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Depression at work: Symptoms and what to do about it

a sad woman displaying signs of depression at work

We must expect an increase in depression at work.

In January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that more than 264 million people suffer from depression globally. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that more than 6 million Americans are affected by depression. Both numbers refer to adults over the age of 18 years.

Depression isn’t just a case of the blues where you feel down for a while. It’s a mental health issue, a mental illness that ranges from moderate to severe. Untreated, depression can be a daily burden, or it can come and go in endless recurring bouts.

The WHO estimates that 800K people die due to suicide triggered by severe depression every year.

In times of crisis, everyone and anyone’s mental health can be challenged.

As grim as they look, those stats are now outdated. The global COVID-19 pandemic is going to see those numbers spike radically over the next few years.

As employees fear being laid off or furloughed for months, c-suite executives and their management teams are fighting to keep their businesses afloat. Some employees will keep their jobs and others will be unemployed. Some organizations will survive, and others will have to close their doors.

Depression can be triggered by many things, including genetics, past or ongoing trauma, abuse (familial in particular), death and loss, and serious illness. These can, in turn, lead to the use of medications, uncertainty and insecurity, social isolation and conflict. These secondary issues are, in themselves, triggers of depression. It’s easy to see how depression is considered a debilitating disease.

Fighting the stigma of depression at work

Unfortunately, mental health problems are still highly stigmatized, and more so in certain cultures. Depression is something that many people are reluctant to discuss. So how do you cope with depression at work when you’re an adult who has financial responsibilities and has to earn a regular income?

Many still cling to the idea that “what happens at work stays at work; what happens at home stays at home”. In an ideal world, possibly – but in our current situation, no way! There’s no escaping it; depression can be a constant companion that won’t go away on its own.

Please note: I am an HR professional with experience spearheading workers’ mental health initiatives for innovative companies, so naturally, in this article I will focus on strategies for dealing with depression at work. This is not medical advice, and if you think you might be depressed, I urge you to also seek help from a medical professional.

Table of contents
Can you be depressed without knowing it?
I think I might be depressed, but how do I know for sure?
Can depression at work actually be burnout?
Okay – I’m depressed; how do I help myself?
Should I be honest with my employer?
Is your job causing your depression?
What can we expect from employers in these times?
Will there be an end to all of this?

Can you be depressed without knowing it?


Depression has a cunning way of creeping up on us. It can begin to overwhelm us gradually. Our thoughts and perceptions of the world become altered by depression and, simultaneously feed it. It’s a double-edged sword.

The more depression at work develops, the bleaker our outlook of the world becomes. As all color and light drain from our lives, our thinking becomes more negative. The mind becomes a vortex that leads to a black hole. 

Signs and triggers of depression

Depression affects our brain functioning, our body and spirit. Racing thoughts, a short span of attention, feeling disconnected, physically weighed down, and a loss of faith in everything, including ourselves are common symptoms.

Many people only become aware of their depression when they start having conflicts with team members and managers at work or their friends and family. One of the reasons we’re unaware that we’re being consumed by depression is because it's human nature to adapt. Adaptation is an innate survival instinct.

Conversely, we can become engulfed by severe depression overnight through a life-changing event. The death of a loved one, failure in business, job loss, life-threatening illness, etc. can all trigger severe depression.

Understandably, many people who experience a life-changing event still need to earn money, so they carry on working. A person might wrongfully try to deflect their mental anguish and emotional pain by burying themselves in their work. Of course, this just makes their situation worse and will likely lead to burnout.

I think I might be depressed, but how do I know for sure?

If you suspect you’re suffering from depression at work, you probably are. It’s not something that we desire or invite into our lives. The first thing to do is not feel guilty or tell yourself to be strong and get over yourself. That will just make you feel weak and inadequate, so quit doing that!

Instead, consider the most common symptoms and see how you weigh up. How many of these describe you right now?

  • Conflict
  • Isolation
  • Indecision
  • Loss of interest
  • Slow to get started
  • Procrastination
  • Lack of initiative
  • No motivation
  • Poor communication
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Calling in sick often

These symptoms can range from mild to severe, but irrespective, they’ll impact your work and home life. Until you accept that you’re depressed, you might not understand what’s going on.

