Depression at work: what it is and steps you can take if you’re struggling

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If you suffer from depression, you may sometimes find it tough to perform the tasks you need to do as part of your job. Occasionally, the way you’re feeling may be so severe that you find it difficult to go to work at all.

First of all, it’s important for you to know that if you feel like this, you’re not alone and you shouldn’t feel ashamed. Many people struggle with their mental health at work. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has shown that mental health conditions are the third most common reason for people being absent from work. These depression statistics also show just how many people struggle with stress, anxiety and depression at work every day.

In this piece, we'll look at how and why depression can impact your work life and how your job can affect your mental health. We’ll also outline the steps you can take if you’re struggling to focus at work as a result of your depression.

What is work depression?

On the whole, work is a place that can drive positive mental health. It gives us purpose, motivation and satisfaction when we achieve something we’ve worked for.

On the flip side, work can also be a place of heightened stress and anxiety and can therefore have a negative effect on your mental health. Your job might not be the direct cause of depression, but a negative or toxic work environment can make your depression symptoms worse.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that work depression can lead to physical and mental health problems, and leads to a loss of $1 billion to the economy per year in lost productivity. Behind that figure are millions of people whose workplace contributes to their struggles with depression.

Signs and symptoms of depression at work

There are symptoms of depression that can affect your ability to work. These can include:

  • Finding it hard to remain motivated
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed

Depression can also cause people to isolate themselves, worry excessively about getting work done and feel guilty about letting other people down. They can also find it difficult to talk about how they feel at work, because they feel ashamed that they may be judged.

How do I know it’s depression?

Most people will feel down or sad in the workplace at some stage – these feelings are entirely normal. What’s important is that you’re aware of the symptoms of depression, so you can recognise when your feelings are moving into more damaging territory, and take action if you need to.

It’s also important to recognise when your feelings might be workplace stress, rather than depression. Typically, you should be able to identify the cause of your workplace stress; it might be an upcoming presentation, a tight deadline or particularly long workday. When that trigger passes, your feelings of stress should pass too.

Depression, on the other hand, is characterised more by increased feelings of sadness and guilt, often seemingly without any explanation. You might also lack motivation and focus in your role.

Potential triggers of work depression

The relationship between work and depression is one that can work both ways. Depression can impact your ability to perform your job well, and stress at work can also contribute to you becoming depressed. Some work-related triggers that can cause major depression or stress include:

  • A high workload
  • Being asked to do things outside your competency level
  • Sudden changes or difficulties with colleagues
  • Inflexible working hours
  • Poor management processes and/or communication
  • Unclear objectives and a lack of support for your work

Can working from home cause depression?

Working from home, either permanently or partially each week, is becoming a reality for more and more people. While the added flexibility and home comforts can be beneficial to your mental health, it is not without its drawbacks.

Feelings of isolation can arise for people working from home – especially if you also live on your own. A lack of physical communication with other human beings can quickly lead to feelings of sadness and depression. If you're working from home regularly, it’s really important to remain in contact with colleagues, both professionally and socially. Try to block out some time in your diary on a daily or weekly basis to have a chat over video conferencing – the social aspects of human interaction can do wonders for your mental health.

Self-care tips if you’re feeling depressed at work

When you start to develop symptoms of depression, such as feeling low and anxious, struggling to complete your workload, or not being able to manage normal stresses particularly well, it can be good to talk things through with someone you trust. This may be your spouse, another relative or a trusted colleague at work. During this time, try to talk about whether it’s your job that's possibly causing your symptoms.

If you feel that work is contributing to your depression or you have anxiety about work, try to address the issues with your line manager. They may be able to help with your workload, ease work-life pressures, and offer ways to get motivated when depressed. If you feel that your symptoms of depression aren't being caused by your job, try to identify what else in your life could be contributing to you feeling depressed and try to address these issues.

On a day-to-day basis, there are small but significant measures you can put in place to help keep a positive mind set every time you return to your desk:

  • Get out of the office (or the house if you’re working from home) at lunchtime for some fresh air
  • Have a healthy, nutritious lunch and try to avoid heavy or stodgy meals
  • Take regular breaks to get away from your desk and stretch your legs
  • If you’re working from home, don’t work from your bedroom
  • Practise some mindfulness activities each day
  • When you can, learn to say 'no' to one thing that will make your day less stressful

When should I get help for work depression?

If your feelings of depression don’t seem to be going away, it’s important that you get help. Visiting your GP can be a good first step, while using occupational health support at your work can also be helpful. Remember, your condition is treatable.

Alternatively, you can get in touch with Priory for the very best in private treatment for depression. There are many different avenues of support available, such as talking therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medication if your depression is more severe. We also offer an innovative treatment method for depression, known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), which is available at Priory Wellbeing Centre Harley Street. Call us today and find out how our expert, established treatment for depression can help you to get your mental health back on track.

This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Marinus Klijnsma (MBBS, MCRPsych), Consultant Adult Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

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