How to deal with depression at work


Kristen Ryan graduated a year ago and accepted a position in public relations. After two months on the job, she started having anxiety attacks, and after six months on the job, anxiety attacks were almost daily. Ryan says the anxiety was from the “pressures of life changes: Moving away from family, staring new job, transitioning to a completely different life from school to work. And,” she says, “I broke up with my long-time boyfriend.”

The most common age to experience depression for the first time is in one's twenties. Typical triggers are those Ryan cited, resulting from the stress of entering the workforce. Recently, these triggers have been exacerbated, as the new generation of workers takes for granted that challenging and rewarding work will come their way. This is a generation whose parents oversaw each moment of their schedule to ensure proper mentoring and enrichment. So a job standing at the office copier is a big comedown that many new workers are not prepared to accept. For those who have no choice, the result can be depression.

Depression is serious: Fifteen percent of clinically depressed people die by suicide. The illness is more common in women than men, and according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five working women has suffered from depression or anxiety.

The good news is that depression is very treatable, so getting help is important. Dr. Stuart Koman, president of the mental health clinic Walden Behavioral Care, says there is a preponderance of scientific evidence to show that a combination of medicine and talk therapy can solve most cases of depression.

Ryan found that sessions with a social worker helped her to get back on track. But not everyone recovers so quickly. Like Ryan, Rachael Chaump joined a public relations firm last year, and after a few months, she realized that she had a severe problem. She says, “I was crying at my desk every day for no reason. And finally I called my dad and told him I hate my life and I can't go on like this.” Chaump ended up on temporary disability in a treatment program that included drug therapy to treat what was a chemical imbalance.

Both women had to move carefully in order to keep the jobs they had. Ryan took meditation classes and then, when she had an anxiety attack she “went to a secluded place at work to meditate.” She also took long walks outside in the middle of the workday. Chaump was not able to hide her depression as well, but she says that even with all her crying, “People just got used to it. As long as I kept answering the phone no one said anything to me.”

If you think you're depressed, you need to do two things: Figure out how to keep your job, and figure out how to get help. According to Jonathan Alpert, associate director of the Depression Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital, “One of the most difficult calls is to recognize depression in oneself. This is true even for people in mental health fields. Often the first step is getting feedback from someone else.”

Enter the employee assistance program — EAP — that helps workers confidentially identify mental illness in themselves. Denise Curran is a therapist at ComPsych, an employee assistance program serving six thousand organizations. She describes her role as sort of a referral service. Curran, like most EAP therapists, can give you advice over the phone or online as to whether you seem depressed, and who you can go to, locally, to get help.

The EAP process is completely confidential, but crying at your desk is another story. Chaump's company, FCF Schmidt Public Relations, was incredibly supportive and gave her paid leave even though that is not the company policy, per se. Other companies are not likely to be so gracious, so be careful. A good resource is the book Working in the Dark: Keeping your job while dealing with depression. Author Beth Gulas, a specialist in corporate critical intervention, says the book can help you determine if it's a safe environment to tell your boss about your depression. The book also gives advice on how to keep working through depression if you have to (example: set fifteen-minute goals for yourself.)

Before you curse the fact that you have to show up for work every day, consider that work might be a godsend for someone who is depressed. According to Gulas, “One of the typical symptoms of depression is choosing to be alone. But it is likely that depression will be exacerbated if you stay at home.”

21 replies
  1. anona
    anona says:

    thank you penelope for discussing this difficult but important issue. mental illness is costing american companies substantial lost dollars every year, and no one wants to talk about it.

    it hits home for me – i did a lot of damange to my career trying to hide my depression instead of getting help. but my erractic behavior, job hopping, and avoidance when i thought that people had “found me out”(or when the prospect of getting out of bed just seemed to horrible to bear) wasn’t fooling anyone.

    to anyone who thinks they might be clinically depressed, please seek help. it will only get worse if you don’t, but it can get a whole lot better if you do.

  2. Amy
    Amy says:

    “Rachael Chaump joined a public relations firm last year, and after a few months, she realized that she had a severe problem. She says, "I was crying at my desk every day for no reason. And finally I called my dad and told him I hate my life and I can't go on like this." Chaump ended up on temporary disability in a treatment program that included drug therapy to treat what was a chemical imbalance.”

    I’m also on med leave too to get treatment thru an intensive program which involves daily therapy sessions and with almost immediate psychiatric care to quickly adjust my meds. Also I have the option to have weekly individual sessions. This intensive program aims to get you immediately emotionally, mentally healthy and to helps to pratice healthy thinking and behavior everyday. The one phrase I found helpful is the following: “Progression not PErfection”.

    • DStrider
      DStrider says:

      Pardon my being a touch acidic, but the condition also has a not inconsiderable effect upon the sufferer; perhaps they should be the focus of their own efforts at recovery, not other people?

  3. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    My 27 yr old daughter has me concerned that she would hurt herself and I took her to a hospital today. She missed more more that she should, and cries at work etc. The hospital is keeping her inpatient until I hear otherwise and I know I need to call her office and let them know she will be absent. I am concerned as to what I should and shouldn’t say. If my daughter was thinking clearly I would let her decided. She said I should just tell them the truth but I am not sure if that is in her best interest. Can you help me until my daugther can think this through and know that maybe this may be too much information?????????????

    • Kathy
      Kathy says:

      Don’t tell them the truth. Just say she had a medical emergency and you (or your daughter) will let them know when she is coming back to work.

      I went through the same thing last summer but I had a wonderful manager who understood that I needed to take extended medical leave. You might have to check state or federal law but I think employers don’t have to know the nature of an employee’s illness. A doctor’s note should just suffice.

