    I was reading everybody’s story. I feel sad about it. I have the same problem. But the only thought that comes to my mind is, i am go na bit this health problem. By consulting with doctors, changing my life style and thinking. Let’s be strong guys. Cheers.

  2. Devin says:

    I have suffered with clinical depression and generalized panic disorder for most of my life. I think it started with anticipatory anxiety with worry over diarrhea from something I ate or drank. I would sweat so bad in the toilet b/c of the anxiety. That was a problem for me in middle and high school but it didn’t prepare me for the full brunt of problems that occurred after my dad passed away a week before my 21st birthday! My world went into a huge downward spiral and I couldn’t believe the feelings I was having. I went to counselors,
    Psychologists psychiatrists and I did find some relief with Xanax but it was only temporary. when I was 24 I suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident and spent 5 weeks in the hospital. When I started feeling better I actually thought I didn’t have any mental illness anymore. That was a mistake b/c as soon as I took on a stressful job the panic attacks returned. I took all the time off from work that I could and I’ve lost countless jobs as a result of my mental illness. I finally found the help I needed a few years ago with TMS treatment and I would encourage anyone who has been diagnosed with clinical or severe depression to seek out this treatment. It was like somebody turning the lights on in a dark room that I had been living in for many years. I need to go back for a follow up but there were problems with getting my insurance to cover it. I’m working with some people now to get that corrected so I can get my follow up. As I have outlined I am someone who doesn’t handle major traumatic or intensely stressful situations well and my most recent episode is getting divorced.

  3. Vicky carr says:

    Hi I think this all started just befor Xmas me and my boyfriend have been trying for a baby for nearly a year but nothing yet just after Xmas I felt like I was pregnant I had morning sickness and missed periods so I told everyone at work then 9 weeks in I told them I had miscarriage but through all of this I never went to the docs my body said I was my head said no I didn’t know which one to trust and really started stressing I lost my 6yr old nephew just before x mas I was scared of going to the docs incase I had brain cancer because I saw my dad die of it and he was confused and thought strange things but know my jobs at risk because of the lies I went to the docs today and was told it looks like depression I’m just getting more and more stressed incase I lose my job as well as my relation ship

  4. Rae says:

    I experience all of these symptoms. I’ve been depressed for about a year now. This has been the worst year of my life. I just feel so stupid and worthless and out of control all of the time now. I used to be smart. And quick and social. Now I just can’t. I feel like I’ve lost all of my friends, I’m antisocial and I can’t even hold on to a thought, think straight or even read right anymore! At first I thought it was dyslexia but then I figured out it was a symptom of depression. The lack of concentration. No one understands and I’m scared that if I tell anyone they will judge me. AND I’M ONLY 15! I still have to have the time of my life in high school and hang out with friends and crash parties and have a boyfriend and go to college and get married and have kids! I don’t know how I’ll ever get to do all of that while suffering from depression. I really want to go get help but I don’t know how. Every time I try to talk to my mom I get really nervous and scared and confused like I can’t organize my thoughts so I can make some sense to her. I can’t even hold a normal conversation anymore. She’s convinced it’s just part of growing up and it’s hormones and not enough sleep and all in my head. I don’t know how to convince her to take me to a psychologist or someone. But I can’t do this anymore. I can’t live the next three years with all these migraines, no friends, or a blank mind. The lack of thoughts is the worst for me. I don’t have any friends anymore because I can’t talk to them. I just have nothing to say. My mind is empty all of the time and I don’t know how to fix it! I really want to talk to people and say something funny or interesting like I used to but I can’t anymore. It used to be so easy. I would make friends with random people I met at the grocery store but now I can’t even talk to my closest friends or family members. It’s all just so hard. I don’t want to go on like this. I don’t want to be one of those people that grow up to be seriously screwed up because they had a bad childhood. I really want to be done with this chapter in my life. I just don’t know how. It’s gotten so bad like I remember this one time when I dropped a clothes hanger in a fitting room and I tried to pick it back up and I just kept grabbing at the floor for an entire minute entire it occured to me to move my hand closer to the hanger to pick it back up. I can’t do anything now. I’m such a failure. Even my mom asked why I’m so slow (mentally and phsyically) now. I have no motivation to do anything anymore. I’ve lost all my interest in everything. It’s like nothing matters anymore. Like I was put on this earth and one day I will die. Since I’m no longer capable of anything at all I’ve just got time to kill til that day comes. I really hope I can stop thinking like this one day. I really really really want to be happy again. And be able to sit still again. And focus so I can listen and fully absorb what people want me to know when they’re talking to me. But I can relate to all of the comments on here. I just don’t get why everyone else got to have this happen to them at a later age and why I have to go through this so soon. I wish I could go back in time and redo my entire life so this wouldn’t happen and maybe I could avoid this happening to other people too.

