What to Know About Depression and Work

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 02, 2023
4 min read

Depression can make it hard to deal with certain aspects of your life. On a global scale, it’s the leading cause of disability. When it comes to depression in the workplace, it’s estimated that at least $44 billion are lost each year in the U.S. due to unproductivity.

At least half of employees with depression aren’t treated. However, with treatment and the proper care, depression can get better and become manageable. Learn more about depression and work and how you can get help.

Depression is a serious mental health issue that affects about 21 million Americans, or 8.4% of the country’s population. This condition can affect anyone, but women tend to be more at risk than men. Signs and symptoms of depression normally appear in your late teens or early twenties. However, it’s important to note that depression can happen at any time in your life.

Diagnoses of depression are on the rise when compared to past generations. Depression isn’t just feeling sad for a few days. Typically, a person shows signs of depression for two weeks or longer, and these signs can vary in severity.

Some signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite, such as weight loss or weight gain
  • Constant feelings of anxiety, sadness, or emptiness
  • Fatigue or low levels of energy
  • Difficulty remembering things, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Loss of interest in activities that you normally enjoy
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Physical symptoms that don’t go away, like headaches, digestive problems, and muscle pain
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Depression affects everyone differently, so you may experience a combination of these symptoms to different degrees.

Without treatment, your depression can affect your work performance. Employees with depression may be present at work but aren't really focused or engaged and may miss several days of work due to symptoms of their workplace depression.

This is tricky because you may need to take some time off if your depression is caused by work. However, studies show that taking off too much time and breaking with structure and routine can worsen your depression. In both cases, the best way to deal with depression while you're at work is to avoid unnecessary stress.

To make working with depression easier, you should consider letting your employer and coworkers know what you are going through. This way, they can offer support and work with you to find the best plan of action.

Flexible schedule. Ask your employer about creating a more flexible schedule. As depression often interferes with sleep, maybe starting a little later might help relieve some of your stress when it comes to working.

Research suggests that flexible schedules increase productivity in the workplace. Ask your employer how you can make a plan that works for both of you so that you can put in your best effort each day.

Break up big tasks. To improve your concentration and focus, break up your tasks into smaller parts. After completing a part of a task, take a five-minute break to refresh and relax before tackling the next item on your list. You’ll also feel more accomplished when completing all of these smaller tasks, giving you more motivation to keep going.

Communicate. Many employees with depression don’t talk about what’s going on with them. However, it could help to explain to your close co-workers and supervisor what you’re going through. Your co-workers can be more understanding and supportive, and your employer can help you find the resources you need to continue working with depression.

Create a comfortable workspace. Personalize your work area in a way that puts you in a good mood. Your mood affects your symptoms of depression, so make your work area a comfortable, calming space. Try putting some photos on your desk, adding a plant or two, or decorate using soothing colors.

Workplace depression is one of the top problems that make employees seek help. However, many employees with depression don’t because they’re afraid of the effect it could have on their job or that their privacy is at risk.

Ask your employer if there are any mental health resources available to you in addition to making the small adjustments already mentioned. Your insurance plan may also cover mental health services, giving you access to help from a medical professional. The earlier you seek out help, the better.

Remember, self-care is always important. Eat a healthy diet with a variety of nutrients. Make time to exercise and be physically active. Studies show that regular exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants when it comes to dealing with symptoms of depression. Avoid alcohol, smoking, and marijuana as these can make your depression worse, and aim to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.