Moving through the workday can be a challenge, even when you’re at your best. When living with depression, your job can feel insurmountable.

Job stress affects most of us at some point. Deadlines, conflicts with co-workers, and business demands have a way of piling up.

When you live with depression, negative thoughts and emotions can already have you feeling detached from life in general. Getting out of bed to get to work might’ve been a major accomplishment, and now you’re trying to stay motivated while you’re there.

There are ways to manage feelings of depression, even when negative thoughts bear down on you.

Depression affects more than 17 million adults in the United States — you’re not alone in your quest to find ways to stay productive at work.

Symptoms of depression can vary, but many of them have the potential to directly impact your job performance.

You may have difficulty concentrating and making decisions. Decreased energy and irritability can put a negative spin on most work tasks.

Also, depression can often cause you to lose interest in things you enjoy. If you work a less than satisfying job, can you imagine how depression might make you feel toward something you already dislike?

“Managing work can feel extremely overwhelming for people with depression,” says Katy Manganella, a licensed professional counselor and the founder of Austin City Counseling in Austin, Texas. “Depression reduces your capacity for dealing with everything, especially stressors.”

Things that might seem simple or straightforward to someone not living with depression could feel insurmountable to someone who is experiencing depression, Manganella says.

This is foremost because depression affects the brain and interferes with its functionality. Outward symptoms are the last phase of its presentation. It impairs memory, problem-solving, and the reward messengers in the brain, among other things.

“Depression also reduces motivation, making it more challenging to get started on something you need to do,” she says. “Depression makes life feel daunting. For some people, taking a shower and brushing their teeth can feel like too much during a depressive period.”

You didn’t make a choice to feel depressed, and co-workers may not understand why you can’t do something to “feel better.”

Being diagnosed with depression and holding a job doesn’t mean you have to slap on a happy face and pretend you feel fine.

There are ways to stay productive while keeping your mental health in mind.

Focus on your environment

You may not be able to control everything in your workday, but you can often influence your workspace.

“Keep it clean and simple,” says Amelia Alvin, a psychiatrist at the Mango Clinic in Miami. “Clutter tangles the thoughts.”

Research supports the idea that the physical work environment has a direct impact on wellness and job performance. In addition to keeping things organized, consider mood-boosting features, such as pictures, plants, or soft lighting.

Make downtime self-care time

If you’re busy, sometimes the work itself can become a motivator. You’re too involved to stop, even when depression might make you feel disconnected or sad.

When you have downtime at work, however, and thoughts are swirling through your brain, taking a moment for self-care might help you get through.

Self-care at work can take many forms: a walk outside or a trip to the bathroom to splash your face with cool water. Maybe you take the opportunity to make a cup of tea.

Self-care can provide a break and something that brings you joy to get you through the next stretch of work hours.

Select some focus exercises

“Do tiny exercises to stay focused. Don’t let your thoughts wander,” suggests Alvin.

Focus exercises can include breathing techniques, the repeating of mantras, or taking a brief walk around your workspace.

The body scan is a popular focus technique that can be done anywhere. It involves focusing your attention on your toes and moving your awareness up to your ankles, knees, and stomach until you reach the top of your head.

Grounding techniques can also help you feel more relaxed and calm, which can help you manage depression symptoms at work.

Be mindful of what you eat at work

Heavy meals can slow down the brain,” cautions Alvin. She recommends keeping break foods light at work.

A diet high in sugar and carbohydrates may make you sleepy. These diets encourage the production of tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes sleep. Sugar is also known to suppress neurotransmitters in the brain linked to awareness.

If your lunchtime meal is full of carbohydrates and sugar, it could double up on your lack of energy experienced from depression.


Depression can make it feel as if everything is crashing in on you at once. To help prevent this feeling of being overwhelmed while at work, Alvin recommends keeping work at work and home life at home.

“Try not to blend the personal and the professional issues on one palate,” she says. “It can affect the intensity of both matters.”

Worrying about what’s going on at home can be distracting while at work. If your home situation or family members are contributing to anxiety and depression, it can be easy to bring those feelings with you to a job.

When you’re preoccupied with personal thoughts, work projects can naturally take a backseat, along with your motivation.

What if I work from home?

Whether you have a remote work office or a desk near your bed, you can innovate ways to compartmentalize your work hours and your off time. You can try:

  • putting a door hangar on the knob to alert family and roommates you’re in a meeting or deep focus
  • setting an alarm to end your workday and to begin your down time
  • powering down your devices instead of just putting them to “sleep mode”
  • physically putting something on your workspace to remind you “hands off” until the next day

These other resources might be helpful:

Tips to survive working from home
Strategies for remote work when you have a mental health condition
Pointers for working from home when you have kids

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Speak with your work counselor

Not all jobs provide access to a mental health professional. If yours has one on-site, you may find an occasional meeting beneficial to work through feelings of depression on the job.

If you aren’t able to have on-site meetings, your company may offer mental health incentive programs that support speaking with a professional on your own time.

You can learn about employee assistance program counseling services here.

Be proactive with backlog

Alvin suggests keeping an eye on work backlogs. Overdue or pressing deadlines can make work more stressful.

When you live with depression, feeling stressed can make you want to avoid work rather than meet it head-on.

Answering emails as soon as they come in and completing projects in small segments can prevent a pileup of work and can also help boost your sense of accomplishment.

Evaluate your opportunities

When you live with depression, small tasks can feel monumental. The last thing you might want to think about is changing careers.

If you’re experiencing extreme symptoms of depression, particularly while at work, this might be the conversation you need to have with yourself.

Bullying, unsupportive infrastructure, and feeling unappreciated can bring anyone down. If the negatives outweigh the positives at work, it might be time for something new.

Sometimes the only thing to do in a toxic situation is to leave.

Seek professional treatment

Living with depression means managing it at home, work, school, and everywhere in between.

No matter your circumstances, there are professional treatment options available.

Traditional talk therapy, support groups, and medication can all help you manage symptoms of depression in any situation.

Wondering how to be productive when depressed is natural. You may not have as much motivation to get projects done, but you know they need to be finished.

When depression makes you feel unmotivated at work, it’s not because you’re lazy. The changes in your brain are causing you to feel this way, and your work ethic has nothing to do with it.

Getting through the workday and finding motivation is still possible. You can try focus exercises, environmental changes, and self-care to help bypass your symptoms.

No matter where you are, or what you’re doing, treatment for this condition is available. A mental healthcare team can work with you to develop an individualized management plan.

If you’re considering self-harm or suicide, you’re not alone. Help is available right now: