Depression at Work

Depression at Work: Is It You or the Job?
By Laurie Sue Brockway, Everyday Health Staff Writer

(Note: Edited by eliminating 1 case example and just focusing on the writing about depression itself)


Work Stress vs. Work Depression

We have all felt stressed at work. There are those awful days when everything seems to go wrong, when miscommunication is rampant, and you just can’t seem to get along with a boss, employee, or colleague. People are always getting their buttons pushed in the workplace because it becomes our second home and we tend to replicate family dynamics and relationships that mirror those with parents and siblings. It can be aggravating and upsetting.

Not everyone has a dramatic story, but a recent Gallup Poll showed that although the unemployed reported a higher rate of depression (11.4 percent), 5.6 per cent of full time workers also said they were depressed.

Some mental health and human resources professionals think work can cause depression, others say an individual has to be vulnerable to it in some way or that it is related to their personal baggage, not necessarily to work.


Is Your Job Really the Culprit in Depression?

“Work can’t actually cause depression,” said Clare Miller, director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, an arm of the American Medical Association designed to help employers deal with and strengthen employee mental health. “If someone is predisposed to actually having depression, work can be a force of good or could be harmful. But someone can’t get depression simply from work. There need to be some other things going on there.”

Mental pain and suffering at work is not a small problem, though, and it does not just impact the individual. According to research released by Miller’s organization in May 2013, depression is a leading cause of lost productivity in the United States, costing employers $44 billion annually.

Elizabeth R. Lombardo, PhD, MS, PT, a Lake Forrest, Ill., psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, attributes this to what psychologists call “learned helplessness.”

“This is the sense that one has no control over their job – for fear of losing it, not having any power to make decisions, not having any control to make things better,” said Dr. Lombardo, adding that you may feel “powerless to make any changes or have an influence on the situation.”

Symptoms of depression that comes from learned helplessness may include:

  • Giving up – not trying to make a difference
  • Social withdrawal
  • Passivity
  • Decreased effectiveness at work
  • Decreased problem-solving ability
  • Procrastination
  • Frustration
  • Low self-esteem


Some of the Causes of Workplace Depression

Leigh Steere is co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC, a research organization that studies gender and generational differences in management styles and other management topics. She cited multiple causes of workplace depression.

“Work-related depression can have internal causes, external causes, or some of both,” said Steere, offering these examples:

Internal causes of workplace depression:

  • A wrong-fit role. A person feels called to be an artist but is working as an accountant.
  • Misalignment between company and personal values. Keeping a job where there is ethical discomfort.
  • Working parent guilt. “I like my work but feel I should be spending more time with my child.”
  • Interpersonal discomfort. Having to interface with people who are unpleasant or simply have different preferences, personalities, or work styles.
  • Work/life imbalance. Workaholism and working long hours even when not asked and missing out on social connection outside of work, as well as hobbies, opportunities to relax, and exercise.
  • Introvert/extrovert stress. A person may be an extrovert working in a role or environment where there is insufficient people interaction; or an introvert working in a bullpen-style office with constant interruptions, no privacy, and insufficient opportunity to “go internal.”
  • Financial struggles. Maybe compensation and benefits do not meet the worker’s basic needs.
    Feeling trapped. “I really want to leave this job, but I can’t because (name your reason).” This may be a realistic assessment or a fear-based reaction.

External causes of workplace depression:

  • Unreasonable demands from management. This may include requests to work frequent overtime, which interferes with home life.
  • Unclear guidance at work. Some employees don’t understand what is expected, so they feel they are in the dark and uncertain about whether they are doing a good job.
  • Poor project practices. This may result in miscommunication, missed deadlines, blown budgets, or products that miss the mark. People want to be on a winning team that produces good work, but barriers to accomplishing this can contribute to depression.
  • Bullying at work. Bullying behaviors faced in the workplace can be a huge problem for some employees, whether they’re bullied by bosses, co-workers or clients.
  • Low morale or low engagement at work. This may happen due to the way a company spins information rather than being transparent, puts blame for leadership mistakes on others, nickel-and-dimes employees in the name of cost containment, and rewards ineffective managers.
  • Poor working conditions. There are many conditions that become problematic when management will not take corrective action, for example, not letting employess take enough breaks, or ignoring safety concerns and temperature discomfort.

When Employees Feel Trapped
Feeling like you have hit a dead end can add to depression, said Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC, a family therapist and clinical counselor, in Dana Point, Calif.

“When an individual is in a job that lacks growth and is fostering complacency, there is a [sense of] a lack of worth,” she said. “They feel innately that their value is not as high as they would like. Yet there may be a fear to ask for more support since there is a sense that they are not valued by the organization. This can make individuals feel trapped.”

Because they need money (which is, of course, a very common concern), they stay in jobs that are crushing their spirits. “This creates a resentment which is the beginning of depressive symptoms that can actually mutate into aggressive and maladaptive behaviors at work,” said Bahar. “It creates a cycle in an individual of feeling guilty, angry, resentful and trapped.”

–Case 1–

A guy called M:

“They start asking me to give up more freedom, and I start to get depressed and I don’t want to be there anymore.”

When he feels upset and depressed, he acts out negatively. “I start to show up late because I don’t want to be there,” he said. “I tend to have little panic attacks before I go into work so it takes me a little bit longer to get out. I’m usually in a very good mood, but when I get there I’m just about work. I don’t want to talk to anybody or be friends with anybody. I don’t show it to my clients, but my coworkers all can tell. They are like, ‘Don’t bother him.'”

To try to get himself through, M is trying physical exercise — kickboxing. “I’m so depressed right now I do that sometimes six times a week,” he said. “I love what I do, I just don’t love where I do it.”

Lombardo thinks exercise is a good way to work off steam, and workers have to somehow take back their sense of control in any situation that is adding to their distress.

“While you cannot control others or the situation at all times, you always have the ability to control how you view it,” she said. “This does not mean just think happy thoughts — for example, ‘I love my boss — when that is the furthest thing from the truth. It does mean finding the good even in tough times. For example, ‘I am grateful to be employed and can look for ways to either improve this job or find something else while I am still getting paid.’ Or, ‘I know my boss seems overbearing and I realize that is more a function of her own insecurities, not evidence that I am not good at what I do.'”


How Do You Know When It’s Time to Go?

Rhonda Richards-Smith, LCSW, a mental health expert in Los Angeles, says depressed employees have to pull back and figure out why their situations are untenable and look at what keeps them there.

“Take the time to stop and examine why you have chosen to remain in your current position,” Richards-Smith said. “Job security? Great benefits? Do you feel you are incapable of doing anything else? Be honest with yourself and know that you are in control of the decisions you make, including whether you stay or go.”

Steere says most companies do not have a psychologist on staff to help employees sort through depression, but she suggests the human resources department may be able to help.

“HR can take the lead in listening for problems and by asking questions and being willing to hear sometimes unpopular input,” she said. “When companies take the initiative to fix a known problem, that helps all employees feel better about the organization and the work they are doing. When companies stick their heads in the sand and either fail to see a problem or choose not to correct it, employees face a tough choice. Do they stick it out and live with the environment as is? Or is it time to look for greener pastures?”


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