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How to Cope with Depression at Work


Depending on your employment situation, depression can manifest itself most clearly in the workplace. At home, we can hide away, sleep too much and the “blah” we feel won’t show up on a performance report. The added stress of having to pretend to function normally at work while depressed can actually make the depression worse.

And then there’s the shame and misunderstanding. Depression isn’t “crazy.” Depression doesn’t make you dangerous to work with. The only real victim here is the person suffering from the condition. They call it a mental illness because it is a real illness, as much as diabetes is.

Because our modern society demands we perform despite our moods and illnesses, the answer for most is to seek professional help. Severe depression is life altering and it will eventually keep someone from working at all. At this level (a major depressive disorder) professional help is in order. Without treatment, work product will degrade and may lead to getting fired. Still, even when under treatment, there are useful coping strategies.

Tips and Tricks

Some companies call them “ergo breaks,” others call them mental health breaks. Savvy HR departments and managers build them into the work day. (Purdue University published a short guide for managers about depression in the workplace you can read here.Essentially, they are short breaks where you get up, walk around (outside if possible) and have a chance to clear your mind. When depression arises, short exercise breaks (brisk walking, stair climbing) can work wonders to shift your focus away from the miasma and mire of depression.

In a similar fashion you can alter your environment with light therapy. Sunshine is best, but sitting under any bright lights or bathing your closed eyes in very bright light (not harmfully so, just bright). This is especially effective when the type of depression is shift related (night shift) or seasonal (winter).

Look to a trusted work confidant for support. If you can’t find one, calling a friend to vent can get you through the day.

Turn off that thing that is going to take you over the top stress-wise. For some it’s the phone, for others it’s the in-box or the never ending emails. To the extent possible, give yourself a break from the item that is your personal curse. Sometimes you can switch roles with a coworker, sometimes you can turn it off for an hour or two.


Don’t quit impulsively. The stress and overwhelming nature of a job you used to do well might be because of depression. Good jobs are hard to come by and it is too easy to think that just removing yourself from the situation will cure your misery. Oftentimes, losing the job only makes the depression worse. So don’t act in haste, or at least not without getting professional advice.

Don’t try to ignore your symptoms. The shame and guilt we feel when we are not performing up to par can build up until a crisis emerges. If you think you have more than just the “workplace blues,” take the time to get tested and see what treatment options are available.

Don’t expect your coworkers to know what’s going on in your head. We tend to think that our fellow employees know when we are sad, irritable or out of sorts. They often do not. You may have to let them know how you are feeling and why you don’t want to socialize or aren’t up to the usual chatty lunch.

Don’t just drift. A schedule you can keep will provide a useful framework to not only make sure you get things done, but an incentive to help nudge you out of the inertia that comes with depression. The depression cycle is fatigue leading to less effort leading to less caring and leading to more fatigue. A schedule can help get you out of that trap.

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