Recognizing and Coping with Work Depression
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Have you been feeling “checked out” at work? Are you dragging yourself to the office every day, only to spend the weekends dreading your return? Have you had the thought, “My job is making me depressed?”
If so, you are not alone. A 2020 study found that the number of U.S. employees experiencing work depression quadrupled during the early days of the pandemic, and more recent research indicates that job-related burnout is at an all-time high.  COVID-19’s impact on mental health and workplace well-being. (n.d.). NIHCM. https://nihcm.org/mental-health-and-workplace-well-being  Abramson, A. (n.d.). Burnout and stress are everywhere. https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/special-burnout-stress
This article will discuss the causes and symptoms of work-related depression, how it differs from stress and burnout, and ways to cope.
Can work cause depression?
Depression rarely has a single cause. It is influenced by various factors, including biology, genetics, and environmental stressors.
That said, your job can have a significant effect on your mental health, positive or negative.
Toxic personalities, job insecurity, and lack of work-life balance are just a few of the factors that can cause workplace depression.– Lindsay Renner Schwartz, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
Nearly everyone experiences work stress at some point. But contrary to stress, which tends to be temporary and limited to a specific situation, depression is enduring and affects multiple aspects of life.
For example, someone with work-related depression may continue to ruminate about their job even when they are out of the office. This then affects their ability to enjoy activities like hobbies or social engagements.
Workplace depression is also different from burnout, although they share many of the same symptoms. As Psychiatrist Tracey Marks explains in her YouTube video “Burnout Vs. Depression,” someone with depression feels depressed regardless of the setting. On the other hand, someone with burnout will often feel better once removed from the stressful work situation.
A mental health professional can help you explore factors that may be contributing to your particular symptoms.
However, depression caused by work usually includes at least one of the following risk factors:
- A stressful, toxic, or unsafe workplace
- Work-life imbalance
- A discrepancy between effort and reward
- Lack of control over work-related issues
- Unclear or unreasonable expectations
- Work that conflicts with your values or career goals
What are the signs and symptoms of depression at work?
Work depression can present in many different ways. One person experiencing depression at work may appear sad and withdrawn, while another may show few or no visible symptoms.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of workplace depression, separated into categories.
- Lack of motivation
- Depressed mood
- Loss of interest in tasks you previously found interesting
- Decreased confidence or feelings of worthlessness
- Irritability, anger, or increased emotional reactivity (low frustration tolerance or quick to “snap” at colleagues, for example)
- Inability to concentrate
- Memory problems
- Difficulty making decisions
- More frequent mistakes on the job
- Increased absences, tardiness, or leaving early
- Missed deadlines or goals
- Diminished self-care – for example, neglecting hygiene or appearing disheveled
- Social withdrawal, isolation from coworkers
- Low energy
- Upset stomach
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Sleeping more than usual
- Attempts to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, food, or technology
- Increase or decrease in weight or appetite
How to deal with depression at work
When it comes to workplace culture, there are often factors you can’t control. You can’t fire your hyper-critical boss, for example, or change the company values to better align with your own.
If your job is negatively affecting your mental health, you might ultimately want to consider moving on. However, if you can’t quit your job due to financial or other responsibilities, there are still things you can do.
Here are some tips for how to work when depressed:
Take regular breaks
Taking breaks runs counter to the “hustle culture” valued by many workplaces. However, in addition to benefitting your mental health, taking breaks has been shown to boost productivity and focus.  Hunt, E. (2023, January 25). Is modern life ruining our powers of concentration? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/is-modern-life-ruining-our-powers-of-concentration
Close your eyes and listen to a song from your favorite playlist, take a walk around the building, or spend a few minutes chatting with a coworker about something non-related.
You might be surprised how these accumulated minutes of downtime help to improve your mood!
We all know exercise is good for us physically, but did you know that exercise is one of the most effective ways to combat stress and depression?
Regular exercise releases endorphins, our bodies’ natural mood boosters. Exercise also provides a sense of accomplishment and control, which can help to counteract the symptoms of work-related depression.
You don’t need to log hours at the gym to reap these benefits – even a short walk or stretching session can make a significant difference in how you feel.
Even if your company doesn’t officially sanction mental health days, you can use your paid time off (PTO) to take a break from work. Mental health days give you time and space to focus on self-care, rest, and relaxation.
