Depression at Work
I was 25 years old when I first met my depression, and it was a complete shock to my system. Mean, taunting, and as subtle as a cinder block, my depression kept me up nights crying and shaking. I couldn’t eat. I stopped answering the phone. Laughing was a distant memory. In a perfect world, I would have redirected all my time and energy into tackling my depression head-on. But the world isn’t perfect, and I’d just started my dream job. So after each agonizing night, I’d paint on a happy face and head into the office, convinced that the storm inside me would never affect my job.
But self-deception can only take you so far. The dark thoughts followed me to my desk. My work phone became as intimidating as my home phone. I missed deadlines. I ended up taking three consecutive sick days where I locked myself in my apartment and told myself I wasn’t good enough to do anything at all. I almost lost my job.
Depression is hard enough to talk about with friends and family, let alone with an employer you’re intent on impressing. Shame, guilt, humiliation, disapproval: There are many reasons, real and perceived, for keeping depression under wraps. But whether you say it out loud or keep your lips sealed, you’ve got to face your depression head-on or risk it ruining every aspect of your life, career included. Here are a few tips to keep in mind during this difficult time:
Confide in your boss. If your work has suffered but you’ve begun treatment, you might want to bring your boss up to speed and let her know that you’re on the road to recovery—especially if you have a good relationship with her. Don’t be surprised if your boss reveals her own struggles with depression; you could end up on the receiving end of some priceless advice from someone who’s been right where you are. That’s exactly where I found myself when I finally clued my boss in to my private pain.
Keep your co-workers out of it. The office cooler is not the shrink’s couch. Though giving voice to feelings of loneliness and despair deserves mega-applause, sharing your deepest feelings at every opportunity isn’t going to inspire any confidence in your employer or co-workers. Workplaces are human-driven organisms, and humans can be coldly calculating. In the wrong hands, your personal information could be used to discredit you (“You don’t want someone that weak or unstable to handle the new client, do you?”). Don’t allow your depression to define who you are in the workplace. If you’re aching to share your struggle with a co-worker who also happens to be a good friend, do it outside of the office.
Treat yourself with care. Everyone’s depression is different. Mine ebbs and flows in waves, sometimes lapping at my toes, sometimes crashing over my head. Deep breathing and meditation during my afternoon coffee break keep the waves in check. On other days, a brisk walk in the sun or a lunch-hour chat with my sister does the trick. Indulge in little treats for yourself within the framework of your own workday routine that soothe your depression without putting your job at risk.
Know your limits. These days, I work hard at keeping my depression in check. I recognize (and try like hell to avoid) all the triggers (too much caffeine and sugar, too few vitamins), and even when I’m sucked into the doom, I know what help I need to get better and I force myself to ask for it. Today I’m the boss of my depression, and I walk into work knowing what to do to get the job done.