Fawn Fitter knew it was not just another bad day at the office. She was doing what she loved — writing about careers for major publications. She didn’t have a horrible boss to answer to; as a freelancer, she called the shots. She didn’t even have to show up. Still there came a day when she was barely able to make a phone call. Her depression lasted for months.
With her own capacity for weaving events into words, along with psychotherapy, and “vitamin Z,” she eventually pulled out of it. But Fitter didn’t just recover. She realized her own experience must be multiplied by millions and wrote a guide to coping with depression on the job.
“The workplace doesn’t wait for depression to go away,” say Fitter and coauthor, management consultant-psychotherapist Beth Gulas. The team talk about how to hold on to your job when you know you’re not performing and you’re terrified that getting help will not only get you fired anyway but make you unemployable in the future.
- First determine whether you are in fact depressed. In the office depression manifests as problems with concentration and memory; difficulty processing information in general; irritability or, conversely, apathy; feeling slowed down or, conversely, restless. “You can’t hide depression,” says Fitter. “People notice,” adds Gulas, “but they don’t talk about it, making it even more of an untouchable topic than it already is.”
- If you are depressed, you need to ask yourself whether your job is contributing to your depression and plan how to deal with that. Ask yourself, “Am I having a bad day or am I having a bad job? Are the conditions that bother me temporary or permanent?”
Every job evolves and changes; you may have outgrown the job or vice versa. Mounting stress culminating in depression could be an indicator that you need to move on.
- You have to ask yourself whether depression is affecting your ability to do your job, and how to deal with that.
- Whatever other steps you take, you must depression-proof your daily work life.
- Interact with coworkers in small ways. Do not give in to the temptation to isolate yourself. The less visible you are, the more you jeopardize your job.
- Do not attempt to carry conversations; ask questions instead. If necessary, write them out before meetings.
- Even if you feel overwhelmed, behave as though you feel fine. You will have an easier time if you play the part of a competent person.
- Pay attention to your appearance. Make a special effort to look good.
- Take care of yourself so you have the strength to cope. Avoid changes in your daily routine; do not consider transfers to another job or city.
- Cut back on your responsibilities as much as you can; at least don’t add on new ones. Can you get a temporary assistant? Can you telecommute two days a week? Seek your supervisor’s cooperation, lest your absence draw attention to changes in your behavior.
- Make room for yourself in your schedule. Take 10 minutes at lunch just to go outside and breathe. Or take a short walk.
- Hold yourself together. A crying jag may make you feel better, but it can disconcert your coworkers. If you burst into tears, go to a private place to compose yourself.
- Get help. “You have a life-threatening illness, and you need to see a doctor,” says Fitter. You can see a doctor independently or through your company’s employee assistance plan. “If you have concerns about going inside, then go independently. It’s unlikely your boss or your co-workers will ever have access to your records,” says Fitter.
- Because depression is still widely misunderstood, think twice before you tell anyone you’re struggling with it. Whether you tell anyone is, unfortunately, a personal decision based on your job requirements, your boss, your coworkers, the company environment, and your condition and its predictability.
What if you need time off, or a rearrangement of responsibilities? And how much do you tell? You also have to conduct a personal inventory and determine who is trustworthy. Gulas cites the example of a woman who told two coworkers she was nearly immobilized by depression, but didn’t want to tell her boss. On their own they took on extra responsibilities and provided a benevolent cover-up for months for their colleague.
The existence of so many variables makes it difficult for employers to establish guidelines for such situations, says Kim MacDonald-Wilson, a research specialist at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. “It’s a concern even if you think you’re in a supportive workplace,” she adds. “You may be looked at differently; there may be questions about your competence, just by virtue of having a psychiatric condition.”
- Know what your rights are. There is only one circumstance under which you must disclose that you have a disorder: if you are asking for a job accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act.
In that case, your employer may not discriminate against you, must provide certain kinds of help you may need to perform your job well, whether time off or a flexible schedule. But you don’t even have to specify that the condition is depression. Says Fitter, “You can say, ‘I am suffering from a medical condition that makes me tired and unable to focus at the end of the day, so I would like to shift my schedule to an early shift.'”
- Whenever you discuss your depression, first state your strengths and what you can do. Be specific about what accommodations might help.
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