  5. Matt says:

    This is a good article, and it has been good to read the responses–it makes me feel that I am not alone.

    I am 41, and have been chronically depressed for about 8 years. Most of the time it has been manageable, but over the last 15 months things got worse, as I started experiencing panic disorder along with the depression. I would get ready for work, and have to change my clothes, because my level of anxiety was so high that I was sweating profusely through them. I would have to use PTO not for vacation, but for days when I could not bring myself to leave the house, because the symptoms were overwhelming.

    I went on disability for a few months last year, during which I was on meds and seeing a therapist. It was helpful to an extent and I felt better for awhile. I returned to work and for awhile things were fine. About two months later the depression and panic attacks returned again. I decided to resign from my job, which was fairly toxic (collections for a bank), and focus on wellness. I did not want to go back on disability again. But it wasn’t the job alone that was the problem–I’ve been dealing with depression for years–but it wasn’t a good fit for one with my issues. I feel bad about it.

    I’ve been out of work for a couple of months, and slowly but surely I am getting my bearings back–but it is a slow process. I feel like a loser in front of my extended family (thankfully my wife understands), and I feel shame for my problems. I have applied for some jobs, but I have no idea how to explain the gap on my resume since I left my last job. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m crazy or impulsive. I’m hoping that someone will give me a chance and that I can keep it together.

    Depression-panic disorder is by far the most crippling and damaging thing that I can imagine. It has wrecked my life, although I hope to improve. If one has not experienced it (like, for example, everyone I know), they have no idea what it feels like. It is an absolute beast.

    • Rae says:

      I know exactly what you mean! I’ve faked sick and skipped school so many times this year or made up stupid excuses so I wouldn’t have to get out of the house and face people. I just feel like such an embarassment to myself. And the panic attacks. I get them sometimes. My body gets all stiff and tingly and it feels almost like paralysis. It gets really hard to breathe and I can’t think at all. You’re not alone.

    • Maj says:

      How have things worked out since you wrote this? I’m 43 and am going through a very similar experience.

  6. Mariah says:

    I was forced out of a government job a few years ago because I threatened to expose wrongdoing within the organization. i worked in this agency for nearly 20 years and was harassed and retaliated against. I tried to stay and fight, however, it wore me down mentally and physically. The icing on the cake was that during this time, someone very close to me passed away. I have not been able to work at full capacity since, and although I was able to get health insurance and therapy through another job, I ended up leaving because I was told that I was “slow” and coworkers treated me like I was retarded or even presumed that I would cause them some sort of physical harm. If I challenged them, I was then called “crazy.” I left that job, along with my insurance and therapy. I wish that I could hide my depression, but I can’t and others always see it and I end up humiliated. I am now seeking work from home opportunities, as I do not want to end up hurt again. My family just says that I need to put up with it to get therapy, but it is extremely difficult. They do not understand the pain. Now with the new health insurance law, I am hoping that I will never have to be forced to work in an environment with cruel, nasty people.

  7. James Maclaine says:

    I am goingthrough a lot of probs at work because of depression I have been pay testing euipment wrongly and dont how I didnt notice I am now worried sick I will lose my job after contacing my doctor and getting pills I realised my mistake and I amnow doing it correctly

  8. Julie says:

    I’m in such a situation right now. I had a depressive episode when I was 21, took 1.5years to pick myself up. I was functioning well for 4 years till I recently got a new job. At first I thought I just needed time to transition, but it’s been nearly two months and I only managed to feel worse.. I have that empty black hole in my chest and I cry hard at times. But the worse part is thinking about killing myself. I can’t even see the end of the month, just taking one heavy day at a time. It both freaks me out and disappoints me. I’m really at a loss. I’m contemplating quitting, but I hate that it’ll disappoint the people around me.
    It’s so tiring..
    Thanks for writing about it, now I know I’m not alone.

