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Depression isn’t something people can just cast aside when they’re at work. Nearly 8 percent of the American workforce experiences depression annually, with job stress and long hours among the leading causes of moderate to severe suicidal ideation for employees in the United States. Work depression is also responsible for 200 million missed workdays and costs employers over $51 billion in absenteeism and lost productivity each year. Clearly, workplace depression affects the well-being of individuals and organizations–but there are steps employees can take to feel better and for businesses to better support their people.
Work depression is not a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5-TR), but it mirrors some symptoms of major depression. Depression at work is sometimes diagnosed as an adjustment disorder with depressed mood because it’s tied to one area of life. Work may trigger depression or exacerbate existing depression. It’s one of many environmental factors that can contribute to depression in people who are at risk for mental health disorders. Work challenges can also worsen depression symptoms for people already struggling with it. Workplace depression can be a pervasive, low hum of sadness or it can cause more intense symptoms where you feel too depressed to work.
Signs of depression at work are similar to other depression symptoms, but are specific to your job, and may include:
If you’re feeling depressed at work, it can also creep into other parts of your life. Some additional ways job depression can affect you include:
Stress, burnout, and job depression all share some symptoms, but there are important differences. Stress is part of life, but it’s often short-lived and you can generally feel that it’s temporary. Stress becomes a problem when it’s prolonged and escalates to the point that you can’t imagine an end to it. This chronic stress can fuel burnout, which is long-lasting and often comes with blunted emotions and hopelessness. Burnout and depression from work can occur simultaneously or depression may result from burnout. Depression is marked by extreme sadness and causes physical, social, and cognitive changes that affect sleep, energy, motivation, decision-making, and relationships.
Like other mental health conditions, several factors can contribute to work depression. These may include:
In today’s always-on world, healthy work-life balance can be hard to come by. Employees are often expected to manage their work-life balance by setting boundaries or saying no. However, this can be unrealistic given excessive workloads, unmanageable expectations, and leaders who don’t model healthy work-life balance. The result can be chronic stress and mental health concerns like job depression. In fact, Lyra Health’s 2023 State of Workforce Mental Health survey found work-related stress was a top contributor to employees’ mental health challenges.
Eighteen percent of workers say their work environment is somewhat or very toxic and 30 percent report harassment, abuse, or violence at work. Toxic workplaces can send your best people in search of greener pastures and contribute to depression at work. The issue has garnered attention from the U.S. Surgeon General and the World Health Organization (WHO), warning that toxic workplaces are bad for employees’ physical and mental health. WHO reports that a negative work environment can decrease productivity and increase substance use, absenteeism, and physical and mental health concerns.
Factors that contribute to a toxic workplace and depression caused by work include:
Feeling unimportant, criticized, or belittled can understandably fuel depression from work. Research suggests that feeling ostracized and devalued at work has a significant impact on employee well-being, attitude, and turnover. Dismissive managers don’t necessarily have ill intentions, but their workplace culture may not lend itself to implementing new ideas or processes. When managers lack autonomy to make decisions or face red tape from leaders, they may not have space to entertain team members’ suggestions or ideas, which can be interpreted as dismissive.
Managers have a tremendous impact on their teams. In one survey, employees said their manager affects their mental health more than their therapist or medical providers, and as much as their spouse or partner. Research also shows that positive exchanges between managers and employees can serve as a protective factor for depression in the workplace. The way managers interact with their teams and assign tasks plays a large role in job satisfaction. When managers know their team members and organization well, they can tailor their management style to what’s most effective for each individual and situation.
Working long hours due to heavy workloads and unrealistic timelines can also contribute to work depression. Always feeling like you’re playing catch-up or struggling to make deadlines is stressful and leads to burnout, which are both risk factors for depression at work.
Remote work has many benefits, but it can feel lonely at times, especially if you don’t regularly connect with people outside of work. Researchers have found that isolation and loneliness increase the risk of depression, so it’s important to keep strong social connections to buffer against that risk.
Some research has found that many people would trade in a higher salary for more autonomy at work. When employees feel like they have some say in the way they work and decisions that impact them, they experience a sense of control and empowerment, which can help them feel less depressed about work.