  4. Ronald Reyes
    Ronald Reyes says:

    I know it will come as a surprise but I am a male, and I am going through the same thing as everyone else here. I start crying at my desk and at home I have a look of a liveless creature and please noone ask me whats wrong? because it is as if a dam opened up. Tears pour out and sadness overtakes my every thought. It is torture to wake up in the morning and every afternoon to think am i going to break down today or tomorrow? and this saddens you and makes me anxious. I feel very lonely and there are no problems except for the new job.

    Has anyone gone through this that could contact me to tell me what I can do. It is specially tough for me because my wife works and is very tough. I should be the pillar and the strength of the family, and at this point I feel I dissapoint my wife.

    please contact me if you think you can help me or if you have a

  5. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    This is not an uncommon occurrence honestly. Part of the frustration in dealing with anxiety is the feeling of being in a vacuum, in the sense that you think you’re the only one in the world who has to deal with this problem. In reality you can take solace in the fact that there are millions of others who suffer the same problems.

    I always recommend starting with a physician to rule out any physical problems, and they can get you started. Often they can help you without needing to see a specialist, but they can refer your if you feel you need to talk to someone about your problems.

    Prevent Panic Attacks

  6. Me
    Me says:

    most of these stories are for people with money, good jobs and good health insurance. in the world where most depressive people (such as myself) live are not nearly as fortunate. The truth of the matter is that America doesn’t really start to take notice of this societal illness until it happens to someone who has all the resources necessary to actually change things. Abraham Lincoln is a perfect example in many ways. History teaches but Americans are in general (in denial) about our state of the nation.

  7. Ivory Justice
    Ivory Justice says:

    I’m glad I found this web site, I couldn’t find any knowledge on this matter prior to.Also operate a site and if you are ever interested in doing some visitor writing for me if possible feel free to let me know, im always look for people to check out my web site.

  8. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I am having trouble with accuracy in the work place. I feel like I need talk therapy but my insurance doesn’t cover it and my phycolgist doesn’t see anyone with out insurnace. So I am left anxious and depressed and worring about getting fired from my job for making so many mistakes. My brain just seems smpty all the time except for worring. Any suggestions?

    • Martine
      Martine says:

      Dear Cindy,

      I feel for your plight. If you cannot afford counselling and your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) does not provide counselling for you, try to call a toll-free distress or crisis line. It is free, and the counsellors can refer you to cost-effective resources in your community. One to try is 1-800-273-TALK – the National Suicide Prevention Line. You can also try searching for a number of toll-free prayer lines, many of which operate 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

      Hope this helps you and others.

  9. answerto
    answerto says:

    One of the best things you can do for yourself was mentioned in the examples of the article. Meditation- especially Mindfulness meditation, if practiced daily, can help immensely with depression. As well as regular exercise, get out right after you wake up and walk around or jog, come home, shower, meditate for as long as you can, but effectiveness increases with time spent.

  10. Ines
    Ines says:

    Thanks a lot for this posting, i wish I had found it about 6 years ago when I was suffering a deep depression and couldn´t make myself get some help. I ask anyone who is suffering that illness to PLEASE look for help. You could be saving years of unhealthy life, believe me.

  11. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    Wow. This is great to see a post on this subject.

    I actually left work in November on disability for stress, depression and anxiety. I saw a therapist once a week and took an anti-depressant ever since, but I just stopped last week (which is good because you don’t want to get caught up in the whole “I have SO many problems” scenario which is easy when talking to a therapist about yourself.

    I am LUCKY and PRIVILEGED to have a job that supports such a long disability leave and I get paid 85% of my normal paycheck for being gone as well.

    However I just wanted to say to all the people in unfortunate situations where they are “sick” but have no outlet.. “it gets better.” I have been dealing with this for 6 years and finally I have a job that supports me and it has really changed my outlook for the best.

    Good times will come and PS don’t tell anyone at work!

  12. Travis
    Travis says:

    I don’t mean any disrespect; I look up to people who take control of their lives such as yourself. If you can make money through things you enjoy be it writing, athletics, business, etc. that is truly admirable. However, these stores of people needing medication and therapy in order to keep their jobs reminds me of the movie Office Space. In the movie, Peter hated his job, it constantly made him depressed and placed an immense strain on his life. In the end (after a funny but fictional story) he ends up as a construction worker and I paraphrase, “This ain’t so bad, exercise, fresh air, good people.” My point is, instead of trying to wreak havoc upon your body and mind in order to fulfill a career you think you should have, people need to look within and ask themselves if their career choice suits them or are they trying to suit the career. Maybe if these depressed office workers became truthful with themselves, they would realize a cubical life will always depress them without medication and therapy.

  13. martha veenendaal
    martha veenendaal says:

    Hi there,

    I am sitting here at my desk on my break knowing that I am starting to relapse with Atypical Depression and also knowing that my employer will not give a care if I am sick or not. So I have to hide this illness for fear that I will be disciplined if I have to take time off to get better. How can I fend off this feeling that I slowly slipping back into active depression?

  14. Richard
    Richard says:

    Travis, easy said than done. If it was only that simple, “be truthful with themselves”…somehow that’s supposed to make all the problems all go away. The reality is far from this. There are those that have responsibilities and commitments, family members that rely on them to bring home the bacon. I myself have contemplated on many sleepless nights about how I can do the things I love or find the job that suits me so that I’m happy, but can still somehow support my family. I’m sure I’m not the only one who ponders this very question, but the cold fact is that life is just not that accommodating….

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