I hear the stories.
Amy tells the story of sitting in her car outside her workplace, fighting back tears and working up the grit to make herself get out of the car and walk inside for the workday.
Sarah told me about hiding in the washroom each day until she could pull herself together enough to continue her work tasks.
Stephen finds himself missing appointments and being surprised by deadlines he should have known.
These stories are not uncommon. Depression causes fatigue, brain fog, short term memory problems and just a general lack of motivation - along with the more recognizable feelings of sadness, hopelessness and discouragement. How in the world are you supposed to get anything done on the job with all this going on in your head?
Having struggled with bouts of clinical depression myself, as well as having worked with depressed clients as a professional counselor, I can attest to the truth that things can and do get better. Good medicine and good therapy can help you get back to feeling like yourself again. But even with medication and therapy, it can take some time - a few weeks or months - to start feeling productive again. Most of us are not blessed with unlimited sick days or the financial resources necessary to take an extended break from work.
So what can you do in the mean time? How do you make it through the work day?
The first step is always – get help and support. Start with your doctor or call a professional counselor and make an appointment. Write down your symptoms and share them with someone. Check out your benefits package and see what resources are offered through your employment. Does your company off an EAP - Employee Assistance Program? Does your insurance cover counseling?
And while you’re beginning to recover, here are some tips for coping at work until you are back at full steam.
Find a friend. It’s essential to talk with someone about how you’re feeling. Talk with your partner, family member or a close friend. Choose someone you trust to keep things confidential but who can be there to offer words of support. Join a support group or find a counselor to talk things through with. I’ve had many clients who tell me that just speaking the words out loud - telling their story - took a huge weight off their shoulders - and their soul.
Begin with small changes at work. Is your job actually making you depressed? Both internal and external factors in the workplace can contribute to depression. Take a look at this list of reasons your job maybe making you depressed and identify some small changes you can make that might make a big difference. Sometimes, even a change as simple as making sure you take your 30 minute lunch break out of the office can do you a world of good.
Set three daily priorities. When things were at their darkest for me, just getting breakfast together, lunches packed and my kids to school felt overwhelming. And then I had to go to work? Seriously? It helped to set 3 basic priorities at work. When you’re deep in depression, it’s hard to focus at work and you may feel like you’re getting farther behind each day. Set small, realistic and achievable priorities for each day. What are the 3 tasks that have to be done today? Concentrate on getting those done – one at a time. Having those three small tasks helps to give you a place to start - a focus to begin. And checking off those 3 things can give you a sense of accomplishment that may carry over to other tasks.
Break assignments or tasks into small chunks. Simply asking yourself, “What is the first thing I need to do for this project?” can get you started. Complete the first thing and then ask “What is the next thing I need to do?” Or work with your manager to break the assignment into small pieces and set reasonable deadlines for each piece. Working in small chunks feels more manageable and less overwhelming than looking at the massive project you may be facing.
Allow extra time to get things done. Brain fog is real. It takes extra time to cut through the fog and complete a task. Acknowledge that you’re moving a little slow and give yourself more time to complete each task. And don’t beat yourself up about it. Remind yourself that you’re recovering from an illness and need to give yourself a break. And so…
Give yourself a break. Taking breaks can decrease stress hormones, increase the feel-good chemicals in our brain, and strengthen the neural connections that aid memory and executive functions. In other words, breaks make us more productive. Set a timer and give yourself a 15 minute break to walk outside or just around the building. Getting up and moving for your break is more helpful than remaining at your desk surfing the web or playing games on your phone.
Try the five minute solution. Get your timer back out and tell yourself you only have to work on a particular unpleasant task for five minutes and then you can quit for the day. Often, once you’re started, it’s easy to keep going and get more done. But if, after 5 minutes, you’re really just done, stop for the day and make a note to begin again tomorrow.
Practice deep breathing. An easy breathing practice to remember is the square breathing method. Breathe in for 4 slow counts, hold your breath for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, hold for another four. Do several sets in a row for some instant stress relief. Some people find that breathing out of their nose (close your mouth) has an even greater calming effect. (A word of caution: For some individuals with anxiety, focus on the breath can make anxiety worse. Skip this tip if that’s you!)
Take notes. Often when we’re depressed, our short term memory can be more than a little AWOL. So, take notes in meetings and write down appointments and assignments. It helps to have one place where you always write everything down – a small notebook or one particular app on your phone. Use technology. Ask Siri or Alexa to remind you of appointments and things to do.
Know your best time of day. Do mornings feel impossible but by afternoon, you’re a little more functional? Or is it better to plan must-do tasks first thing in the morning before your energy gets depleted? Pay attention to the times when you are more focused and energetic and plan your day around them.
Move your body. I know. I know. When you’re depressed, walking any distance beyond the kitchen feels like a monumental challenge. But even a short walk outside has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and improve mood. Again, try telling yourself that you only have to walk for five minutes. Find a friend to walk with - or take the dog.
Spend time outside. If you can’t rustle up the energy for a walk, simply sitting outside with a cup of coffee or a snack can lift your mood. Make it a practice to eat lunch outdoors when the weather permits. Getting out of the office into the fresh air can be a game changer for improving your mood and energy.
Take a mental health day or two if at all possible to help jumpstart your recovery. You may need to give yourself a real break and that may mean taking some time off. Remember, even with medicine and therapy, it can take a few weeks to begin feeling significantly better – so give yourself a break.
Practice good self care: Yes, everybody says that but what does it mean? Self care is doing the healthy things you know make you feel better. Go for a walk. Avoid toxic people. Sit in the sunshine. Take a nap. Treat yourself as a tired, sad toddler that you love deeply. Ask yourself “What would make me feel better?”
Remember you’re not alone and things do get better. With a combination of therapy, good self care, meds and support, you can find your way out of the sinkhole that is depression and maybe even enjoy your job again. I’m rooting for you! With a little support and TLC, you can get back to the old “you” - or maybe an even better version of yourself.
Anita Flowers is a Board Certified career and life coach and resume specialist at Blue Sage Career Strategies. A little different than most life coaches, Anita’s 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 14 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. Anita works with people literally all over the world to help them discover a life and career they love. Contact Anita here to get started on your new career and life!