Working in the Dark

Photo Credit: JesterArts – Stockxpert

If you’re dealing with depression and you realize it’s affecting your work, who should you tell? Your employer or supervisor? – or your clients if your self-employed? Why might you need to do that, and how might they react? Would they be understanding and helpful? Or would they no longer trust your abilities because they thought you were “crazy?” And if you tell someone, when should you do it – during a bright spell when your job performance is fine or during a dark time when you need to take a leave of absence? And what exactly should you say?

These are some of the questions that Working in the Dark: Keeping Your Job While Dealing with Depression tries to answer. I wish I had read this book when it came out in 2002. It would have been an important resource in dealing with my own crisis at work. Not that I was looking for such a book at that time. Even though I had been dealing with depression for years, I couldn’t bring myself to make the visceral connection with problems in my work life until the situation blew up in my face. This is a guide to prevent that from happening.

The inspiration for Working in the Dark came from co-author Fawn Fitter’s own experiences with depression and her struggle to preserve her business during a severe episode when she had difficulty meeting commitments to clients. When she looked for help, she found it difficult to interpret the scattered information she could find, both about depression and about workplace issues. So she developed this brief guide specifically aimed at workers struggling to understand how depression might be affecting job performance and what they can do about it.

The result is part how-to manual about depression and workplace rights and part sensitive discussion of practical decisions that depressed employees need to consider. Aimed at people who are aware they’re having big trouble but have no tools for understanding what’s happening to them, it provides basic information about specific symptoms, how they might be indicators of depression and the range of treatment options that should be considered. This is presented briefly, clearly and without assumptions about any particular course an individual might choose.

The idea is to offer hope for change to people who are confused, fearful of losing their jobs and seeing no way out except abandoning work they seem no longer able to do.

The core of the book is a thoughtful discussion of what employees who have learned about their condition can do when dealing with employers, supervisors and coworkers. The focus is on two elements: the Americans with Disabilities Act (and related laws) and the difficult human choices about how to talk to people on the job about what you’re going through. The writers understand quite well that many resist the idea of labeling themselves either as “mentally ill” or “disabled,” but they want people with depression to know what their options and rights are whether or not they want to make use of them.

The most nuanced discussion addresses the very human problem of figuring out who to talk to and what to say about your condition and its impact on job performance. The writers know well how tricky and risky this can be. It may be OK to talk with a knowledgeable and sympathetic employer, supervisor or client, but the problem is you can’t tell ahead of time what their assumptions, judgments, prejudices might be. Yet these are people holding your economic lifeline so you have to think carefully about exactly what you should reveal.

This is where knowledge of ADA rights is important because there are rules about what employers are allowed to ask and how they can make decisions about your job. Even if you have no intention of asserting those rights, that law has reshaped the workplace to some degree and established safeguards that affect how employers treat everyone.

But rights and law only go so far in setting boundaries and offering guidance. What about your colleagues and coworkers – what, if anything, should you tell them? How might they react if you receive “reasonable accommodation” and start working from home or get a quieter workspace or have different job assignments? How would you explain those changes? What happens if you say nothing?

The writers respect the fact that only you can decide what to reveal and when and to whom. They offer pointers about a variety of scenarios, even providing a few sample scripts to illustrate how much or how little to put out there.

Working in the Dark gets right to point and clearly moves you through the issues. When I first read it, I thought, Oh, it’s too basic – what can I learn from this? But then I put myself back where I had been when it first hit me that I was in trouble at work. This would have been the perfect thing to read. I hope others can pick it up before their work issues start to get out of hand.

5 Responses to “Working in the Dark”

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  1. http://zathynpriest.com/blog says:

    I have a few different jobs within the writing industry, all of which I do from the safety of my own home. One of these jobs was offered to me whilst I was in the midst of basically falling apart.

    I wanted the job, but I knew I couldn’t do it then. Owning up to that fact was difficult and…to me…humiliating. This person knew me as a work-a-holic, someone who did what had to be done quickly, accurately, and reliably. I had to confess I could barely make a shopping list let alone edit a manuscript. Thankfully she understood, but that type of understanding doesn’t grace us all as fairly as it should.

    Dealing with mental illness in the workplace is scary and intimidating. A guide on how to handle it would be valuable for many. I’m glad you brought the book to people’s attention.

    Best Wishes,
    Zathyn

  2. stephany says:

    Thanks this, though I have to laugh out loud about taking a pay cut, para education isn’t a lucrative income- the reward is working w the kids. Though after reading this, I think I may approach the Admin for something I can do, it will be interesting being that a school district accomodates kids under the ADA, they most likely have to accomodate me as well.

  3. Stephany – My line of work combines that sort of stand-up high energy performance with office work, but it’s the stand-up that is the hallmark skill clients pay for. As in your case, there are times when I can’t do it well. It’s rather unforgiving – either you’re great all the time, or they’ll find someone who is. Working out alternative assignments has been difficult, but that’s the sort of conversation I’ve had with my employer. The bottom line though, even if you use the ADA framework, is that no employer has to keep you in the same job if your performance doesn’t measure up. They would need to offer different work that you can do, though that might involve less pay. It just ain’t easy.

    I hope you can find a solution.

    John

  4. Polly says:

    I’ve always meant to read this. I am perfectly stable right now, but I’d still like to read it someday. Let’s hope I remember to *before* I get depressed.

  5. stephany says:

    I think it depends on what type of work a person does, for example, I cannot function in the high energy required field I work in[in high need, high energy classrooms]when I feel so compressed with depression, that ugly flip side to the mania in bipolar. I read these things about work, and wish I had a desk job,if that makes sense, I feel I might be able to get by during the work day. I have to be on my feet, perky and able to think when working in a classroom, and I’ve missed a week of work now due to inability to think, or function due to the extreme fatigue. I would be curious how depression affects people who have jobs like mine, who wish they had desk to lay their head down on in a corner somewhere instead? I’ve never felt unable to work before now, and it’s right when I need the income.I just can’t do it.

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