    • Don says:


      Hang in there, I have been thru it a few times and it is just something we suffer, a good number of us. Suicide is not the answer, so please drop the very thought, that is simply letting go of the beauty that is your life. You will come around, but may need to change your environment and do what is good for you…so take care of your needs first, they will find someone to fill your place, and you may once agajn enjoy working. I am going thru it to after a great number of years of not having suffered it, but it is also a type of mental exhaustion, so make yourself happy and you will come out of it, at some point. It usually takes me a few years and then suddenly it is gone. Your mind and soul just need to reconfigure and that takes time.

      • Julie says:

        Hi Don, thank you for your kind words.. I wonder a lot about my situation. I think I see the beauty of life better than most, but somehow I’m much less able to handle work. I can’t stand how meaningless it feels, and I’m not sure I want to get used to it. I think this is the cause of my unhappiness..

        • Jim says:

          I know this feeling only too well. Once your perception of the world has fallen apart, it’s hard to even contemplate putting it back together in a way that resembles how it was before. It feels like explorative self-care is the only respite, but of course that tends to cost money, rather than paying you. What makes you happy? What makes your heart sing? What gives you pleasant tingles? Got something? So next step is figuring out how to get more of that in your life and accept a little compromise.

  9. Hanne says:

    Dear john, thank you for a touching, honest, nuanced novel and learning book about this issue. I know it is a website, but i read every page and felt it was the most meaningful novel and most explanatory leaning book of the year.

    One thing though a person commenting here is using the word Retard,and my young daughter have this serious handicap of the brain. Please don’t let people use it as a frase to degrade others or themselves with. It is not a very easy handicap anyhow since it has a history of extreme abuse, children with intelligence handicap were exterminated in concentration camps during world war II. Otherwise the tone on this website is very respectful and kind.

    Good luck with it, h

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, H, for your kind comment. I am glad if this site has been helpful.

      You’re right about the offensive term – sorry I didn’t catch it. I have edited it out of that comment.


  10. Ethland says:

    I’m going through this quite a bit!. I’m at the age 18!. Every little mistake I do my grandfather criticize me like I’m an utter [******]!. All my self-esteem is taken away from that!, and yes when I had a job, I was having a hard time remembering what my supervisor would instruct me to do!,than I realized I couldn’t remember anything….I was scolded!, it was pretty hurtful!, made me think to myself…Maybe something is wrong with me, or I’m just either stupid or dumb!. Sigh….

  11. Erica says:

    Thank you all for sharing. As everyone has stated, what is being mentioned is EXACTLY what I am experiencing. I did take some time off from work but the time is nearing for me to go back. I have been feeling horrible all week long just thinking about going back. I just can’t do it. But my parents will be so disappointed in me. I’m 33 and there opinions still weigh heavily on me. This will be my second time leaving a “good government job.” I was raised to be independent and study hard in school so I could get a good job. I did the practical things my parents wanted me to do, such as taking “good government jobs” to insure my independence and financial security. But now I just can’t do it. I HATE my job but I can’t see any other way to survive and this leaves me utterly hopeless. I have decided I may lie to everyone and just tell them I was fired so they won’t be disappointed with me.

    Sundays seem to be extremely difficult. I attend church regularly so these are the days when I have to go out amongst people a little closer to me than strangers and plaster a smile on my face. I tell everyone I am fine when they ask. They can’t handle the truth or even understand. I find myself dreading being around my own brothers and sisters in Christ. There are so many people asking, “how are you?”, “how are you doing?” And they are smiling and content and conversing and laughing and enjoying life while I am slipping deeper into darkness. I envy them and dislike them all at the same time.

    Also I stay up late because I just don’t want the morning to come. I know I can’t stop it, but staying up late seems to delay it. I dread calling friends because what is the first thing out of their mouth-“so what’s going on?” HELL IS GOING ON! But I don’t want to damper their mood so I just don’t call. I considered sending them an open heart email about my illness but then I’m afraid that would make them call me and want to talk. I don’t want to talk.

    I too don’t like to have visitors. But I have an awesome boyfriend who is trying his best to walk with me through this. But at times he is so overwhelming. He likes to entertain and hang out with other couples but I just want to come home and sit in silence. I’m afraid he won’t be able to handle my illness and will leave, which is understandable but still heartbreaking to fathom.

