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6 Ways to Stay Effective At Work When You’re Depressed

posted by Beyond Blue

How do you work when you’re depressed?

I get that question a lot. Here’s the honest answer: I can’t.

At least at my rock bottom, I wasn’t able to work. My efforts failed miserably because my self-confidence was way below sea level – so all it did was bring on more frustration.

I remember sitting down at my computer every morning, making the same effort, hoping that if I led with the body then the mind would follow. But the mind wasn’t interested in going anywhere, and was rather pissed off that I would even try. I performed this ritual for months on end. Butt to the chair. Crying at the computer. Then one day my (then) two-year-old poured a cup of apple juice over my keyboard. The hard drive made a funky noise, and the screen looked like a black-and-white film from the 70s when they got to the end of the tape, which I took as a sign from the universe to stop for a while.

So I did. For about a year.

And every day of that year I cursed myself for being so weak to cave into depression, to toss out every productive cell I had in me.

It was only with the help of some very good friends and mentors that I could tip-toe my way back to work. And I mean tip-toe.

One of my friends was a bestselling author who had gone through a serious bout of depression himself.

“A bulldozer,” he’d say to me every month when I took the kids for a drive in the country to see him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were essentially sessions from a life coach on how to get your life back. “When you hear the negative voices, you have to be like a bulldozer, and just keep on going, no matter what they say.”

So that’s what I did.

I started very small and tackled projects that didn’t require a “full” brain. In other words, because writing was clearly not working, I sought work at a nearby college as a tutor. That way I didn’t have to come up with the words myself. I only had to tell the student that he was using the wrong words, and to come up with better ones before our next session or whenever the paper was due.

Those two hours a week were the beginning of a climb back to productivity and made a world of difference to my self-esteem. The fact that I was able to not cry for two hours, and to concentrate enough to give guidance was nothing short of a miracle at that time in my life.

Whenever I get down on myself today for having an off day, I remember my two hours a week at the college. And I realize how far I’ve come.

But what do I today when I hit a rough spot? A few things:

1. Break it up.

When the project I need done feels too overwhelming to begin, I break it down into very small pieces, and I give myself a deadline for each piece. For example, take a book. Now the mere thought of writing a book gives me a panic attack. So I don’t think about the whole book. I think about a chapter, about 10 pages. And then I break that down. When could I find time to write the first three pages (750 words)? I give myself a tentative due date. This was especially important as I was just surfacing to the working world again. If I didn’t break it down, I had to get out the paper bag and breathe from it. But divided into itty-bitty chunks, it was manageable.

2. Solicit a cheerleader.

I’m not sure how my future would have turned out without Joe (my life coach in the country) and mentors like Mike. When you are the type of living organism that thrives on affirmations, like I do, it’s crucial to have a set of cheerleaders in your life to motivate you to get to the finish line, and to remind you that you have it in you to do it. Especially helpful are friends who have lived through the same hell of depression and have emerged as productive people today.

3. Be around other people.

I know you can’t always choose your work situation, but if you have any control over it at all, I suggest you work on projects with other people, and physically be in the presence of other people. I think that is partly what was so helpful about working at the college. The isolation of writing is not conducive to pulling yourself out of a depression. Too many temptations to ruminate and obsess. When someone is talking to you, on the other hand, you really should be listening. Which means you are not rolling around a week-old thought in your mind. Even if it means working in a coffee shop, as opposed to your house, getting around other people is almost always helpful.

4. Have a venting buddy.

To clarify: Your cheerleaders are people outside your work who can “raw raw raw” make you feel better. A venting buddy, on the other hand, is someone within your work organization with whom you can be completely honest. This can be a dangerous step, so please proceed with caution. But I know from the very recent experience of working at a rigid consulting firm that I would have completely lost it if it weren’t for three women in whom I confided everything: That I absolutely hated it, that I was looking for a job, that I was bipolar, that I might go postal at any moment. One woman, especially, my “new hire buddy” was a humongous support, as I would text her that I needed to have a cry outside, and she would just put her arm over me as I bawled. If you can find one person you trust, you will feel as though you aren’t totally alone. And that will make you less depressed.

5. List your excuses.

Prior to working at this conservative consulting firm, I might have advised you to be perfectly honest with your co-workers and supervisor and divulge any depression or mood disorder. Yeah, well, I’m changing my mind on that. I thought I was doing the right thing by passing out copies of my book The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Kit to all my co-workers who I felt needed therapy, and setting up a blog where I could tie in research related to my job with my current bipolar status. Um. I got laid off. Not explicitly for that. But it really didn’t help my case.