If you’re suddenly crying at work, depression could be the reason – not your colleagues, manager or your perceived incompetence.

Can depression at work actually be burnout?

Very definitely!

Burnout happens when we’ve exhausted all our coping mechanisms. It’s a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion from being exposed to prolonged stress. You become overwhelmed at work and constant demands. You’re left feeling that you can’t cope or function normally.

Previously burnout was known as a nervous or mental breakdown. Know that however it’s referred to, it’s a temporary condition that can be treated and you’ll bounce back again.

When we reach a state of burnout, we’ve suffered from untreated anxiety, depression and fear for some time. You just can’t cope or continue anymore. Some people have an emotional outburst, cry hysterically, just can’t pull themselves out of bed or even flee.

When people take flight, they usually run from their situation without having any destination or intention in mind. They’re just trying to escape their mental and emotional trauma.

What causes burnout?

Many things can trigger burnout, especially now. Here are a few common triggers of burnout: 

  • A stressful job with long hours, tight deadlines and unreasonable management. 
  • Managing a financial crisis within an organization. 
  • Earning too little money to cover monthly expenses. 
  • Trying to hold down a job while coping with personal challenges. 
  • Being bullied or harassed at work but being afraid to speak out.  

The reasons are vast but the results are the same; you can’t cope or function within your daily life as you did before. You need to call time-out!

Okay – I’m depressed; how do I help myself?

Once you acknowledge that you have depression, you must stop resisting it. Mental health issues are no different from getting physically sick. We don’t feel ashamed if we get a migraine or break our arm. Why be embarrassed when things are out of balance mentally?

If you’re suffering from burnout, you must get medical help right away. There’s nothing to feel guilty or ashamed of. Whether you became mentally paralyzed and couldn’t move from your home, or took off running – people forget very quickly and so must you. Treatment for burnout typically includes a combination of rest, medication, psychotherapy and analysis of what caused you so much anguish.

If you haven’t reached the burnout stage yet, but you accept that you’re depressed, you still need to take steps to help yourself recover.

1) Get medical help

The first thing to do is to visit your doctor. Be honest and tell them how you feel. Only your doctor can prescribe the best treatment plan for you, given your symptoms and circumstances.

This professional support is crucial, and accepting your doctor’s support and treatment plan is in no way a personal ‘failure’. I can’t stress enough the importance of thinking about it this way.

If you got sick with a virus you would accept medical help without feeling guilty, right? What matters is doing what it takes to get healthy.

2) Tell your family

If you’re responsible for running the home and bringing in the money, you must tell your family that you need support. It’s easy to be taken for granted if you never say anything. If conveyed positively, children can become very supportive within the home. The main thing is not to alarm them or criticize them. Explain the situation, and you’ll be surprised at how well they respond.

If you do not have a support system in your immediate home, think bigger. It’s natural, especially when depressed, to assume that you’re ‘in this alone’ and that no one can help you. After the depression passes, it’s much easier to realize that if you had just asked for help, there are people in your life who would have happily given it. But you can’t wait until the depression passes, you need support now. 

So don’t hesitate to reach out to extended family or friends, even if you haven’t spoken in awhile, and let them know what is going on with you. Most likely they will offer to help without you even having to ask. And the Covid-19 crisis has most of us feeling more eager than ever to reconnect with loved ones and to offer help in whatever way we can.

3) Take care of your own needs

Both at work and home – if you can’t cope or get something done within someone else’s timeframe, speak up. Say you need more time, or that you can’t do it. And don’t feel guilty! Ask if a colleague can help out or if the deadline can be extended.

4) Get neutral support

Expressing your feelings openly and without reservation helps. That’s usually best done to caring strangers who are un-invested. If you have medical insurance, you should be covered to see a therapist. 

If you don’t have insurance, there are plenty of support groups that you can join and helplines that you can call at no cost. Online group meetings are becoming more popular, and many helplines operate 24/7/365.

