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Your drive is gone, you’re exhausted, and you feel like nothing you do is right. When time off doesn’t make it better, your hang-up might be work depression.
Since the pandemic, you may have found yourself gradually — or maybe suddenly — dreading work, barely able to get started in the morning, and not able to do much when you finally get there.
If you experience depression due to your job, you’re definitely not alone.
According to the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation (NIHCM), 51% of U.S. workers reported worse mental health at work during 2019–2020, when measuring:
- team morale
- work-life balance
If the thought of your job makes you feel emotionally flat, exhausted, worthless, and unproductive, you might have depression.
Depression is a mental health condition that can affect you no matter what you do or where you are.
Burnout, on the other hand, is typically related to work. With burnout, you might still enjoy yourself away from work — say on the weekends or while on vacation.
If you have depression, it will affect your ability to function both at work and outside it.
Depression’s affects on the brain can make you may feel hopeless and lose interest in activities you used to enjoy. Depression often interferes with your ability to function at work and home.
According to criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), you may be diagnosed with major depressive disorder if you have at least 5 of the following symptoms for at least 2 weeks:
- depressed mood
- low interest
- appetite changes
- sleep changes
- agitated or slow movement
- low energy
- feelings of worthlessness
- problems thinking
- thoughts of death or suicide
Many factors can contribute to the onset of work depression. Dr. Tracey Marks, a psychiatrist in Atlanta, Georgia, says being a poor fit for your job is probably one of the biggest factors.
In her YouTube video “Burnout vs. depression: How to tell the difference,” she likens a poor job fit to pushing a square peg through a round hole. You have to shave off parts of yourself to do it, and depression can be the result.
Other causes of workplace depression might be:
- work overload
- a chaotic work environment
- unrealistic performance expectations
- unclear work boundaries
In 2019, the
The WHO made clear it was not classifying burnout as a medical condition, but rather as a reason people might contact health services, other than illnesses or health conditions.
Signs of burnout include:
- energy depletion or exhaustion
- depersonalization, often called burnout cynicism
- reduced professional efficacy, or sense of accomplishment
Depersonalization and exhaustion are the hallmark symptoms of burnout, according to Marks.
People with burnout feel they’re just going through the motions of life. They’ve lost their sense of meaning and involvement with others.
Depersonalization can occur in depression too, Marks says. The difference is that with depression, there’s so much else going on that depersonalization doesn’t stand out. But with burnout, it tends to.
Why does it matter if it’s depression or burnout?
You may be asking, “What does it matter if it’s depression or burnout? I just want to feel better.”
That’s exactly why it matters, according to Marks.
Antidepressants are probably not going to help with burnout, she says, as burnout isn’t a clinical diagnosis. With burnout, you need to change the underlying problems at work causing it.
With depression, managing your symptoms will likely involve therapy, medication, and probably a change in your work situation too, Marks says.
Burnout can lead to work depression, Marks adds. You want to handle burnout before it develops into something deeper.
Changing your work situation might seem overwhelming at first, but it can sometimes be easier than you think.
By mid-2020, almost half of workers in the United States were reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety. There was very little difference in the amount expressed by essential workers (
According to a
- public and private transit (16.2%)
- real estate (15.7%)
- social services (14.6%)
Professions most prone to burnout, on the other hand, are more likely to be high-paying, high-stakes jobs.
Forbes magazine listed these professions as the most likely to cause burnout:
- STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)
Whether you work at home, in an office, or on the front lines, you can take actions to manage your work depression. Small steps can make a difference.
1. Don’t quit yet
It’s tempting to quit, but that may not be your best option. You may be able to arrange accommodations at your current job that will make it better.
Think about changes at your current job that would make it more workable.
Recent changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with both physical and mental health conditions.
The first step is speaking with your healthcare team to rule out or diagnose any physical or mental health condition. If you do receive a diagnosis, the second step is to ask your supervisor or human resources department for accommodations, such as:
- a flexible work schedule
- working from home or telecommuting
- written task lists
- a quiet space for breaks
- a job coach
2. Learn some calming techniques
Relaxing regularly at work can have an influential effect on work-related depression.
But maybe you want something less typical. If so, try these ideas from the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI):
- Sing. Find a private place and belt out one of your favorite songs.
- Laugh. Find a video clip online that gives you the chuckles, and laugh out loud!