So, for those people just entering a new job, I would seriously come up with a list of health issues you have, and use THOSE as your excuses. Don’t don’t don’t mention your depression or bipolar disorder. Everyone has funky stuff wrong with them. Geeze, I don’t know which to choose – my benign brain tumor, my aortic valve regurgitation, my Raynauld’s syndrome? In hindsight, if I were having a rough day at that firm knowing what I do today, I’d pick from the list and say I have a doctor’s appointment. I would not utter anything about a psychiatrist. I guess I just didn’t realize how backward corporate culture can be. Wow.

6. Don’t blow your nose.

This is another way of saying “fake it til you make it,” but since that phrase is overused, I thought I’d try another expression. In other words: The day that my boss told me that I had to shave off a layer of myself to fit into the firm – and that I shouldn’t breathe another word about my mental health history – I was trapped. I didn’t have a pass to exit the floor, let alone the building. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom. So I sat in the room next to her with three other co-workers and I cried my eyes out, but since I didn’t blow my nose and kept my head down no one even noticed. If you can avoid crying altogether, that’s preferred. But I am a crier, and so if you are trapped in a situation where you can’t cry outside or in a bathroom, there is a way to sit at your desk and cry without anyone noticing. And if you type, even to a blank sheet that is not going nowhere, that looks (and sounds) even better. Like you are productive! When, in essence, you’re having a serious meltdown.

Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jeff Michel

    Therese, I could have used the heck out of this a couple of months ago. But now I can add some perspective. After working together for 6 years I thought a particular woman and I had a deep connection and that I trusted her. So when she nudged our friendship into deeper waters I was happy and went along with it.

    I spent several months in LOVE and it was wonderful. She texted me in the middle of workdays asking where is her love right now, and I would make my way toward with a wink or a smile and no one was the wiser. At that point it seemed special that we had a secret romance in the middle of our workplace.

    Then without a word to me she was done with it and I was devastated. We were no longer a couple of any sort and quickly she made it clear that we were not friends any longer either. This was not the only stressor in my life and I often slipped into a bathroom to sob until I was done.

    Many people asked if I was ok, but only my closest friends knew of the person who had broken my heart. Bulldozing my way through my work, being authentically “not cheery” and keeping my broken heart in the care of those close friends without revealing it to the masses carried me through. As that job is educationally based it is now the summer and time away from her is greatly appreciated.

    Just for this summer I am smiling and happy. The future remains unseen and that’s ok too. I was even called into administration for “uninitiated friendly advances toward co workers.” As I was being scolded I kept a penitent expression and revealed nothing of our months long mutual affair. And blew up in front of those friends I can trust. And I’m still standing.

    In part thanks to the support and advice I find right here on your website.

    Thank you,

    Jeff

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kevin Keough

    Therese you have done a great job of presenting practical tips to help make it through a working day when level of depression hasn’t fallen below the “abandon all hope who enter here” realm. Unlike you I would just get angry and INSIST that work WOULD be accomplished. I still don’t understand why my fingers and the computer didn’t obey my orders.

    For some people such a situation is unimaginable and totally unacceptable. There are no excuses for not working. As a man responsible for providing for my kids there is no deeper source of shame. Actually, the level of shame coupled with the religiously held conviction that there are no circumstances that could possibly interfere with working—can lead to some dangerous territory.

    As one enters the lower rings of Dante’s hell the air quality causes the brain to reach an absolute belief that one has a sacred responsibility to eat the end of a shotgun. There is no weeping or gnashing of teeth. No emotion really. Just a clear and certain belief that one must perform one’s sacred duty. While in this frame of mind the thoughts of other people are dismissed because they obviously don’t know about the “sacred responsibility” clause.

    Actually, Job one at such times is to avoid contact with people.

    Bottom line: Depression is no joke, aint’s no party, ain’t no disco, ain’t no fooling around. God bless all who have struggled and continue to struggle with depression. Know you are fighting perhaps the most vicious and dangerous disease-opponent around.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mimi

    Bulldozing doesn’t always work. If one doesn’t keep the bulldozer in good repair, it’ll break down – perhaps permanently.

    One doesn’t have the time or energy to process the triggers which build up, and that last little drop of rain breaks the dam.

    Better to take a day or two when needed – ‘mental health’ days if you can. Or find a job where it will be tolerated.

    Case in point – me: 30 years of success as a music teacher in two private schools – each for 15 years. 1-2 mental health days every six weeks or so enabled me to cool down my system, diffuse the anxiety, examine the triggers, and return to work refreshed. Yes, I used up all my sick days and then some, it often annoyed my principals, but they appreciated the extra time I’d put in to compensate. They attributed it to my artistic temperament.

