Warning: This article contains references of suicide and suicide attempts that some readers may find distressing or triggering.
About 280 million people in the world have depression, as reported by the World Health Organization. I myself am among that number.
The signs were always there, from early childhood, but — whether consciously or subconsciously — I ignored them. It wasn’t until March 2020 at the age of 33, though, that they became more and more difficult to ignore (largely thanks to the end of a six-year-long romantic relationship coupled with the isolation that came with the first round of COVID-19 lockdowns). Two months later, I was clinically diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
For the better part of two years, depression plagued every aspect of my life: my physical health, my mental health, my appetite, my sleep, my alcohol consumption, my confidence, my personal relationships, my hobbies, even my job. I started missing work for days at a time, my work performance and productivity took a hit, and I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on even the simplest of tasks.
It can be tough to get through the workday when you’re battling your inner demons — believe me. It’s tough, but not impossible. In time, I made it to the other side, stronger and better than ever before, and you can too. Here’s how to deal with depression at work.
Step 1: Recognize the signs
Depression, despite popular belief, involves much more than just feeling sad. It’s not as simple as that. Whatever the root cause (whether it’s job security, childhood trauma, the death of a loved one, the end of a romantic relationship or something else), understanding and recognizing the symptoms of depression is the first step on the road to feeling better.
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt
- Sleep disturbances
- Anxiety, restlessness or agitation
- Poor appetite or overeating, and weight loss or gain
- Decreased interest or pleasure in doing most things
- Having trouble concentrating or remembering on things
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Thoughts of death, suicide or self-harm
“As [depression] can manifest in a range of cognitive, emotional and physical ways, it looks different for everyone,” says Raphailia Michael, a licensed counseling psychologist. “Symptoms are present most of the day, every day, for at least two weeks.”
She continues: “Unlike sadness, depression can cause a real drop in everyday functioning… [Even] everyday tasks like getting out of bed, taking a shower, or [getting dressed] can feel extremely difficult.”
Step 2: Seek professional help
There is still, unfortunately, even today, a certain stigma around mental health (which can come from family, friends, coworkers or society on a broader level), but ignoring your depression will not make it go away. It will only make things worse — not only is untreated clinical depression unhealthy, but it also robs you of your relationships and work life, as well as increases the risk of drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide. This is why it is — and (as someone who has attempted suicide twice at the height of my episode) I cannot stress this enough — incredibly important to seek professional help.
“While there is no overnight cure,” says Michael, “psychotherapy can help you identify the roots of your depression, manage its symptoms, modify thought and behavioral patterns, and decrease your vulnerability to future episodes.” She goes on to say that medication may be required for moderate to severe cases of depression, and advises that “while we do crave that immediate relief, try to be patient with the process”.
Step 3: Talk to your manager
One of the first things I did after my diagnosis was talk to my boss about it. As I mentioned earlier, I had missed work for days at a time, and I wanted to explain to him that it was because of my depression and not because I was being lazy or that I hated my job. We had a long chat, and he was incredibly understanding and supportive and told me I could take as much time off work as I needed, whenever I needed it.
Of course, not all managers will react this way. It all boils down to your personal relationship with your boss. I get on really well with mine, so it was relatively easy to “come clean” to him. But if that’s not the case for you and your manager, then it’s perfectly understandable that you might not feel comfortable talking about your depression with them.
Still, it’s important that you keep them in the loop. “You may find yourself so out of sorts that you will need some time off work,” says Sam Nabil, the CEO and lead therapist of Naya Clinics. “Your boss will most likely allow you to do that if they know what you're going through and will not suspect you of just slacking off work.” That said, you don’t have to divulge any details if you don’t want to; you could simply tell them that you’re dealing with some personal issues so that they’re aware of your situation, and leave it at that.
Step 4: Speak to HR
If you’re not quite sure how to navigate the conversation with your boss, it’s a good idea to speak to someone from your HR department, particularly if your performance at work is low or your absence rate is high.
Though you might be hesitant about speaking up about your mental health to HR out of fear of repercussions, it’s worth noting that you’re protected against both harassment and discrimination at work under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the ADA, employers have a legal obligation to provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified employees so that can perform their duties and keep their jobs. These accommodations include adjustments to work schedules or responsibilities, or modifications to the work environment.
Your HR manager will walk you through your rights under the ADA and make any necessary arrangements for you. They’ll also be able to provide you with resources and literature for dealing with depression at work, and even put you in contact with healthcare professionals — all confidentially, of course.
Step 5: Talk to your coworkers
When you’re in the same place with the same people for 40 hours a week, it’s almost inevitable that workplace friendships will flourish. While you might only socialize with some of these people in the break room and at work events, there might be one person with whom who’ve developed a strong bond and even regularly meet up with outside the office.
