Depression at work can be a real problem — it can get in the way of maintaining positive relationships with colleagues, getting assignments done, and ultimately, our ability to make a living. A California therapist discusses what depression can look like in the workplace, and ways to cope if you’re experiencing depression at work.
Being depressed at work feels like a nightmare. If you love your job, it’s painful to find yourself struggling with motivation, or unable to show up at your best with colleagues.
If you hate your job, it’s torturous to spend any amount of your precious energy and effort there.
And if you’re like the vast majority of us who need to work to make a living, depression can pose a threat to your livelihood as well.
How Depression Shows Up At Work
Depression is a complex illness that can impact every aspect of our daily routine, from our ability to concentrate and remember things, to our sleep, to our relationships with other people. It’s more than just being down or sad. It’s also an extremely common mental health condition, impacting one in three women at some point in their lives.
The pervasive nature of depression means that can impact our work profoundly. In the US, it’s a leading cause of disability, along with anxiety and chronic pain.
In my years of treating professional women with depression, some common challenges have emerged. Symptoms can look different from person to person, but these themes come up again and again:
Struggles with performance: Depression often creates problems with attention and concentration, meaning that your work may include errors or oversights you wouldn’t normally make. Insomnia and poor quality sleep compounds the problem. More severe depression can make it impossible to work at all.
Time management issues: Lowered motivation and energy levels fuel procrastination and make tasks take longer than usual. Deadlines can feel more daunting, creating a vicious cycle. Clients dealing with this problem often report huge amounts of shame and self-criticism around their inability to “snap out of it”.
Strained relationships with colleagues: Irritability is a lesser known symptom of depression, so if you’re feeling snippy or intolerant with your coworkers, that may be why. Struggling to complete tasks, show up for meetings, or maintain deadlines may be a source of conflict with colleagues as well.
Burnout: Burnout and depression aren’t the same thing. But they do have meaningful overlap, and can both feed into and exacerbate each other. Increased cynicism and a negative outlook, difficulty recharging, feelings of being trapped or helpless are all signs of professional burnout.
How to Manage Depression at Work
First and foremost, connect with whatever support you have available to you. Depression sucks, but it’s orders of magnitude harder when we try to handle it in isolation.
Your primary care provider is often a good first step. They can help evaluate what’s going on with your mood, and make a plan for what happens next. Sometimes, depression can have a treatable medical cause, such as a thyroid condition. Other times, your doctor might recommend therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
Therapy can be an effective tool to mitigate the symptoms of depression. Your therapist can help you with strategies to improve your mood, and also address some of the underlying factors. Therapists may be available to you via a community mental health center, your managed care provider, or in private practice at a clinic like Stella Nova.
You should also consider what resources are available to you at work. Your employer may have resources like an Employee Assistance Program that covers some number of therapy sessions for you. And all employers are required by law to provide accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Having the support of trusted friends or family when you’re experiencing depression is worth its weight in gold. A support group can also be a great place to get connected if you’re not able or ready to confide in people you know.
Address Your Work Environment
Is your depression being triggered by work itself? If you’re in a work situation that is negatively impacting your safety, emotional well-being, or ability to care for your basic needs, this can be a catalyst for depression.
At Stella Nova, I often work with clients who are struggling with toxic workplace dynamics, draconian policies, or unreasonable expectations. Some of them are smashing into glass ceilings, others are enduring microaggressions on a daily basis. Some clients are even in workplace situations that are abusive or traumatic.
By the time they’ve gotten to me, they’ve often tried a number of strategies to improve their situation to no avail. Worked on their communication skills. Asked to be transferred to another team. Done their best to white knuckle through an awful situation.
If your work situation is harming your mental health, it can feel like an impossible trap. But you deserve support to either change or get out of a bad situation. Even if it takes some time, developing a plan and taking the first small steps towards it can create a sense of hope and progress. When your workplace is a trigger for depression, a therapist can help you figure out what to do next.
Treat Yourself With Compassion
Depression can make it harder to work. Unfortunately, it also often makes our inner critic more of a jerk about it. It might tell you you’re a loser, an imposter, doomed to fail. It’s stubbornly resistant to evidence that you’ve done something well, and hyper focuses on even tiny mistakes. In the midst of a depressive episode, we often have less patience and compassion for ourselves, not more.
Actively cultivating a sense of compassion and kindness towards yourself while you’re struggling can be a helpful tool to quiet that critic. It can be hard to access, but it does get easier with practice.
One tool many people find helpful is to imagine yourself giving advice or comfort to a dear friend who is struggling with the same problem that you are. Even when we’re depressed, we often find it easier to access kind feelings towards a person we care about than towards ourselves.
Give Yourself Time & Space To Heal
You may need to reset your expectations for yourself and your performance while you’re recovering from a depressive episode. Focusing on a smaller number of important priorities can help make the most of limited physical and emotional energy.
My clients also find it helpful to redefine their concept of “doing their best”. Our best changes from day to day, and comparing our best during depression to our best when we’re feeling great isn’t realistic or fair.
It’s about as logical as comparing our 5K time after 3 months of solid training to our time after spraining an ankle. After an injury, we may need to acknowledge that taking a walk around the block is a big win. Likewise, when we’re healing from depression, our best may be taking a shower and answering a few emails. Give yourself room to acknowledge those successes.
If you are lucky enough to have a supportive manager or a mental health informed workplace, discussing your needs and limitations can be a powerful source of support as well.
There’s no silver bullet to managing depression at work or beyond.
But we do know that when people seek out treatment and support sooner rather than later, it’s better for them overall. They are more likely to have a faster recovery, and less likely to experience additional depressive episodes down the road. So I always encourage people not to wait until their depression is severe or debilitating to seek support.
About The Author
Dr. Maya Borgueta is a California psychologist and the founder of Stella Nova Psychology, where she offers therapy online therapy for women and nonbinary professionals. She specializes supporting people navigating toxic work environments, workplace abuse and corporate trauma. Her clients are primarily women in business and tech, 1st and second generation immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and/or women of color.
Therapy For Depression in California
If you’re struggling with depression and its impact on your life at work or home, therapy can help.
Stella Nova specializes in supporting women and nonbinary professionals’ mental health. We also treat a wide variety of mental health concerns such as anxiety, burnout, chronic pain, relationship issues, and more. Our stellar team can treat clients throughout California online, or in-person in San Francisco.
To get matched with a great-fit therapist, sign up for a free phone consultation today!