- Music. Play a piece of music or a playlist you like (earbuds suggested).
- Color. Take out some brightly colored pencils, and color or draw a picture that makes you happy.
3. Turn your tech off
Too much time spent watching TV and using a computer outside school or work has been associated with moderate or severe depression.
At work, you may have to use screens. If so, it’s important to take breaks and avoid screens as much as possible when you get home.
Blue light emitted from electronic screens can interfere with the melatonin secreted in your body and disrupt your sleep. Better sleep can help with depression, so try turning off screens a couple of hours before bedtime.
If you can’t do that, try using dark mode or installing a blue light filter on your computer and phone.
4. Make a schedule and stick to it
The NIHCM Foundation recommends you set firm boundaries between work and home life.
Plan a reasonable work schedule, and stick to it. Having a schedule can reduce the stress of always being late or never having enough time.
If you want to make it fun, get yourself a novelty timer and use it to schedule work tasks and remind yourself to take a break.
5. Improve your working conditions
It’s tempting to wait and hope your work situation will get better, but it probably won’t. The time to do something is now.
If you feel your supervisor is supportive, try talking with them. Sometimes a simple change will help. Maybe they can change your assignment or move you to a different location in the office.
A 2019 study involving employees experiencing depression or anxiety at work found that certain changes to their work conditions helped. These included:
- setting boundaries on work time and workload
- maintaining work-life balance
- identifying sources of stress
- creating positive relationships with their supervisor and colleagues
6. Get a life — outside of work
Research suggests that having a porous boundary between home and work can increase work-family conflict. If you have depressive symptoms, conflict is probably the last thing you want.
Mobile technology has changed the way many of us work. Zoom meetings and 24-hour email inboxes can claim the parts of our lives we used to reserve for family and outside interests.
Setting a boundary between your work and personal life can help both sides of the fence.
This can be especially important if you have symptoms of depression. Schedule get-togethers or activities outside of work, and keep to them. Sign up for a class or join a book group. Your friends and your body will thank you for it.
7. Get into the (right) zone
Many leading companies now offer mindfulness training as part of your employment package.
You can make a point to take advantage of any app or training your employer offers. Also, you can easily train yourself by using your work breaks to try a mindfulness exercise or an app like Calm or Headspace. You might also try one of the many meditation apps available.
One rewarding thing to do is to measure your blood pressure before and after a mindfulness exercise. Many people find a lowered reading after only a 10-minute exercise.
8. Get with the program
Many companies have an employee assistance program (EAP). This is a voluntary and confidential program that offers free assessments and short-term counseling and referrals to employees who have personal or work-related problems.
EAPs can help you with almost any issue that affects your mental and emotional well-being, such as stress, family problems, and psychological conditions.
If your work depression or burnout becomes severe, and you feel unable to work, there’s help under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). You can ask for a leave of absence as a form of work accommodation. It’s usually granted only after all other options have been exhausted.
If you have an understanding supervisor, you might be able to arrange a leave by simply explaining your situation and asking for time off.
9. Make it a group project
In a support group for depression, you can ask questions, share experiences, and get the personal support you need. You may even make some new acquaintances.
Support groups usually meet regularly, either in person or online. To find a group near you, or to start one, check the support group page on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website.
AADA also offers a member-based text support group called Health Unlocked. Here, you and your family can share experiences via online chat threads. AADA calls it a safe, supportive, and friendly place to share information about anxiety, depression, and related disorders.
10. Take a self-care break
If you’re like most people, you spend a large part of your life taking care of other people and other things. Who often gets left out? You. Who makes sure you get cared for?
Sometimes, the answer is no one. You have to step up to the plate and care for yourself. You’re the best person to give yourself the care and nourishment you need.
Taking a break to give yourself a meal, bath, walk, or treat is one of the best ways to manage depression.
One recent study suggests that compassion toward both yourself and others is one of the best things you can do to rejuvenate yourself from burnout.
Work depression and burnout can be unfortunate consequences of our always-on, fast-paced modern way of working.
Work overload and a job that doesn’t leverage your talents and skills can contribute to both burnout and depression. So can a toxic workplace setting, unrealistic job expectations, and lack of boundaries between your work and personal life.
If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of work depression or burnout, the first step is to talk with your management and give a clear idea of what might help.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, it may be time to speak with a mental health professional who can help guide you in your work relationship.