Depressed at work? How do you know if it’s your job, or the rest of life, that’s causing it? Should you quit? How can you feel better?
The Mental Health Pandemic
If you feel anxiety or depression, you’re in good company: 41 percent of adults, and 56 percent of youth ages 18-24, experience one or both. The numbers are even higher for people of color. Compare this with 2019 (pre-pandemic), when that number was 10 percent overall.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Americans lose 200 million workdays to depression each year. And it’s on the rise. Healthline reports that “work depression” resembles general depression except that the environment where you work can be a contributing factor.
How To Know If You Have Work Depression
How do you know if you have work depression? Check in with yourself for these common symptoms:
- Increased anxiety levels, especially when managing stressful situations, or thinking about work when you’re away from your job.
- Overall feelings of boredom and complacency about your job.
- Low energy and lack of motivation to do things, which can sometimes manifest as boredom in tasks.
- Persistent or prolonged feelings of sadness or low mood.
- Loss of interest in tasks at work, especially duties that you previously found interesting and fulfilling.
- Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, or overwhelming guilt.
- Inability to concentrate or pay attention to work tasks and trouble retaining or remembering things, especially new information.
- Making excessive errors in daily work tasks.
- Increase or decrease in weight or appetite.
- Physical complaints like headaches, fatigue, and upset stomach.
- Increased absences, or coming in late and leaving early.
- Impaired decision-making capacity.
- Irritability, increased anger, and reduced frustration tolerance.
- Crying spells or tearfulness at work, with or without any apparent triggers.
- Trouble sleeping or excessive sleeping (like taking naps during regular work hours).
- Self-medication with alcohol or substances.
Work depression, according to Healthline, can stem from being overworked or underpaid, experiencing discrimination or harassment, feeling a lack of control over work issues or lack of work-life balance, or working in a toxic environment or one where your values don’t align with theirs.
It’s worse than stress, more painful than a headache, and more persistent than periodic blowups or conflicts. It can feel like adrenaline pumping through your veins all day and night, or like you’ve been completely drained of energy and have interest in absolutely nothing. Work depression impacts the entirety of your self and your life.
Ways To Combat Work Depression
#1: self-care. #2: set boundaries. #3: get support.
You know what to do–regulate your hours, eat a healthy lunch, get out for a walk, don’t engage with that toxic coworker.
Ways to feel better:
- Get outside every day–for an errand, a short walk, or just to sit and take in some fresh air and sunlight.
- Drink a cup of water, refill it right then, and have some more. Get an insulated cup that makes you smile. Use ice, or spike your water with fresh fruit, cucumber, or immune-support powder.
- Pack your lunch. Not just a bag of Doritos; pack a meal worthy of someone you really love. Make it nourishing but also tasty. Do it the night before if it adds stress to your morning.
- Stock your working area with healthy snacks and drinks, perhaps your very own coffeemaker or electric tea kettle.
- Bring a plant to work. It will give you oxygen and nonverbal devotion, and if you can nurture its growth, it will give you joy in that accomplishment.
- Spend a few minutes with your best furry friend, human friend, or partner, via video, just to check in. It will remind you that someone else cares about the day you’re having.
- Ask a coworker a personal (within limits!) question about their family, hobby, background, or current challenges. Your own morale can get a huge boost when you make a connection with a colleague that reveals what you might have in common or how your concern comforts them.
- Stand up for a harrassed coworker’s rights. It will remind you of your personal power and support someone who may be feeling bad, too.
- Find one honest compliment to give to a colleague or client. We all need to be affirmed, and even if you’re not receiving enough accolades, you can improve your company culture just by being positive yourself.
- Keep a list–in a journal, in your phone’s notes, on a legal pad, or anywhere–of one thing you did well each day. “Paid my electric bill,” “cooked an awesome ramen dish,” “got that report done on time,” etc. When you begin to notice even small daily triumphs, they will increase.
I know from experience that when you’re feeling down, cheery people suggesting “tips to feel better” can make you feel irritated and resistant. However, if you can apply the reverse Golden Rule (treat yourself as you would your best friend), and try making even one small change each week, you’ll be on your way.
How to Support a Depressed Employee
How to support an employee you suspect may be depressed? Marcel Schwantes offers eight ways (which I’ve abridged here) in Inc.:
- Create a culture of support where workers feel safe to share how they’re dealing with current stress, anxiety or depression. Don’t play “therapist,” but do let them know they’re not alone, and that you will help support them through this phase of life.
- Protect their confidentiality: Depression and other mental health issues are highly sensitive topics. Keep their information to yourself unless they give you permission to share.
- Show respect: If your employee has trusted you by sharing about their depression, treat them with honor and respect, not like they’re “broken” and suddenly incapable.
- Show your loyalty by asking how you can help, and explore options together to make their work manageable.
- Invite them to join you and other coworkers in work-related social activities. Be gently insistent if the invitation is declined, but don’t push too hard.
- Offer flexible work arrangements: Remember, your role as their manager is to help get them back to mental health. If that entails letting them work from home, take naps at work (which more companies are allowing), put in fewer hours or take a few days off, it should be your priority to do so to get them back at full speed.
- Keep checking in: Find out how they’re doing every now and then because things could get progressively worse (and they may not want to divulge). Make sure they get that you are there for them, and are available to listen.
- Never ignore comments about suicide. Contact their mental health provider or the suicide prevention lifeline.
If All Else Fails, Listen to a Singing Dog
These days, almost everyone I know struggles with VERY REAL anxiety, depression, and/or post-traumatic stress (PTS) stemming from global wars, political conflict, widespread gun violence, and cultural assault on appearance, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, mental health, and differing abilities. Some days more than others, I struggle as well and really have to wrench myself out of bed and to my desk.
Recently, on a good day, I dragged myself to a “therapeutic yoga” class that I always find healing; but on this day, our instructor, Gina, had a bonus surprise for us. Her aging, rescue, therapy dog Buddy, she’d recently discovered, really likes to howl along when she plays the harmonica. So, Gina devoted the first five minutes of class to bringing her doggy onto her yoga mat to sit next to her and sing along to her tune.
As I looked around the studio, I saw faces of all different colors and ages transform from distracted (some even cranky) to mesmerized. Initially, I resented having to lose five minutes of exercise; and then, I sat still and listened.
“Everyone is struggling these days, and that is real,” Gina said, placing the harmonica on the ground and giving Buddy a loving scratch. “But we need to look for joy. And I don’t know, people tell me that hearing my dog sing, brings them joy. So I just wanted to share that with you.”
You wouldn’t have guessed it, but Gina said it took a lot of courage for her to bring her dog into class and “impose” that on us. But you know what? That simple, humble, silly act of sharing made my day.