Understanding Work-Induced Depression and What You Can Do

If sadness, anxiety, loss of motivation, difficulty concentrating, unexplained bouts of crying, and boredom are as commonplace in your workday as filling up your coffee mug or sending an email, you may be experiencing depressive symptoms at work.

Depression impacts over 17 million American adults each year, and that number is climbing. According to data from the State of Mental Health in America 2021 survey there was a 62 percent increase in people who took the survey’s depression screen — and of those people, 8 in 10 tested positive for symptoms of moderate to severe depression.

When you factor in that full-time employees spend an average of 8.5 hours per day working on weekdays and 5.5 hours working on weekends and holidays, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it may come as no surprise that many workers experience symptoms of depression while on the job.

Read on to find out why work might be triggering depressive symptoms, how to identify the signs, where to get help, and what you can do to start feeling better.

 

What is Work Depression?

Depression (major depressive disorder) can cause feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease your ability to function at work and home.

Depression interferes with a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time. Additionally, according to Mental Health America, depression ranks among the top three workplace problems reported to employee assistance professionals, following only family crisis and stress.

But discerning whether or not work causes depression in otherwise emotionally healthy people or just exacerbates depression that is already present is not as easy as it may seem.

“Depression is not picky about how it starts or gets worse, so many life factors will affect it, including work,” says Ashley Gilmore, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health clinical services at Texas Health Dallas. “You may already have depression that is exacerbated by your work environment, or your work environment may lend a hand in developing depression. Both cases are a possibility, so it’s not one or the other, but a highly personal experience.”

Some of the risk factors related to environment, management or workload include:

  • dismissive managers
  • effort-reward imbalance
  • workplace politics
  • workplace gossip
  • workplace bullying
  • high job demands
  • low decision latitude
  • limited social support in the workplace
  • unfair expectations
  • excessive workload
  • unclear or mismanaged roles at work

“A negative or toxic work environment will ultimately cause us to become disengaged and drained, even if it is work that we once loved to do,” Gilmore adds. “We may dread going into work, avoid peers or clients, and give up on projects or using high-level skills. Many of us will take that chronic stress home at the end of the day and will feel less engaged with our loved ones because we simply do not have the emotional or physical energy.”

 

What Are the Signs?

The signs of depression at work can look similar to general depressive symptoms and there is some overlap between how you feel at work versus how you feel outside of work. Work depression often affects your level of function both at work and at home.

“It is rare that a person would experience depression only at one location, so it’s more likely that someone dealing with depression will experience the signs and symptoms throughout their week. The symptoms can increase at a location though and become less manageable,” Gilmore says. “If a person feels hopeless, sad, unable to enjoy aspects that were once enjoyable, and/or less interested in the workplace or people, it’s likely that the depression is exacerbated at work.”

Some of the more common signs of work depression include:

  • withdrawal or isolation from other people
  • poor self-hygiene or significant change in appearance
  • late arrival at work, missed meetings, or absent days
  • procrastination, missed deadlines, reduced productivity, subpar performance in tasks, increased errors, or difficulty making decisions
  • seeming indifference, forgetfulness, detachment, and disinterest in things
  • an appearance of tiredness for most or part of the day (may be taking afternoon naps at work or during working hours)
  • irritability, anger, feeling overwhelmed, or getting very emotional during conversations
  • lack confidence while attempting tasks

“Often with peers we work closely with, we can see when they become disengaged,” Gilmore adds, if you’re concerned about someone you work with. “If it looks like your coworker is less energetic, more resistant to changes in workflow, more irritable with clients and peers, and spends more time isolated, these behaviors are tell-tale signs of struggle.”

 

Why You May Be Depressed at Work

If you feel like you might have work depression, you may be asking yourself how you got here, especially if you used to love your job, coworkers and environment. There are various reasons why you may be dealing with an increase in depressive symptoms at work.

“Let me reiterate — depression isn’t picky,” Gilmore says. “Having peer or manager conflicts that appear unresolvable, too much screen and desk time, too little peer interaction, not being able to take breaks or time off, and abrupt or unanticipated changes can increase depressed feelings.”