    My last year of teaching was in a public school, where my ‘mental health’ days were quickly squashed. Yes, we had ‘x’ number of sick days, but we were only supposed to use two or three of them. Extra work was not appreciated.

    So I began to bulldoze my way through and wound up crying one day in front of a large group (75) of 8th grade girls who laughed hysterically. I walked out of the classroom, then out of the building and never looked back.

    An ignominious end to what had been a fulfilling career.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sean

    Another good article. Thanks for making it so obvious that you have been where we are. Very practical, honest and encouraging. Great comments as well. Jeff and Kevin, thanks for your honesty. Mimi, I’m sorry for the end of your career. As a former teacher who’s career was ended indirectly because of my depression, I understand much of what you went through and how you feel. Remember the good you did.

    Sean

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Edie

    Therese, once again you have given us some excellent coping tools when our depression threatens to overwhelm us.
    I wish to God that I would have realized earlier that it was my major depressive order that was giving me the feeling that I just could not cope at work any more. I walked out of several extremely lucrative positions in my 35 year work history because I knew that if I did not, I would die. My ex-husband of many years was furious every time I came home and told him that I had quit my job. He never understood depression and like so many, ridiculed me if I tried to seek psychiatric help. I suffered in silence for 20 years rather than face his wrath by asking my physician for antidepressant medication and/or cognitive therapy, which I so badly needed.
    Now, at the age of 56, I have a very rare cancer that has resulted in my inability to work and depending solely upon my Social Security disability to survive. Because I changed jobs so frequently, I have no pension income to supplement my disability. Believe me when I tell you that no one in today’s economy can live only on Social Security!
    Thank you once again for addressing the problems that all of us who suffer debilitating depression experience.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Anne

    Hi There! This was a great article. I could have used it the past two weeks. The stress at work coupled with the fact that every start of the month of July is a trigger for me really threw me for a loop and I had a PTSD meltdown which began with me weeping at work in front of my boss and colleagues from another firm. YIKES! I can’t take it back and I don’t have the luxury of walking off the job. I guess I have to suck it up and celebrate the fact that I rebounded quickly this time. After 20 years of therapy and an effective medication, I have learned how to come back from the deep end fairly quickly.
    I felt myself ” falling off the cliff” for a month or so and could not seem to bulldoze through this time. It is what it is and it is only a small part of who I am. Onward and upward

  • css

    Wow. I have SO been there. Too many times. I found that standing up while I work, Hemmingway-style, helped a little, as I could at least lean against the stand that held my keyboard. And I could jump up and down in the privacy of my office. AND I could stretch or run in place. That was that job. At other times in other jobs I’ve sobbed on a braided rug, come up with any and every reason possible to get out of the office, done whatever I could during the day to advance the project knowing that I would be up until 3 or 4 to get ‘er done when my ADD addled brain functions best… arghhh.
    I think the thing that helps the most, in addition to the antidepressant meds, self-care, vitamins, exercise, prayer, meditation, support from a posse, etc., is just admitting powerlessness over the demon depression.Powerlessness. And the fact that God can restore me to sanity. And that if I just keep breathing eventually this too shall pass. Depression sucks. Being depressed and not having faith would suck so much more. Peace, and thank you for all you do.
    C.

  • Pingback: Is Your Job Making You Depressed? - Beyond Blue

  • http://Workanddepression Peter

    Hi, I’m what you would call an Attorney. I can recall being depressed as a child. I remember in the summer getting quite worked up if I saw clouds in the sky in a sort of obsessive way. I think I thought they represented pollution.
    Anyway, I gave up booze over 20 years ago but I have cyclical depression. I can tell when I’m going low. I can’t watch the news or read the newspapers. The cases I prosecute sometimes bring tears to my eyes when I read the case papers. I have one week to hold on until 2 weeks on vacation. Pray for me that I’ll hold up please. Thanks.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Rita

    God bless you Peter! My prayers are with you! I, too, have suffered from depression since I was a child and am going through a particularly nasty time right now. I truly understand and I am asking God to watch over you and keep you safe!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jean

    I find that depression also keeps me from securing a job. My family is currently in dire straits because of the economy and some bad choices, and going on unsuccessful interviews really contributes to depression.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Margaret

    Ah Therese, Your words for us are so helpful, and for sure, you assure us we are not alone.

    I know God Inspires these Words you share with us.

    This post is one of the ‘keepers’, and I will surely share it with many.

    Blessings and continued Prayers for you

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