Depression at Work-2: What You Can Do

If depression is disrupting your work life, there are a number of things you can try in order to keep yourself going – and hold onto your job. Doing anything when deeply depressed, however, is never easy. Depression takes away the energy and motivation you need to act. But if your co-workers, supervisor or clients start noticing that you’re not delivering what they need, you may have little choice.

I don’t want to imply that these are surefire methods, but they’re worth considering. If none of them work, you might have to consider more drastic action, and I’ll talk about that in the next post in this series. It made sense to me, when I was going through this crisis, to try everything, starting with the simplest approach I could think of and working from there.

One of the few guides I’ve found for understanding the options is the excellent Working in the Dark: Keeping Your Job While Dealing with Depression, by Fawn Fitter and Beth Gulas. It’s a highly useful, insightful and encouraging overview of steps you can take, much of it based on Fawn Fitter’s own experience. I’ve adapted some of her advice for this post, and added what I’ve learned.

1. Treatment

Getting treatment is at the top of the list. If you’ve never been diagnosed with depression before, but struggle at work with the problems described in the last post, it’s important to consult a doctor and/or therapist to get an opinion on what the cause might be. If it is a depressive disorder, medication might take the edge off the worst symptoms, and a therapist might be able to guide you in handling day-to-day situations. Hopefully, treatment will work well enough to help you better manage your workload.

It could do a lot more than that. For some people, the initial treatment with medication alone eliminates all the symptoms and completely restores their effectiveness at work. However, I wouldn’t count on that happening. It’s more common for the first medication to provide only partial improvement, and for some people, none at all. It often takes several tries with different medications and different therapists before you make any progress.

2. Adapting on the Job

No matter how well or poorly you react to treatment, it takes time to find out what the effect will be. While you’re waiting to see if you feel better, you can try a few things on your own to keep yourself going.

  • People: Work is about people as much as getting things done. Co-workers, supervisors, clients or customers not only want a finished product, they want to see you, talk to you in order to find out if they’ll like working with you – and can trust you. Yet talking to anyone, even on the phone, might be the last thing you can handle. Even so, if you isolate yourself behind a closed door or otherwise try to avoid everyone where you work, you’re getting yourself in trouble.

    If it’s at all possible, you can try taking breaks with co-workers or have lunch with them. Even if you have trouble getting words out at a normal pace, you can ask questions rather than try to carry the conversation. You can ask a colleague for advice or do a project with a couple of colleagues. You don’t need to do a lot. You just have to be there enough so the people you work with don’t start to count you out or label you as a problem.

  • Schedule: With the cooperation of the person you’re accountable to, you might be able to get more flexibility in your work schedule. That could mean occasionally telecommuting , or changing your hours to fit the part of the day when you feel at your best. Sometimes it’s possible to work longer hours for four days in order to keep one free.

  • Workload: Getting organized, staying focused on one thing at a time and finishing tasks are essential skills for meeting your obligations but hard to manage when you’re depressed. There are dozens of methods to get organized – it’s one of the most written about topics on the internet, as well as the subject of hundreds of books. Everyone has their own approach. I’ll outline mine as one example.

    When I’m feeling completely lost and unable to make sense of anything, I bypass all the sophisticated technology at my fingertips. I grab paper, post-it notes and pen and start making a list.

    I may not be able to sort out all the tasks, but I know what’s overdue and what people are complaining about. Those are the do-or-die’s and go at the top. After that I put down the biggest commitments I have – the stuff that really defines what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t try to list out the mass of specific tasks because that would only throw me back into panic or paralysis. I put do-or-die’s on separate post-it notes and stick them in a spot I can’t miss. Then I have a rough structure to start with. I need those visual cues. When I’m depressed, out of sight is out of mind.

    It’s worth trying to find a method that works for you, but it needs to be simple. If you can’t use it when your mind isn’t focusing, then it’s not much good.

