If you feel depressed when working, you’re not alone. Sadness, anxiety, loss of motivation, difficulty concentrating, unexplained bouts of crying, and boredom are just a small sampling of the things you may be feeling if you’re experiencing depressive symptoms at work.
Depression impacts over 17 million American adults each year.
And data from the State of Mental Health in America 2021 survey shows that the number of people seeking help for depression increased significantly from 2019 to 2020.
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 consider 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 comes as no surprise that many of them will 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.
While a job may not cause depression, the environment may worsen symptoms for people who already live with depression.
“Any workplace or job can be a potential cause or a contributing factor for depression depending on the level of stress and available support at the workplace,” said Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry.
According to the
- mental and physical health concerns
- lost productivity
- increased substance use
Mental Health America reports that depression ranks among the top three problems in the workplace for employee assistance professionals.
As with any other health condition, Parmar says, awareness and early detection are key.
“Depression is a complex condition with a varied manifestation of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that can affect anyone and everyone, and a variety of work and non-work-related factors might be at play when we consider someone struggling with workplace depression,” she explained.
The signs of depression at work are similar to general depressive symptoms. That said, some may look more specific to a workplace setting.
This depression will affect your level of functioning in your job as well as at home, Parmar said.
Some of the more common signs of work depression include:
- increased anxiety levels, especially when managing stressful situations or thinking about work when you’re away from your job
- overall feelings of boredom and complacency about your job
- low energy and lack of motivation to do things, which can sometimes manifest as boredom in tasks
- persistent or prolonged feelings of sadness or low mood.
- loss of interest in tasks at work, especially duties that you previously found interesting and fulfilling
- feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, or overwhelming guilt
- inability to concentrate or pay attention to work tasks and trouble retaining or remembering things, especially new information
- making excessive errors in daily work tasks
- an increase or decrease in weight or appetite
- physical complaints like headaches, fatigue, and upset stomach
- increased absences or coming late and leaving early
- impaired decision-making capacity
- irritability, increased anger, and poor frustration tolerance
- crying spells or tearfulness at work, with or without any apparent triggers
- trouble sleeping or sleeping too much (like taking naps during regular work hours)
- self-medication with alcohol or substances
If you’re good at masking or internalizing them, these signs of work depression might not be visible to your co-workers. But there are some symptoms they may be more likely to notice.
According to Parmar, here are some common signs of work depression to be aware of:
- 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)
- irritability, anger, feeling overwhelmed, or getting very emotional during conversations (may start crying suddenly or become tearful over trivial things)
- lack confidence while attempting tasks
There are various reasons why you may be dealing with an increase in depressive symptoms at work. And while no two people — or experiences — are the same, some common themes seem to emerge when pinpointing the causes or triggers of signs of depression at work.
While not an exhaustive list, the following situations may 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
Leela R. Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry, said she works with many clients who are adversely affected by engaging in work they aren’t passionate about.
“Individuals can mindlessly complete tasks throughout the day and begin to feel disconnected and demoralized, which can exacerbate anxiety and depressive symptoms,” she explained.
Others may have little time to consume meals or hydrate throughout the day, which Magavi suggested could worsen fatigue and inattentiveness.
Working remotely, while convenient, comes with its pitfalls. According to Parmar, the boundary between personal and professional life can easily disappear, causing major upheavals in your daily routine.
And creating and sticking to a structured routine at home is easier said than done.
“Without a routine, boredom can slowly creep in, giving way to depressive feelings and thoughts,” she said.
Without the social environment at work, Parmar said many people working from home experience feelings of loneliness and isolation.
“We’re forced to rely on chats or messages, phone calls, and video calls to connect with our friends and colleagues, which adds to our already increased screen time,” she said.
Adding to this, Parmar said many people might be working more hours than usual, since it can be hard to keep track of time while at home.
“It is very natural to get overwhelmed from all these factors and feel depressed or anxious,” she explained.
Magavi suggested prolonged remote work could create many emotional, physical, and financial hurdles for individuals.
“Low-income families are significantly disadvantaged due to limited resources or access to stable Wi-Fi, while other families, regardless of income, may be increasingly exposed to domestic violence due to displaced anger caused by the pandemic and associated stressors,” she said.
“Individuals may feel like there is nothing to look forward to, or they may struggle, as they no longer have an outlet to normalize their feelings of burnout with fellow employees,” she added.
No matter where you work, managing symptoms at work can be challenging. The good news is there are things you can do when you’re feeling depressed:
- Take a 10-minute break away from your desk or office.
- Take a lunch break and get outdoors.
- Go for a quick walk during a break — even if it’s indoors, exercise does wonders for mental health.
- 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.
Some of the risk factors for depression at work, according to Magavi, include:
- dismissive managers
- effort-reward imbalance
- workplace politics
- workplace gossip
- workplace bullying
- high job demands
- low decision latitude
- limited social support in the workplace
Parmar pointed to additional risk factors like:
- unfair expectations
- excessive workload
- unclear or mismanaged roles at work
She also suggested that a poor job fit can increase emotional and physical distress, leading to burnout, as can a poor emphasis on work-life balance.
Additionally, excessive long shifts of 10 to 12 hours or more or shifts during odd hours of the day that disrupt routines and sleep patterns are also risk factors.
If you’re noticing a link between depressive symptoms and your workplace, don’t wait to seek help. Talking with your immediate supervisor or boss is a good first step — as long as you feel supported by them.
Sometimes a change in assignment or location within an office or organization can help reduce symptoms.
You can also ask the human resources department if your company has an employee assistance program. This is a work-based program that offers mental health–related services for personal and work concerns.
Outside of work, a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle interventions are often recommended for treating depression.
Additionally, Parmar said that employers and colleagues can play a significant role in identifying an individual at risk.
“It’s important to create a culture of spreading awareness and reducing the stigma associated with mental health disorders at the workplace, so affected individuals are encouraged to seek help freely without any prejudice when needed,” she explained.
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With that in mind, managers, supervisors, and employees can be trained to initiate such conversations with people who need help and support them in their search for timely care.
Experiencing symptoms of depression while at work can feel overwhelming. Identifying signs like anxiety, crying, boredom, and lack of interest is the first step to getting help.
If you’re concerned about work depression, consider reaching out to your supervisor or human resources department. They can help you find a counselor through an employee assistance program.
You can also seek treatment through a therapist or psychologist.
Remember, you’re not alone. If you’re not ready to reach out at work, make an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional.