How to Work When You’re Depressed

October 10th is World Mental Health Day. 18.5 percent of American Adults suffer from some type of mental illness every year. That’s 43.8 million people or almost 1 in five. Take a look around your office. There’s a good chance that there are several people in your office who have some sort of mental illness right now and you’re not even aware. Of those, over 6 million are suffering from depression.

I’m one of those people. I have anxiety and depression which is (thankfully) well managed by medication. The downside? Medication makes me fat. But, since my choices are to be fat and happy or thin and an anxious depressed mess, I’ll take the plus size clothing, thanks. You wouldn’t know that I suffer from depression if you met me, by the way, even before I was on medication because I’m good at putting on a happy face. And chances are, there is someone at your office, or maybe you, who is also good at getting through life when she feels rotten.

If you’re depressed, you still have to go to work and earn money. It’s how it is. Plus, you need that health insurance more than ever! Some of the best tips I’ve ever read on functioning with depression come from Jennifer P, also known as, Captain Awkward in her 2013 article, “How to Tighten Your Game When You’re Depressed.” I strongly recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some of her ideas:

I don’t know how to tell you how to feel normal again or get back to ‘normal.’ I don’t know what normal is for you. I don’t know what you do next, or what you want to do.

But I do speak “corporate boss” and I can help you (and maybe others who are in your same shoes) keep your job until you decide you don’t want it anymore, and if you can’t keep this one maybe this will help you keep the next one.

A lot of this stuff is literally THE hardest stuff to do when you’re feeling down. Because the principle behind this is antithetical to who we probably are as people, seeking genuine connections and genuine expressions of ourselves. The operating principle is: Appearances count at work. Sometimes more than the actual work does.

Captain Awkward is 100 percent right on all of this. Everything is harder to do when you’re depressed and appearances do count. You know how I talk about how managers should judge you based on achievements rather than butt-in-seat time? They should. But, they don’t. If you’re on time and appear to be working, that may be more helpful to your career than slouching in late and doing a fantastic job. Seriously. Responding to an email with, “I’ll look into that and get back to you,” makes you look better than not responding at all, even though you’ve done the same amount of work both ways.

Jennifer described a situation where she had to fire an employee who suffered from depression. It was horrible for Jennifer and much worse for the employee, but businesses need to function and if you’re not functioning at all, they have to fire you. She tells the experience like this:

The kicker was, *I* had to let her go.

I will never forget it, because when I fired her she got up without a word and turned and walked out of the office, slamming the door behind her.

Unfortunately, outside it had started pouring, and she had left her umbrella in my office, so 5 minutes later, there she was, drenched to the skin, coming back from her umbrella. Which I handed to her, and then she slammed the door again.

The Worst.

I don’t tell you this because I want you to feel bad for me. Things were definitely, obviously, MUCH worse for her that day.

But I can tell you what would have made a difference in keeping her employed that doesn’t have to do with her intelligence or capability or qualifications:

  • Showing up on time every day.
  • Being showered and wearing clean clothes.
  • Being honest and up front if she couldn’t complete things, updating us as to the status of tasks.
  • Leaving her work environment (desk, computer files) in a state where if she couldn’t make it we could easily figure out where she was in a project.
  • Being present and paying attention during conversations.
  • Not bursting into tears every time her work needed critique or adjustment. Hard to control sometimes, I know! But “Can you use consistent naming conventions when you save files to the servers” doesn’t mean “EVERYONE HATES YOU.”

We could have worked up to actual quality work output from there. This would have communicated “I am trying as hard as I can, and things will get better if you hang in with me a little longer.” But without those basic things, the theoretical quality of work didn’t matter – work had stopped.

Jennifer acknowledges, and I agree with her, that these things that would have helped this employee are hard. So very hard. But, if you want to save your job, you have to do these things.

Ask for Help

If the company you work for has 15 or more employees, then you’re covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from day one. (Well, actually, from your interview.) This means that if your depression or other mental illness qualifies as a disability, your company is required to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for you–but only if you ask. (Yes, there have been some court cases where the employee didn’t ask, and the court determined the employer should have known, but be smart and ask.)

The company isn’t required to give you whatever accommodation you ask for, but they are required to engage in an “interactive processes” to determine a reasonable accommodation that will work. So you may say, “I need to work part-time,” and they may say, “that isn’t reasonable. How about you work from home 50 percent instead?” Going back and forth isn’t bad. It’s part of the process.

If you haven’t seen your doctor, go to the doctor. Depression screenings are free under the Affordable Care Act, so get screened. If you don’t have a therapist, call your Employee Assistance Program and ask for a referral or ask your doctor for a referral. Often, the first visit is free under your company’s EAP. If you don’t have time to go to therapy, look into one of the new online therapy services. You can often find a counselor that can meet with you via video or phone conference at a time convenient to you–even if that is 10:00 at night.

Whatever you do, don’t just assume it will get better. And don’t assume you’re a failure. You’re not. Getting help can also be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do, and if you can’t bring yourself to make a doctor’s or therapy appointment, ask a friend or family member to make the call for you. You’re not alone. Ever.

How to Work When You’re Depressed was originally published at Inc.

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5 thoughts on “How to Work When You’re Depressed

  1. Wonderful article. Thanks so much for posting. I have also been on both sides of the desk as the depressed associate and as the boss who had to fire a depressed person. Unfortunately, as an associate, it took me way to long to understand that excuses don’t work when the boss just needs results. Once I started setting my own boundaries and helping my boss deliver results, I had the upper hand for requesting what I needed.

  2. Great article that presents some methods that approach dealing with mental illness and the workplace. One key point emphasized by EvilHRlady was that this is a two-way path in communication between the workplace and the individual employee and to expect that both will have to make compromises to have a satisfactory arrangement for the employment to continue. Just like every other disability accomodations, conditions will not be the “perfect ideal” set as envisioned by the employee, but life isn’t perfect either.

  3. I have depression and have had for years. It’s not something I can control or change. It’s how my body works and I take medication daily to regulate my system. I don’t feel any different than someone who has to take blood pressure medicine or deals with psoriasis.

  4. It’s true that managers will judge you for butt-in-seat stuff rather than actual achievements.back in the day when I had to take substantial leave due to persistent major depression, I was once rated 3 satisfactory in a year where I had excelled enough to receive a substantial financial award directly from the CFO for an initiative that improved operational activity and made savings across the organisation. And when I challenged this, was told it would be unfair to rate me according to what I had achieved in my time at work. I drew my manager’s attention to the fact that HR policy stated the exact opposite and contacted HR. Within a day, my rating was adjusted to 1. So the moral is be prepared to advocate for yourself.

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