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Getting Back to Work When You’ve Been Depressed

“I’m still too depressed to find a job,” says one young man. “I lost my car when I was so depressed so how can I even look?”

From a young woman: “I don’t have the energy for a full-time job and I don’t feel ready to be around people.”

And from a middle-aged guy: “Who wants a 50 year old who’s been in the hospital?”

After months of treatment for acute depression, these people are feeling better. They are taking better care of themselves. Their sleep is good. Their medications are working. Therapy has helped them be more successful at using their coping skills.

Treatment now needs to shift from stabilization to getting back into the world and back to work. Easier said than done. They are finding the move from having good intentions to actually getting back out there so daunting they are stuck.

Yes, these people genuinely want to get back to work, but their self-esteem has taken such a hit, they are convinced they will fail. To avoid failure, they find reasons not to try, all of which have a kernel of truth. But not trying – not doing the personal work to manage their fears and overcome practical obstacles – guarantees not getting anywhere.

If you have ever been there, you can relate.

Sadly, acute distress often sets in motion a habit of discouragement and passivity. Being genuinely unable for a time can convince people that there’s something so fundamentally wrong with them that they are, at their core, deficient. The habit of negative self-talk that is a common symptom of depression hangs on — and on.

How can someone shake the feeling that he or she is fundamentally flawed? How can a person push back at depressive thinking and reclaim the self-confidence required to be a working adult?  If you are in recovery and feeling stuck, here are a few thoughts drawn from the field of motivational psychology:

It’s up to you: Step one is to accept that, once out of the acute stage of depression, you need to make a renewed commitment to break the habit of inactivity that came with it. Resist the very understandable pull to go back under the covers with the shades drawn. Your therapist can help you figure out how to set reasonable goals and pace yourself for success.

Use your supports: Feeling better doesn’t mean you don’t need your medication. Talk to your prescriber if you want to reduce or discontinue it. Keep going to therapy. Your therapist can continue to provide encouragement and practical guidance while you figure out how to get back to work. Ask friends and family to lend support. Those who care about you do want to help but they may need guidance about what exactly you would find helpful. Set reasonable expectations together: You aren’t completely well but you are getting there.

Do something: The point is to make a start. You may not be ready for a full-on press for employment but you can certainly start to do more to contribute.  Do more around the house. Volunteer for a few hours a week. Take a part-time job. Positive actions do build on each other.

Be willing to start small – even at the bottom: It can be really tough to start over. It can feel like a devaluing of your skills and be a blow to your self-esteem. But after being out of the workforce for a time, it may reduce your anxiety to take a job with less status or salary than you once had. Alternatively, think about going back half time if you can as a way to begin. Starting is exactly that — starting. It can give you a needed chance to prove yourself to yourself. If you are returning to a former job, going part-time or taking a step back may be what’s needed if your employer has doubts about whether you can handle it. Even if you don’t stay or advance in that company, you’ll be honing your skills and rebooting your resume.

Attitude matters: In the 1950s, there was an animated cartoon that featured a salesman at someone’s door saying, “You wouldn’t want to buy this gizmo would you?” It’s funny in a cartoon. It’s not funny in life. Getting out of the habit of assuming inadequacy requires at least pretending that you have the energy and ambition to sell yourself. In a blog on Huffington Post, motivational speaker Mike Robbins wrote about the importance of pretending as a route to accomplishment: “…if we act ‘as if’ something is already occurring in our lives (even if it’s not), or act ‘as if’ we know how to do something (even if we don’t) we create the conditions for it to manifest in our life . . .”

Open yourself to learning. Difficult times, including mental illness, even set-backs and failures, can help us go in a new direction, develop more compassion, or better assess what we want and can do. It’s often useful to take a step back to consider what positive knowledge has come out of a challenging experience.

Get ready for luck: Business consultant Idowu Koyenikan has been quoted as saying, “Opportunity does not waste time with those who are unprepared.” Being prepared means working at your talents and skills every day, regardless of whether you feel like it. Practicing what we want to do for work may not seem like it is paying off. It may seem like no one is paying attention. But when opportunity knocks, and it usually does at some point, you’ll be ready to respond.

Don’t wait until you feel better to look for work: Psychologists and motivational speakers will tell you that waiting to feel better before getting back to work isn’t helpful. It works the other way. Getting back into life is what will help you feel good again.

Getting Back to Work When You’ve Been Depressed

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.


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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2019). Getting Back to Work When You’ve Been Depressed. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 25, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/getting-back-to-work-when-youve-been-depressed/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 Apr 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 3 Apr 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.