Depression and work: Symptoms to watch for & how to manage your career despite heartbreak or anxiety

Depression and work: Symptoms to watch for & how to manage your career despite heartbreak or anxiety
Trying to remain focused at work when dealing with an outside trauma can be challenging. g-stockstudio/Shutterstock
Trying to remain focused at work when dealing with an outside trauma can be challenging. g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

Forget about being a workplace warrior. Just trying to make it through your day after a shocking breakup or devastating loss of a loved one can take Herculean efforts by even the most upbeat, productive worker. The decision to head into the office every day can feel impossible when all you want to do is crawl into bed and stay there for a few months.

It may help to know you really are not on your own: When surveyed in 2015, approximately 16.1 million adults said they had experienced a major depressive episode in the past year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression — defined as feelings of sadness that might be paired with a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy — may range from mild to severe and could affect your sleep, appetite, energy levels and more, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

No matter the cause, these symptoms can affect you at work. “Transition, grief and relational conflict are common sources of compromised work functioning,” said psychotherapist Megan Bruneau in an email. “As for relational conflict, our bodies are programmed to go into a fight-or-flight state when an attachment is threatened, which is why it’s so hard to concentrate when someone we love is pissed at us or we’re dealing with family conflict.”  

Trying put on a happy face at work — while wrapping your head around a divorce, death, or depression without obvious cause — can be one of the hardest things to accomplish in your life, let alone career. While it’s unrealistic to expect to stay at the top of your game at work during a tough time, there are ways you can weather a personal storm and offset the emotional weight so that work stress doesn’t add to your woes. Here are five strategies to consider.

Taking a break at work while feeling depressed can help you gather your thoughts and continue your day.
Taking a break at work while feeling depressed can help you gather your thoughts and continue your day. pathdoc/Shutterstock

1. If possible, let work serve as therapy

In some cases, work can be a relief: After finally leaving an abusive marriage, medical assistant Brianna* said that although she was relieved to walk away from the pain of her relationship, she still had to face the personal fallout, which was a challenge. She found work to be a welcome distraction. “Because of the nature of my job I had to hyperfocus on work and would instead give myself a little pep talk during my morning drive,” she said in a phone interview. “So once I arrived at the office I could give patients my complete attention and leave my personal life outside of work.” She added that having a few extra days off during the week helped her manage the emotional toll, but also gave her more time to deal with the endless attorney meetings.

In some cases, such as Brianna’s, your job can provide a respite from personal issues. “Sometimes the best thing you can do is focus on work to take attention off of difficulties,” Wendy Paris, author of the divorce advice book Splitopia, said in a phone interview. “Following my divorce, my ex started an internet company and I wrote a book, which really helped me process what I was going through.”

In fact, a time of renaissance and positive transition can follow a traumatic or difficult period. “When you are depressed or going through a hard time, you tend to reevaluate and examine your life and may find that the work you do isn’t as important to you anymore,” Paris said. “This could lead you to doing something more meaningful. Organizations like Amber Alert and Susan G. Komen were started from adversity, for example.”

One caveat: Making a big change to your career or lifestyle may help in some instances, but hurt in others. “Both good and bad ‘big decisions’ are stressful,” Susan L. Marusak, research physician and clinical faculty at the Mood Disorder Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center said to CBS News. “I often advise patients to wait, if they can, until they are feeling stable and ‘euthymic’ before making a major life-changing decision.”

2. Do what you can to make life easier

If times are tough, you don’t need to make everything more complicated by insisting on trying to “mix it up” to appear perfect. No one cares that you wore the same pair of pants to work last week, so why complicate your life trying to pull together a new outfit every day? Ditto other such challenges: You may want to reduce the number of choices and decisions in your day, because they can suck the life out of you and make your sadness or angst even worse, as Rosie Leizrowice wrote in Medium.

That means putting responsibilities you can on autopilot, delegating, sticking to usual routines and rituals — and staying true to a nutritious-but-relaxed diet. While eating healthier can help you feel better when you are down, now is probably not the time to start a rigid new meal plan. In general, it can help to be more forgiving of your less important foibles: including that messy desk.

3. Be realistic — and lean out if you need

In some cases, such as a breakup with your significant other, you can find ways to channel your sadness by starting a new exercise class, spending more time on a hobby or taking a few personal days to help you cope. However, if you feel too distracted to work due to a death or serious illness, and an extra yoga class isn’t helping, you may need to consider stepping back for a while. While some professions may be structured so you can dial it back to work at 30% for a few days, others require 100% focus and effort.

“Although hyperfocused work can be an effective distraction for some, depending on the severity of your adversity, this is a time to be really honest with yourself about your capacity and call in sick,” Bruneau said.

“Grief, heartbreak and trauma affect cognitive functioning significantly, and it may actually be unethical or dangerous for you to go into work.” And if you are dealing with something very serious and taking vacation time and perhaps some personal days aren’t helping, you may want to see if you can get your hours scaled back or take a personal leave of absence.

The Family Medical Leave Act protects certain (but not all) workers by guaranteeing up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave per year, plus continued health coverage, in the case of a seriously ill immediate family member or your own health problem, among other issues.

4. Communicate with your boss and colleagues

Talking about mental health in the workplace has become less taboo, as transparency is increasingly valued. It might be in your best interest to give your boss or coworkers a heads up that you are facing some tough times.

“Ultimately, use your discretion, but I do recommend clients give their coworkers or boss some context, especially if their performance or attendance is affected,” Bruneau said. That’s particularly true if you are dealing with a major illness or death in the family.

Now, not everyone agrees with this approach. “You should try to keep your personal crisis out of the workplace as much as possible because it can become a burden and unnecessary distraction for others... [though] when you’re dealing with a longer-term crisis, you will likely need to rearrange your workload and/or schedule,” Marjie Terry of Great on the Job said to Forbes.

So if your boss isn’t the understanding type, and you think you can maintain the same performance level, you may want to keep your personal life personal. In any case, if you do decide to talk to your boss, don’t use the conversation as a platform to vent. Instead, approach the conversation as more of a reassurance that your job is a priority and that you are doing your very best, despite the challenges you are facing, Bruneau advised.

Having a heart-to-heart with your boss can help you during a tough time.
Having a heart-to-heart with your boss can help you during a tough time. GaudiLab/Shutterstock

“This will not only explain your shift in performance, it will decrease your anxiety and shame around being ‘a mess’ at work — additional suffering you don’t need right now. In theory, your manager has a heart and responds supportively,” Bruneau said.

5. Get help

Heather MacKenzie, a college mentor in Denver, said via Facebook Messenger that hearing the sexual harassment allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein brought back memories of her own experience as a single mother raising six children dealing with sexual harassment from a powerful man at work, previously reported by Westword in July. MacKenzie said she was able to begin healing after reaching a separation agreement with her company and securing other employment to support her family; she said she also found solace in getting physically healthy — as well as in therapy.

If you feel as though you aren’t feeling better after a few weeks, it may be time to seek professional assistance to help you get through a challenging time. Still, that doesn’t always mean you have to go to therapy. You might seek help through sites like BiteBack for teens and MyCompass for adult anxiety, as the New York Times suggests. Plus online grief support groups and associations can provide help and free resources.

That said, having a non-judgmental sounding board like a therapist can help you get through the darkness, Health Central notes. Especially if your job is suffering or you are caring for others, getting help for yourself is vital to finding your way out of the woods.

If you are concerned about paying for services, ask your human resources professional about mental health insurance coverage. Even if coverage is minimal, most psychologists and psychiatrists offer payments on a sliding scale, which means your provider may adjust fees based on your income level. Oftentimes, having a conversation with an impartial party can help you work through problems and hopefully arrive at solutions.

“One of the best things I did was continue with counseling because it really helped me to improve my self-esteem after the divorce,” Brianna said. “Friends are great and they have your back, but they just get angry along with you whereas when you are talking to an objective party you can be brought back down to reality.”

*Name has been changed to allow sources to speak freely on private matters.

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