Depression typically stems from a combination of environmental, genetic, and biological factors. Some non-work factors that can contribute to depression in the workplace include:
If you’re feeling depressed at work, you can take steps to manage your symptoms and feel better. Start with some of the following:
Identify what helps you feel better and talk to your manager about it. Maybe it’s a flexible work schedule that allows you to work when you’re at your best. Perhaps you need to take a longer lunch break once a week to attend therapy. Ultimately, managing your depression at work is a win-win for both you and your manager.
Setting boundaries helps you feel like you’re in the driver’s seat of your life. Boundaries can safeguard your mental health and confidence, and create space for self-care and other factors that can improve job depression.
Seeing a mental health professional is important for keeping mild-to-moderate depression from escalating to major depressive disorder. There are many effective treatments for work depression. Two particularly effective approaches are cognitive behavioral therapy and behavioral activation therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach that helps you identify how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected. You learn to recognize and challenge dysfunctional and unhelpful thoughts and replace them with more accurate, helpful ones. This helps you manage your emotions better and have healthier behavior and interpersonal interactions.
Behavioral activation is a type of CBT, but instead of focusing on how thoughts and feelings affect behaviors, it explores how behaviors affect thoughts and feelings. Working with depression can feel like you’re trudging through a vat of molasses. Behavioral activation encourages you to identify activities and situations that make you feel better and do them when you feel depressed. For example, if you’re feeling too depressed to work, you can try moving your body, walking your dog, or going outside in nature. Enjoyable activities can shift your mood; the activity doesn’t need to be grand, it just needs to create a little space in your depression. It can help to talk with a mental health coach or therapist to determine which strategies are right for you.
Take small breaks throughout the day. Go for a walk or run. Stand up, stretch, and breathe. If you’re at the office, visit with a co-worker. Connection can counteract loneliness and lethargy. Try to be in nature as much as possible on breaks—several studies suggest that spending time outdoors can boost mood and overall well-being. Even a quick walk in the park can provide mood-boosting benefits that could help ease depression at work.
Making time for self-care is especially important if you’re employed and working with depression or dealing with other mental health issues. Self-care can include something as simple as eating a nutritious meal or getting enough sleep, or it can involve going to therapy, spending time with loved ones, participating in a hobby, or exercising.
The smallest task can feel herculean when you’re depressed at work. Try breaking tasks up into steps that feel more manageable. Break off small bits of work at a time and take breaks when you complete them. Find a scheduling/organizational method that works for you. Not needing to think about what comes next can keep you from feeling lost in your day, especially when motivation is low. A regular routine can also lower your stress level during challenging times and bring a sense of comfort and familiarity.
Research on gratitude suggests that paying attention to what’s going well in your life can lift your mood and increase satisfaction. Some people keep a gratitude journal and write in it daily. Practicing gratitude doesn’t need to be elaborate, though. Simply waking up and saying, “I’m glad I’m here” counts.
Every job comes with challenges, but sometimes you need to make a change. If your workplace depression isn’t improving despite efforts to manage it, consider whether your values align with what you’re doing. Perhaps your preferences and work style aren’t a good fit for the organizational culture or your role is much different than you thought it would be. It might be useful to talk with a mental health coach or therapist to evaluate if changing jobs is the answer.
Since most people spend a lot of time at work, managers are often the first to notice work depression. Signs an employee needs help can include:
Helping a depressed employee who’s struggling is not only the right thing to do, it can also improve their productivity and engagement. It’s not your job to identify or address mental health issues, but you can notice signs and respond with support and resources. Research shows that depression reduces cognitive performance at work by 35 percent and the ability to complete physical tasks by 20 percent. Talking to an employee about workplace depression can be a simple check-in. It’s helpful to come from a place of curiosity: “What’s going well for you right now?,” “Are you feeling stuck with anything?,” “Are there any roadblocks in the way of getting this project done?”
Here are a few ways you can help address depression caused by work:
Workplace depression shapes your entire work experience. It can feel impossible to work and interact with others when you’re depressed. The good news is that depression is very treatable, and you can feel better, both at work and outside of it, with the right support.
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