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Depression and Work: 7 Ways To Manage Both

Medically reviewed by Paul Ballas, D.O.
Posted on March 31, 2023

Depression is a leading cause of disability, absenteeism (being regularly absent from work or school), and productivity losses, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) — yet many people living with the condition want or need to work.

Unfortunately, employers aren’t always compassionate about mental health struggles. One member of MyDepressionTeam expressed their frustration: “I wish my employer was more understanding about my lack of sleep, fatigue, and depression as they like to portray. The stigma is still out there, despite many employers paying lip service to their understanding. I’d like them to try going for three years without a full night’s sleep and see how they feel.”

Although you can’t necessarily change your employer’s attitude, you can take steps to set yourself up for success when working with depression. Researchers have found that, under the right circumstances, working can help relieve depression symptoms in many ways, including promoting independence, strengthening a person’s identity, and adding purpose to a person’s life.

Here are some key points to consider as you balance work with staying healthy.

1. Avoid Shift Work

People work the night shift for various reasons. Perhaps you’ve always been a night owl, or you need the higher pay that comes with shift work to cover your bills. In some jobs, like nursing, rotating shifts are the norm. However, working overnight or rotating shifts impacts your body’s circadian rhythm, the normal physical, mental, and behavioral changes your body goes through in a 24-hour period. This can be particularly damaging for those with depression.

Some studies show that depression is twice as common in shift workers than those who work a standard daytime shift. Other research shows that working a rotating shift increases a person’s risk of depression by one-third. The impact is particularly significant for people with demanding jobs and a lot of work stress.

It can be harder to develop normal sleep patterns when you’re required to work at night or your schedule is always changing. You may get less exposure to sunshine and vitamin D or have trouble maintaining social relationships because of your schedule. If you feel like you don’t have another option, it’s important to understand the potential toll of shift work so you can compensate with other healthy habits and get support.

2. Don’t Feel the Need To Share

Many feel obligated to tell their boss or coworkers about their mental health struggles after taking time off for depression. But it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t feel pressured to disclose personal details. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), you’re never required to disclose a disability to an employer, either before, during, or after the hiring process.

One member of MyDepressionTeam discussed their circumstances, “I’m back at work tonight after two weeks of leave with mental health problems. I will have to explain my stress and depression. It will be a long day. I’m not looking forward to work.”

Another member explained, “You don't have to tell them anything. Just share that you were in the hospital. Tell them you’re OK, and you want to start work.”

If you feel comfortable talking about depression with people at work, the choice is yours to make. You may find that sharing your experience helps build greater understanding and acceptance. Or you might worry that others will assess your work performance differently based on stigmas surrounding mental illness. If you’re concerned about feeling judged or prefer privacy, that’s completely within your rights. You don’t need to apologize or feel guilty about keeping your medical information to yourself.

Notably, you may also choose to disclose your condition to your manager to receive workplace accommodations. Under the ADA, an employer is required to provide an employee with a disability — including depression — with reasonable accommodations to perform your essential job duties. This may include adjusting your work schedule so you can go to therapy appointments. Whomever you disclose your condition to at work must keep it confidential.

3. Develop Consistent Routines

The symptoms of depression can fluctuate, causing unexpected disruptions to your daily life. Having a job with a set schedule can bring beneficial structure to your day, especially if you’re feeling apathetic or distracted. Additionally, other routines, like going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, taking your depression medication, engaging in regular physical activity, and eating regular meals are fundamental aspects of self-care.

If you have trouble staying on track, set reminders on your phone for accountability and set aside specific times for certain tasks.

4. Get Help at Home

Showing up to work every day can take a lot out of you, especially if depression affects your energy levels. During demanding times at work, it’s OK to lighten your load at home. Simple things like ordering your groceries to be delivered, asking a family member to help with home repairs, or hiring a responsible high school student to help your younger kids with their homework can give you a much-needed break. When energy feels like a limited resource, don’t overdo it. Reach out and find opportunities to make your life easier.

5. Make Your Breaks Non-Negotiable

A member of MyDepressionTeam shared, “The importance of setting boundaries and sticking to them is an ongoing challenge, but it does get better as time progresses. I’m learning to ‘soften’ my tone AND be firm at the same time. I’m also learning that as people respect my boundaries, and I grow more confident in asserting them, I'm more willing to be less rigid and respect others’ boundaries.”

Successfully avoiding burnout when you have depression requires taking time off seriously. If you’re entitled to a scheduled lunch break or other breaks throughout the day, don’t skip them. Use this time to recharge for the rest of the day by getting outside for a walk, practicing deep breathing exercises, listening to music, or meeting a friend for lunch. Try blocking your calendar, putting up a sign, or wearing headphones during this time to indicate that you’re not available at your workspace.

The same goes true for holidays, vacations, and sick time. On the days you aren’t scheduled to work, don’t. Put up an away message and prepare beforehand so you can fully unplug during your off-hours.

6. Find Purpose in Your Work

Sometimes a job is just a job. It’s a commitment you make to help cover your costs. However, finding work that gives you a sense of purpose can help you cope with depression and find a deeper sense of motivation and fulfillment.

Some research shows that people with depression may be more prone to cognitive problems (like poor memory) as they age. However, those who feel they have a higher purpose appear to be more protected against depression-related mental declines. Purpose, described as having goals and perceived value in your work and family life, helps promote well-being in adults. It can also help ward off a loss of interest in your work, which may be more likely when you’re feeling depressed.

If the nature of your job doesn’t feel meaningful to you, it’s important to seek a sense of purpose in other ways. For example, maybe you can mentor a new employee to help them succeed or take the lead on a fundraising event to make money for a cause that’s important to you.

7. Review Your Treatment Options

As you navigate working with depression, ask your human resources department about mental health services for employees. Many companies offer employee assistance programs (EAPs) to connect employees with mental health providers and additional resources, like stress management programs and social support groups.

If you’re not noticing results from your current antidepressant, ask your mental health professional about trying another type. There are several medications for depression that work in different ways. Not everyone has the same experience with antidepressants, so it can take a few tries to find the best type for you.

Additionally, if unwanted side effects, like drowsiness, impact your ability to work, it’s time to explore your options. That may include trying a different medication or changing the dosage. You may also consider psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy), which can be a valuable complement to taking antidepressant medication.

Optimizing your depression treatment plan by communicating with your health care providers can help you live your best life, inside and outside of work.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyDepressionTeam is the social network for people with depression and their loved ones. On MyDepressionTeam, more than 143,000 members come together to discuss life with depression and share their experiences.

How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance with depression? Do you feel your work environment or human resources department are supportive for people with mental health conditions? Post your story in the comments section, or discuss this topic on your Activities page.

    Posted on March 31, 2023
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    Paul Ballas, D.O. is an attending psychiatrist at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
    Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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