Here are a few virtual therapy apps and wellness tools you might find helpful:

  • Talkspace
  • Youper
  • Moodpath
  • Woebot
  • Bloom
  • Sanvello
  • Better Help
  • I am
  • Ten Percent Happier
  • Sayana
  • Mindscape
  • HealthUnlocked Communities
  • Moodrise
  • Headspace
  • Calm

If you need urgent help, please contact an emergency helpline in your area.

5) Take a short-term approach

Once you’ve sorted out the first four priorities, you can start looking at your daily responsibilities, including work. Avoid making long-term commitments at this stage. If you’re involved in big projects, break your role down into digestible chunks so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. Make a list of only what you have to do today and get through it. If you try to focus on the big picture at this point, you could end up feeling overwhelmed.

This approach is even more important when you're dealing with existential crises, which most of us are these days.

6) Manage your workload

Remember that your employer still needs to meet their deadlines, customer commitments and business plans. Your manager has KPIs that need to be met. Unless you’re open about your depression, they’ll expect that you perform to usual standards.

That leaves you with a dilemma: do you discuss your depression, or do you try to work around it?

If you’re concerned that disclosing the depression will have negative repercussions, you’ll have to find a way of working around it. Whatever you do will have to be fair to both you and your manager, though.

If you’re in a critical or customer-facing position, you could ask for a temporary transfer with the reason that you’re dealing with a health issue.

7) Make lifestyle changes

Many of us don’t realize the negative impact of our fast-paced lifestyle, poor diet and lack of exercise and too little sleep. Too many responsibilities cause stress and anxiety. Processed foods, too much caffeine, unhealthy fats, salt and sugar, take a toll on our bodies. Too little sleep causes issues with concentration and lowers our immune system. Lack of regular exercise leads to muscle degeneration, weight gain, breathing problems and also reduced immunity.

Identify what daily responsibilities are essential and dump the rest for now. Take some time out to prepare healthy meals. Go for a 15-minute walk every day and get between 7 and 9 hours sleep a night.

8) Learn to take breaks

Depression often comes with anxiety, and you can quickly become worried that you’re not going to get everything done. Become aware of your thinking and when you hear negative thoughts arising, take a break. At work, move from your workstation. Go for a short walk. If there’s a positive colleague around, have a quick, friendly chat about nothing in particular just to clear your mind.

Pick any activity that brings you joy and schedule it into your day — make it a nonnegotiable so you don't put it off and never end up doing it. Then, don't feel guilty about doing it! Your mental health needs to be your top priority.

9) Stick to a healthy routine

Once you’ve incorporated all of these things into your life, make it routine and stick with it. Depression can take a long time to go away and usually requires permanent lifestyle changes. It’s about changing your attitude and approach towards yourself, your job and your circumstances.

Exercise, healthy eating, planning work schedules and getting enough rest can quickly become a habit that you don’t want to change. Follow the advice of your therapist, don’t give up on your support groups and have regular medical checkups.

Should I be honest with my employer?

That would be the easiest and best way to deal with depression. Many employers offer programs to support mental health and provide support services to their employees. If you can’t speak to your manager, you should be able to approach HR.

But that was all pre-COVID-19!

Novel Coronavirus has caused massive job insecurity, and everyone’s affected – from entry-level employees to board members and c-suite executives. The ILO estimates that 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide.

Maybe you feel afraid that if you’re honest with your employer, they’ll see you as a liability in such tough financial times and lay you off. And maybe you’re right!

Dealing with depression at work is always a challenge, but more so right now. If you’re coping with grief due to COVID-19, then being honest with your employer is the best thing to do. Also, if a loved one tested positive, your depression is understandable. You should get support and understanding.

Your strategy should be determined by what’s causing your depression at work? Is it related to issues like micromanagement, team conflict, or because your job doesn’t motivate you enough? If it is, it’s best to raise those issues directly with your chosen person (manager, HR, etc.) in private. In uncertain times like this, your manager might easily be able to move you to a role that will suit you better.

Is your job causing your depression?

