Is your job making you depressed?
You’re having trouble focusing at work. You avoid chatty co-workers and struggle to finish your daily projects. You feel distracted and dread going to work each day. You find yourself hiding out in the bathroom or fighting off crying jags or panic attacks in your car before you walk in the door.
Are you depressed? Or is it the job? Can your job actually make you depressed?
Well, it’s complicated.
Most psychologists will note that while workplace issues can certainly trigger depression, it’s difficult to prove that they actually “cause” depression. The root causes of depression are complex. Clinical depression is often the result of combination of factors - biological or genetic vulnerabilities, life stressors, personal history, circumstantial factors, and even medications you may be taking. It’s complicated, but, yes issues at work can be a significant factor in developing depression.
For several years, I worked as a EAP (Employee Assistance Program) counselor for a large group of business and manufacturing companies. I listened to the stories of employees struggling to get themselves to work and to stay focused on the job while battling clinical depression. I listened to managers and HR professionals as they worked with those employees suffering from mental health issues. To be truthful, some managers did it well. Others, well, were not helpful, and at times, really made things worse. But it was clear that both internal and external factors related to work and the workplace contributed to the mental health struggles employees were facing.
Think about it - we spend 40-80 hours a week at work. That’s over 2000 hours a year - or more! It makes sense to realize that when things are difficult at work, it can affect our mental health.
So - is your job making you depressed? Here are some of the factors I have recognized that can contribute to a serious bout of depression. Are you struggling with any of these?
Internal or personal factors that can make you feel depressed
You feel like you are trapped. You hate your job and know that it is not a healthy environment for you; however, you can’t see a way out or forward. This is a big one. A study published in the journal Human Relations found that feeling trapped in a job and seeing no job alternatives made people more likely to experience emotional exhaustion or burn out, two conditions that can easily lead to depression.
Your job doesn’t fit. Your passion is making music or art or working with your hands crafting furniture but you’re spending 8-10 hours a day sitting in a cubicle working on spreadsheets. Perhaps you thrive in an outdoor setting but you spend every day in a windowless office. Your job doesn’t fit you - your interests, your personality, your talents.
Your personal values and the values of your company aren’t a match. This can create an ethical discomfort that makes you wonder if you are selling your very soul for a paycheck. You may have a deep commitment to protecting the natural environment; but your company has no interest in recycling the reams of paper and plastic which it produces.
You’re a working parent. Working parents struggle with an often frantic schedule of keeping up with daycare pickup times, child care worries, school trips, and over-scheduled lives, not to mention the guilt over missing precious time with their children. While a job is crucial for financial security, buying groceries and, for many, a sense of personal accomplishment and fulfillment, it’s hard not to feel like you’re missing out on a large part of your child’s life. And when a sick child creates child care chaos, this parental guilt is amplified by the struggle to meet the needs of both your child and your employer. This chronic stress can contribute to feelings that you’re not doing a good job - as a parent or an employee - and can set you up for a depressive episode.
Your balance is off - work life balance, that is. 60-80 hour work weeks are not uncommon in many professions. It’s hard to practice good self care, not to mention family care, when the demands of your job are continually increasing. How do you take time out for a healthy walk or exercise class when you’re at the office from dawn to dusk? How do you create healthy, supportive relationships when all your time is taken up with reports and spreadsheets?
You’re an introvert in an extroverted job. Or vice versa. Perhaps you’re a real extrovert who loves to spend time talking and working with people but your job consists of spending hours alone in front of a computer screen cranking out data. Or you’re an introvert who craves quiet time and solitude, but your desk is in a vast cubicle farm where you have no personal space or privacy. This mismatch of personality and work role creates a level of chronic stress that can lead you straight down the path to depression if not resolved or if other self care opportunities are not possible.
You’re worried about money. Money worries create more stress and often keep you awake at night, interrupting sleep patterns and making you more tired in general. Increasingly often, we are asked to do more work for less pay leading to time stress and $$ stress.
External Factors: Sometimes the job or company culture can create job environments that are unhealthy and can lead to burnout or depression.
Company policies and procedures are rigid and tightly monitored so that you feel like you have no control at work. You have no ability to make decisions or to change rules or procedures that seem senseless, time consuming, or just plain stupid. You have no sense of empowerment to improve work conditions or to create innovative solutions to problems. You’re just stuck following the rules and procedures as cited by the company manual. This is a front running cause of job burnout and, yes, can lead to depression.
Company policies and procedures are unclear. It sounds like the opposite of the above but can also create a stressful work environment. It’s hard to feel like you’re doing a good job when the procedures and expectations are unclear and not appropriately communicated. You’re not sure what is expected of you or expectations change daily - leaving you feeling confused and stressed.
Your work load is unreasonable. As mentioned above, employees are continually expected to do more with less - and for less. You may find yourself in a job in which it is simply impossible to keep up - even with overtime and skipping break time. There really is only so much you can do in one day - no matter what the company expects.
You never know when the next round of layoffs will happen. Job insecurity is a source of chronic stress and downsizing is becoming a routine part of company culture. I once spent an entire day, waiting at home for the phone call that would tell me if I was being downsized out of a job - or if I got to keep my job but would be picking up the responsibilities of another team member. Talk about a stressor!
There’s a bully in your workplace. You experience sexual or other harassment at work. An experience with harassment can trigger symptoms of depressions and anxiety and even PTSD. Employees often feel guilty or ashamed and worry that they somehow caused this harassment to happen. This is another big trigger for depression - but remember you do have legal protections from harassment at work. Contact a trusted supervisor or HR professional or contact a legal support agency in your community.
Any or all of these factors can set you up for a bout of depression. I’ll be writing more about symptoms of depression, what to do if you’re feeling depressed and if and how to talk to your boss about your depression in future blogs, but if you identify with the factors on this list, here are three things to do now.
Talk to someone. Find a friend, family member, therapist, minister - someone you can share your feelings with. I know this can be hard when you’re feeling depressed but it’s a first step toward a better future. Even when it feels impossible right now, there are options for changing your job and improving your life. Call me if you can’t find anyone else.
Call your doctor. There are excellent medications for depression that can help you think more clearly and feel better so you are able to begin making changes to your situation. You may have to try a couple of different meds to find the one that works best for you. Don’t give up - and if you don’t like your doctor, give yourself permission to find a new one!
Do one thing you enjoy - something that makes you feel good. Take your dog for a short walk. Watch your favorite Netflix show. Take a long nap. Don’t feel guilty for eating the ice cream. Find one thing you enjoy. Do it.
That’s a good start. Stay tuned for more.
Anita Flowers is a Board Certified career and life coach at Blue Sage Career Strategies. A little different than most life coaches, her background in clinical psychology and years of experience as a counselor gives her a rich understanding of human development and family dynamics. Her work history includes 13 years working with an international business company and 12 years doing individual and family counseling as well as career counseling. This blend of counseling and business experience gives Anita a unique perspective on the world of work and life. Contact Anita here to get started on your new career and life!