    Once again thank you all for sharing.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Erica –

      I’m sorry things are so agonizing right now. What I am wondering is – could it possibly be any worse being honest with your parents rather than trying to conceal what you are going through? Surely, they want you to have a good life more than a particular kind of job. You have to manage a transition somehow to finding work that is personally rewarding – you’re present state of crisis can’t go on forever. Have you tried talking to a counselor or therapist about this. It sounds like advice from someone with no personal connection to you or your family would be helpful. Especially in depression, things have a way of seeming overwhelming and hopeless, and you seem to be in that spot. Therapists and counselors are often at their best helping to solve immediate life crises, and I hope you’ll reach out for some sort of help.

      All my best to you —


  12. Angel says:

    This is the type of articles in which you find your life described right exactly as it is.

    I am 34, male. From a dysfuntional family past I have suffered depression all my life, (not a deep depression, but enough to be “out of social norms”). Work has become a real issue since it is the only way to survive in a world like this.

    The sympotms I suffer at work, are described in this article, but also I would add; lack of energy and somnolence, feeling tired and exhausted, negativity, no motivation at all. Even when I get the job done, I struggle to do it, it absorbs my energy even when the tasks are not that difficult or overwhelming.

    I have lost hope in the psychoteraphy, I have been there for some years with no clear results.

    Some therapists have told me that THE ONLY WAY to change the mind structure (thoughts), is to change the patterns which were installed in our minds when we were kids and teenagers. And the mechanism to do so; IS MENTAL VISUALIZATION PRACTICE. According to them this repeated relaxed-hypnotic state and visualizing what we want to become change the mind patters and without noticing people start changing.
    It takes an effort of practicing at least 20 minutes before going to bed and some have said that their life changed in just 1 month of practicing it.

    What do you think on this? Have yu tried it? What are your best advices?.

    Thank you.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Angel –

      There are many forms of psychotherapy – literally hundreds. I’ve learned excellent techniques and skills from several approaches, and there is no general agreement in the field that one way is obviously superior to others. Most therapists are trained in many methods and use what is most appropriate to each client. You do have to do work on your own, no matter what the method. I would urge you to learn more about some of the widely used approaches and perhaps interview other therapists if you can. You can read about a number of approaches to cognitive therapy – David Burns books are the most widely used (Feeling Good and The Feeling Good Handbook). Mindfulness meditation is now a mainstream approach, and you can read about that in The Mindful Way through Depression by Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn. An approach I use a lot these days is described in Focusing by Eugene Gendlin. Another good book is The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Depression by Strosahl and Robinson. There’s a good website called which gives an overview of dozens of types of psychotherapy. I hope that gives you a sense of how much is out there.

      My best to you in this search —


  13. Abby says:

    Donna, this is exactly how I feel. For a while when my depression was strong, I could not invite ANYONE to my apartment. It took my current husband to force the issue, we almost broke up over it; but at the end of the day once I let him in it was not bad at all. Now that we live together, I still have issues letting random people in, but i have 3 rooms, and guard only the bedroom, which is OK:) I still have focus/motivation issues at work, I feel desoriented, and as we’re trying to get pregnant I avoid taking meds. If you want to chat let me know.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Abby –

      I’ve always felt better after letting myself be with people. They even say now that we’re “hard-wired” to be social beings and that the brain works better through any sort of social experience. The room you guard feels familiar in a symbolic way for everything I want to hide about myself, especially strong feelings.

      Thanks for commenting.


  14. Donna-1 says:

    Even though I am greatly recovered, depression-related anxiety remains. I believe it is depression-related because if I go ahead and step into the anxiety-causing situation and try to make the best of it, I end up in a bout with depression. So I indulge in avoidance. It still takes everything I have to invest myself in any relationships, any commitment to invitations, any suggestion of reciprocating invitations (that may be the most difficult) because of the high level of anxiety. And resulting depression. However, it is a little depressing, too, to feel I can never respond positively in these situations. I am getting more comfortable in group situations, and in visiting someone else’s home one-on-one. But somehow it feels like a total invasion to ask someone to my own apartment. I guard it like Cerberus except I am guarding my haven instead of Hades. Any suggestions on how I might get over this? Have you already written a post on this? Thanks for your reply.


  1. […] Folk-Williams, one of my favourite mental health writers, has a great post on some of the symptoms to watch for at work. I also like his follow-up post on what to do when you’re struggling at […]

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