  • Time Out: Fit time for yourself into your schedule if you can. It helped me to go out for a walk over lunch time. It was an important way of lowering the stress level. Getting outside by myself restored a bit of energy and made it feel easier to get through the rest of the day. Exercise is usually recommended, but walking is the extent of what I can do. I think that’s true of most who are trying to get through a work day in spite of depression.

If efforts like these don’t work and/or treatment is not effective, you may need to get further help from your employer.

3. Help from Employer

To get help, however, you have to tell your employer that you have a depressive disorder, and that can be risky. There is so much discrimination about mental illness that, instead of help, you might get negative reactions that would only add to the stress and perhaps make it impossible to stay. Keeping silent might be best, but then you face continuing problems that could put your job in jeopardy anyway.

I was lucky since the director of the workplace where this crisis reached a peak was knowledgeable and immediately responsive. We worked out a plan to adapt my workload and schedule to match what I could do while severely depressed. I would be able gradually to resume my earlier work as I made progress in treatment. However, there was a price to pay, literally, since less work meant less income. For me, it was a worthwhile tradeoff.

There were other reasons for this accommodation than the helpfulness of this manager. The organization was a large public institution that had procedures to keep it in line with federal and state laws about the treatment of anyone with a disability. That includes mental as well as physical conditions.

Part of their concern was to stay away from those formal procedures since they could lead to long-term liabilities for the institution. If your employer resists helping you voluntarily, however, or penalizes you because of your illness, you may need to take advantage of your legal rights. This is a complicated topic, far more than this post can handle. I’ll explore it in detail separately, but here I want to mention briefly one issue that can change the way you think of yourself.

4. Disability

It comes down to this question: Will you accept the formal status of disability? The laws protect you but only if you win recognition as being mentally disabled. Passing that test means the employer has a legal obligation to make a “reasonable accommodation” in work conditions to enable you to function effectively.

The process to prove that you are disabled is complicated, and getting the designation is no guarantee of improved working conditions. There are many limitations on what an employer has to do, and court decisions have narrowed the disability definitions in recent years.

I chose not to go this route, primarily because I didn’t want another label. I didn’t think of myself as having a disability and didn’t want to be known as being mentally disabled. That was my preference, but many people feel differently. After all, severe depression does disable you at work in many ways. Often the benefit that can come from the legal status is a life saver, perhaps the only way of staying employed. It’s a big decision to make.

But you may find, as I did, that trying these approaches still doesn’t solve the problem. In my case, stress kept increasing as my performance got worse and worse. What then? The answer for me was to make a more fundamental change, and it might be one that you have to consider as well. That’s the subject of the next post in this series.

What methods have you tried in order to keep yourself going on the job? Did they work for you? If not, what did you do?

2 Responses to “Depression at Work-2: What You Can Do”

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  1. Laughmore says:

    I told my new boss (whom I’ve known casually for about 10 years) that I have depression and bipolar disorder. I added that while he didn’t need to worry about me being sad all the time, I do have challenges with my ability to concentrate – the milk-toast description of what I deal with. I have some reputation from high school as being super smart (which is largely why he hired me I think) and after a few weeks of my absent-mindedness, his demeanor toward me was starting to change so I had to say something.

    He said that if I started taking pills he would fire me (I’m a private contractor, so yeah) and that I basically need to stop being a pussy. I was pretty stunned and after a moment of silence he started giving me all this Dad-coach advice on sticking up for yourself and being happy and successful. It’s the same mindset that has paralyzed me most my life – that we take ultimate responsibility for ourselves, that meds are a cop-out, and if you’re not getting what you want, you aren’t trying or don’t care enough.

    There’s no untelling my boss now. WTF have I done. My boss is a very tolerant person and may forgive my craziness but that doesn’t help the frequency of my suicide contemplation, terror of talking to people, the stutter I recently developed, etc etc all my BS. Obviously I can still get professional help, but now that’s my new secret. I fucking hate this.


  1. […] John 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 work. […]

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