Research shows that taking time away from your job offers both physical and mental health benefits, including improved mood, focus, and productivity.  Zucker, R. (2023, July 19). How Taking a vacation Improves your Well-Being. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/vacation-improves-your-well-being
If you are experiencing depression on the job, creating boundaries between work and home is critical. Set limits on the hours you are available to work, including after-hours email and phone communications.
Delegate tasks when you can, and say no to unreasonable demands. While this may be challenging at first, the payoff will be less stress and more work-life balance.
Practice mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation involves tuning into your present experience without judgment. It has been shown to provide multiple benefits, including stress reduction and improved psychological well-being.  Keng, S., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041–1056. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006
Use an app like the UCLA Mindful App to access a variety of guided meditations, including those specifically for beginners.
Practice good self-care
When you are depressed, it can be hard to find the motivation for health-promoting activities like nutrition, proper sleep, and regular exercise. However, the mind and body are connected; how we treat ourselves physically affects how we feel mentally.
Start with one area of focus – for example, staying hydrated throughout the day – and gradually integrate other forms of self-care.– Lindsay Renner Schwartz, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
Invest in your out-of-office life
If you are like most people, you dedicate a lot of time and energy to work-related tasks. When this investment doesn’t pay off in job satisfaction or personal fulfillment, it’s time to cultivate interests outside of work.
Spending time with loved ones or engaging in activities that provide a sense of purpose or meaning can be particularly fulfilling. Volunteer in your community, schedule a “family fun day,” or resurrect a neglected hobby.
A recent study found that 64% of workers struggle with mental or behavioral health issues, yet only 19% use their mental health care benefits.  Study Finds Although 64% of Employees Are Struggling with Their Mental Health, Only 19% Used Their Company’s Mental Health Benefits Last Year. (n.d.). One Medical. https://www.onemedical.com/companys-mental-health-benefits/
Perhaps you feel hesitant to reach out to someone at work due to concerns about stigma or confidentiality. However, enlisting the support of someone at work can help you cope with your work-related depression.
Consider scheduling a meeting with your HR representative to discuss available accommodations.
Work accommodations for depression
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with mental health conditions. It also protects these individuals from discrimination in the workplace.
Which accommodations will be most helpful to you will depend on your specific symptoms and circumstances.
However, here are some examples of accommodations for mental health conditions like work-related depression:
- The ability to take breaks when needed
- The option of working from home or on a hybrid schedule
- The ability to use sick time for mental health
- Flexible scheduling, such as part-time hours or delayed start to the day
- The ability to have food and drinks in your workspace
- Reduced workload
- Access to technology like digital assistants or speech-to-text programs
- Access to a quiet workspace or noise-canceling headphones  Vallie, S. (2023, January 16). What to know about depression and Disability. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/what-to-know-about-depression-and-disability
How team leaders can support employees who are depressed at work
A company is only as healthy as its employees, and employee mental health is integral to a positive and productive work environment.
Depression is one of the top 3 problems presented to employee assistance professionals and is estimated to cost companies billions each year in absenteeism and lost productivity.  Depression in the workplace. (n.d.). Mental Health America. https://www.mhanational.org/depression-workplace
Don’t make your employees choose between career and mental health! Instead, take a proactive approach to supporting employee health and well-being with the following strategies:
- Facilitate open conversations about mental health by scheduling training sessions and check-ins
- Provide regular depression screenings for all employees
- Offer flexible scheduling
- Create a relaxing space where employees can take breaks
- Normalize and encourage mental health days
- Institute “no contact zones” for email and other communications – for example, on holidays and weekends
- Offer mindfulness training or subscriptions to mental health apps
- Break up large projects into more manageable chunks and encourage collaboration
- Celebrate employee wins
- Offer an employee assistance program – for example, Calmerry offers B2B mental health services for companies. With flexible therapy options, personalized treatment plans, and a nationwide network of licensed providers, Calmerry can help you maintain a healthy and thriving workplace.
Book a 30-min demo call with us to learn more about our B2B offering and how Calmerry can help take the pressure off your team through flexible, customizable, and holistic therapy.
- See a live demonstration of how platform works
- Have an overview of our flexible payment models
- Get a tailored offer based on your company needs and number of employees
Seek professional help outside of the office
If your workplace depression persists despite the coping strategies and accommodations outlined above, it may be time to seek additional help.
A licensed mental health professional can discuss depression therapy options with you and develop a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. In addition, many providers now provide online therapy, a convenient option for those with busy schedules.
Seeking support, whether from a trusted coworker or a licensed provider, is the first step toward a life free from the burden of work depression.