If you do have a best friend at work that you trust completely, it’s always a good idea to talk to them about what you’re going through. Not only will they be able to lend you an ear and offer you a shoulder to cry on, but they can also keep you motivated and help you with your workload when you’re really struggling.
“People who are experiencing depression will often isolate themselves but this is difficult to sustain long term,” says Alexander Burgemeester, a psychologist and the founder of The Narcissistic Life. “Finding someone to talk to that can offer you their support can not only normalize your experience but also lighten your load to help you get through the day.”
Step 6: Take time off
Although taking time off work will by no means cure your depression, a much-needed mental health day or two or a short vacation can be immensely helpful in terms of taking care of yourself. This is especially true if you’re feeling guilty over your decreased productivity and performance at work.
That said, it’s incredibly important that you don’t isolate yourself during your time off work. You’ll likely want to be left to your own devices, but — speaking from experience — withdrawing yourself from the people in your life can worsen the symptoms of depression. Make sure that you surround yourself with loved ones, whether it’s inviting a coworker over for a coffee, visiting a relative, or going for a walk or to the cinema with a friend.
Step 7: Identify the small things that bring you joy
When dealing with depression at work, it can be hard to get anything done, as your energy, interest and motivation levels all take a plunge to Mariana Trench depths. “This is why it is so important to try and identify things that bring you joy or a sense of accomplishment,” says Burgemeester. This can be anything: carrying out a certain task that you enjoy doing, going out for lunch with coworkers, or watching a funny cat video on YouTube.
“[Once] you have identified the things that bring you joy, try and schedule them into your workday as a reward for accomplishing other things,” he continues. “This can lessen the impact of your depression at work, no matter how big or small [that] impact [is].”
Step 8: Break down tasks into manageable chunks
When dealing with depression at work, our workloads tend to feel more overwhelming and daunting than usual, and that’s because we don’t have the energy or the will to do the things that we might once have enjoyed.
Michael advises to break down larger tasks into manageable chunks. “Set up a realistic plan that won’t [lead you to] feeling incompetent and start with the tasks that can be completed [more easily and quickly] or that you feel more competent at,” she says. “The idea is to increase feelings of accomplishment or mastery.”
It’s a good idea to create a to-do list for this, as this will help you define the tasks you need to complete. For example, “Email clients” can be broken down into specific micro-tasks like “Send payment reminder to John”, “Update Emma on order status” and “Follow up with Sarah regarding contract”.
Meanwhile, if you’re really struggling with your workload, consider asking your coworkers for help and delegating tasks. Michael also advises to “choose your battles — where you can, say ‘no’ to things that might add to your stress”.
Step 9: Take regular breaks
Sitting in front of your computer or serving customers for eight hours straight is mentally exhausting at the best of times. But when you’re also dealing with depression, the effects are magnified.
“If you start to feel overwhelmed or have completely lost motivation, then it is most likely time for you to take a break,” says Burgemeester. “Try and get away from your work for a set amount of time and do something else before coming back to it.”
Michael, meanwhile, recommends staying physically active during your breaks, as it helps to boost your productivity, concentration and working memory, and reduce your stress levels.
“Any physical activity that gets you moving can impact your brain chemistry, thus boosting your energy levels and lifting your mood,” she adds. “Rather than waiting for your brain to give you the motivation and energy [you’re lacking], finding ways to add small amounts of physical activity to your day (like taking the stairs) can make a real difference.”
Step 10: Celebrate your wins
The thing about depression is that it’s a constant battle with yourself. You’re constantly putting yourself down, struggling with thoughts of worthlessness, and blaming yourself for everything — both at home and at work. But you need to give yourself a break.
Be kind to yourself and acknowledge and celebrate your wins — even the smallest ones, like responding to all the emails in your inbox. Setting up a reward system will remind you of what you’re capable of, what you’ve accomplished and that you are worthy. This could range from taking a five-minute coffee break after completing a small task to treating yourself to concert tickets after delivering a project.
Depression knows no boundaries and doesn’t respect your work hours, but there are ways that you can deal it so that you can maintain your performance, productivity and motivation in the workplace. In a nutshell:
- Get the right support — from healthcare professionals, your boss, the HR departments, your coworkers, and your family and friends.
- Take a mental health day — or even go on a short vacation.
- Break down tasks into manageable chunks and take regular breaks.
- Identify the small things that bring you joy at work and celebrate your wins.
It may not feel like it right now, but it really does get better. Two years on, I’m in a much better place (both in my personal and in my professional life), all thanks to the love and support of those around me and my own willingness and hard work to getting to where I am today.
“You are not alone; you are not weak; you are not a failure,” says Michael. “You are not your depression. Where you are now is not where you’ll always be.”
Remember this: there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Check out this interview about mental health in the workplace with Bianca Riemer:
Do you have a question about dealing with depression at work, or want to share your own experiences? Let us know in the comments section below.