In addition to the list above, the following situations may also contribute to work depression:

  • feeling like you have no control over work issues
  • feeling like your job is in jeopardy
  • working in a toxic work environment
  • being overworked or underpaid
  • experiencing workplace harassment or discrimination
  • working irregular hours
  • lacking balance between work and home
  • working in a setting that doesn’t match your personal values
  • doing work that doesn’t further your career goals
  • experiencing poor or unsafe working conditions

You may remember early in 2021 that many Americans reported increased loneliness and stress while working from home. While remote work comes with many perks, an unfortunate pitfall with working remotely can be the disappearance between personal and professional life. When you have to physically be somewhere from one time to another, it creates routine and a clear separation between work and home. Even if you’re more on the introverted side, working onsite with your coworkers does open up more opportunities for interaction, even if you’re just a silent observer.

“If you are struggling with increased depression while working from home, contact your doctor because this is a medical issue that is likely to increase and become harder to manage,” Gilmore cautions. “You can also help combat depression by creating routine in your day. Get fully dressed, take breaks, have virtual lunch with a peer or friend, get up from your workspace and move around. Incorporate anything into your day that will make your world feel more open, connected, and suited to your needs.”

 

Stress vs. Burnout vs. Depression

While it’s not uncommon to experience stress at work, you shouldn’t ignore feelings of burnout or depression. It’s also important to know the difference so you can intervene and get the help you need.

Work-related stress decreases in intensity once the stressor passes, such as a big project or presentation, or a conflict with a peer. You may feel occasional bouts of anxiety or irritability, as well as muscle tension or headaches that resolve once the stressor resolves.

Burnout is long-term stress. It’s the kind of stress that doesn’t go away even when a problem resolves, a big project is complete, that tight deadline passes or that daunting presentation is over. Because burnout accumulates, each stressor builds on the other. This type of long-term stress takes its toll on the body and mind.

There is considerable overlap between burnout and depression. Unresolved burnout can lead to depression. In fact, a symptom of burnout is depression. However, Gilmore explains that while burnout can often be treated with positive changes in the workplace, depression causes enough disruptions in the mind and body that a doctor, therapist, or other supportive professional may need to become involved to recover.

“Depression continues even when the stressful event is over,” Gilmore explains. “When we are depressed or burned out, we approach stress events as cumulative, and it feeds our overall assessment of the workplace. We view it more as a stressful, toxic environment, rather than a manageable series of stressful events that can be overcome.”

 

How is Work Depression Treated

If you’re noticing a link between depressive symptoms and your workplace, Gilmore cautions not to wait to seek help. If you’re concerned it may be related to burnout, talking with a supportive immediate supervisor or boss is a good first step. They can work with you to help identify some changes that can be made to reduce your symptoms. If those changes don’t seem to help with symptoms, it may be time to speak with your doctor or a therapist.

As for managing symptoms, Gilmore says you have many options at your disposal.

“Take those breaks. Stop working through lunch and break times, even if you have to start small with taking your lunch break once a week. If you feel like skipping these are the only way to get your work done, talk to your manager or HR if needed,” she says. “Working through lunch every now and then is normal, but making this a routine is damaging. Not leaving your workspace for the entire day as a routine is damaging. In the long term it does not benefit you or your employer.”

Some additional things you can do when you’re feeling depressed include:

  • Go for a quick walk, even if it’s just indoors.
  • Take a mental health day.
  • Practice a few minutes of mindfulness meditation.
  • Incorporate deep breathing exercises into your day.
  • Say no to one small thing that allows you to experience less stress during the day.
  • Watch a funny video.

 

The Takeaway

Remember, you’re not alone. Even if it seems like your coworkers are handling things just fine, that does not invalidate what you’re feeling. Chances are, they may also feel the same way you’re feeling and are too afraid to speak up.

Experiencing bouts of stress at work is normal and to be expected but dealing with prolonged stress that never seems to go away or feelings of depression is not normal. Identifying the signs and symptoms of burnout and depression is the first step to getting help.

“Depression is a medical issue and often needs the help of a doctor or other supportive clinician. It may take a combination of treatments to get relief and improvement, but it’s worth it in the way that treatment for any other medical issue is worth it,” says Gilmore.

If you are starting to feel burnout, high levels of stress or see dysfunction in your day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.

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