If you’re sticking to the treatment plan, prioritizing wellness and attending regular therapy sessions but you’re still feeling depressed, the most important step is to be open about this with your doctor and therapist. 

But working concurrently with your health professionals, it’s also smart to consider whether the actual work you’re doing each day could be a contributing factor to your depression.

The science:

  • Science shows that when we are working on projects that align with our natural motivations we’re more likely to feel energized and fulfilled at work
  • The opposite is true, too: if you are working on projects that don’t align with your personal motivations, it will be very difficult to stay energized and focus on your work, and eventually, you’ll start feeling drained and your performance will suffer.

Not many of us have the ability to quit our jobs or go job-hopping until we find a role that is our perfect fit, but that’s usually not necessary to make at least some improvements.

By taking the free F4S assessment, you’ll immediately find out what your top motivations at work are, along with which sorts of projects you’re likely to find draining. 

You can then consider if the work you’re doing aligns with your top motivators (which is the goal). If you see that many aspects of your work tend to align more with your lowest motivations, that’s a clue that you’re doing mismatched work.

Armed with your results, you now have science-backed insights into not only how to improve your experience of work, but your actual performance. You can bring this to your manager, not with the intention of completely changing your department (unless that’s an option and you choose to), but just to discuss how to adjust a few aspects of your daily workload. 

Be sure to emphasize your suggested changes will directly benefit the quality of your work, and will help your employer to take full advantage of your natural talents.

If possible, you might suggest that your team takes the F4S assessment together. This way you can start an open conversation about improving the overall team’s performance by making sure each person is working on projects that align with their top motivators. 

Most likely there will be others on the team struggling with the same issue! Chances are, one of your team member’s top motivators might be one of your lowest, meaning that swapping certain aspects of your projects with them would create a win-win solution for the team.

An example:

For example, let’s say you are a creative, big-picture person and you do your best work when working on projects that allow you to tap into that. But your colleague (let’s call her Jordan), prefers working with lots of detail and following procedures.

Perhaps you could hand-off to Jordan that detailed analytics spreadsheet you absolutely hate updating every day. And in return, you can take on one of the creative, big-picture projects that Jordan finds stressful.

The result?

  • Each of you will feel more excited about your work. 
  • The quality of your work will improve.
  • Team dynamics will shift with the increased awareness of everyone’s work preferences.
  • Levels of trust and psychological safety will increase, which are critical ingredients for high performing teams.
  • Your employer will be pleased by how easily team performance was enhanced without much work on their part.

Of course, this is not the end-all-be-all solution to depression, which is a complex mental illness. But we do often overlook the impact our work has on our lives (we spend most of our lives there), and precisely because depression is so complex, our work life might be a contributor. 

Doing what we can to increase our enjoyment of work might not solve everything, but it does have the potential to help.

What can we expect from employers in these times?

If you’re in tech, big companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are hiring at an increased pace as they step up their efforts to contribute positively to the global crisis. These organizations are well known for providing mental health support to their employees.

On the other hand, you could already have lost your job or been furloughed. These are very uncertain times, so stress, anxiety and insecurity are everywhere. Governments worldwide are stepping in to help their citizens financially, and also offering helplines to deal with social issues, including mental health.

The unfortunate truth right now is that we can’t all turn to our employers for depression support. What has happened though, is that civil and private organizations, as well as NGOs, have stepped up. Online support has taken off offering free counselling or at reduced rates.

Here are some of the options available:

  • 7 cups of tea – free, confidential and anonymous conversations with trained volunteer counsellors. They also offer free tools to help you cope with depression. Available 24/7/365 across the globe and in various languages.
  • iPrevail – free anonymous chat support for depression with trained peer counsellors. Available 24/7/365.
  • Turn2me – online anxiety and depression support groups for free, but booking is required.
  • Mental Health America - free service offering online forums, screening tools and support. Available 24/7/365.

Will there be an end to all of this?

Yes, of course! Life will gradually return to a new normal, and we’ll adapt. We’ll be happy again, we’ll prosper, and our careers will flourish again.

In the meantime, you must take care of your mental health and get help for depression at work, or during a time of unemployment.

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