by Theodora Blanchfield
Work stress is inescapable for most of us, but if you are living with depression, you may be experiencing added stress caused by your symptoms. Depression may affect work due to symptoms like lack of motivation, inability to focus, loss of energy, difficulty sleeping, and losing interest in work you previously enjoyed. This feeling of not being able to be as productive as usual can create a vicious cycle—you feel like you can't get work done because you're depressed, and depression symptoms may get worse because you can't get work done.
This is far from unusual. Greenbrook's Virginia Regional Medical Director, Dr. William Sauvé, notes that difficulty focusing is one of the most common—and least talked about—symptoms of depression.
"Cognitive impairment is a major symptom [of depression] and probably one of the most common. Word finding, processing speed, maintaining attention, switching attention—all of these cognitive skills are diminished in those with depression," he explains. "It can often be very subtle ... On the outside, coworkers wouldn't notice anything wrong. But my patients feel a little more slowed down, or as if it's taking more energy to focus and get work done."
If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. There are strategies you can implement during your work day that can help, as well as professional treatments that can lessen your symptoms.
If you're dealing with depression while working from home—especially if you're not accustomed to working from home—you are probably facing added stressors. When you're used to working in an office around people, shifting to working from home can cause feelings of loneliness or isolation, which can magnify depression. Plus, although you may not miss your commute, getting dressed and leaving your home may have provided a certain amount of structure to the day. With home and work being the same place, it is easy for boundaries to erode and work-life balance issues to arise.
In many cases, the same strategies for productivity and focus apply when you're working from home as when you're working in an office. If you're home, though, it may be a good idea to reach out to coworkers or a support network for help staying motivated and being held accountable. Knowing there are other people checking in on you could help lessen the feelings of isolation, making working from home with depression more bearable.
Here's a few strategies to make work a bit more manageable when keeping track of emails and deadlines begins to feel like a monumental task.
Consider this example: Perhaps when you're feeling your best, you typically complete about 10 tasks per day. But when you're dealing with depression, maybe you can only complete five. This is common and understandable for those managing depression, and is not a personal failing. Instead of trying to force yourself to work harder, it's important to be realistic about what you can reasonably handle.
Take a look at your workload and determine the things that absolutely need to get done that day. By identifying the highest priorities, you can accomplish the essential tasks without overextending yourself. Setting realistic expectations for yourself is self-care, too.
Sometimes, facing the expanse of a full work day can feel incredibly overwhelming, and procrastination comes in. Instead, try scheduling your tasks as if they're meetings so you have a manageable plan of how you will organize your day and your work. You can put chunks of time on a digital calendar to give yourself a visual of the day, or use focusing strategies like the Pomodoro Technique to help yourself avoid procrastination.
Let's say that one of your tasks is to write an article. That's the big task, but that includes research, interviews, and writing. Rather than tell yourself you'll write the whole thing at once, focus on one bit of a project at a time. That way, you'll give yourself small wins, activating a small hit of dopamine from your body's reward system.
If you feel comfortable, it might be worth trying to talk to your boss so they know what's going on. They may be able to help you work out arrangements, such as moving some less-urgent assignments off your plate or giving you some extra time. If working from home might help, they could help you find a plan that works for both of you.
Some days, none of these strategies will be enough—and that's okay! Just as you should take a sick day if you have the flu, you should take a mental health day if you need it. Just be sure not to spend the day checking your email or reaching out for updates. Try to unplug, and treat yourself to a nourishing activity like a massage or a long walk.
Dealing with depression that's affecting your work can sometimes feel like wearing a heavy coat you can't take off. If you're struggling with depression, the strategies above can help in the short term. But they're no substitute for getting medical treatment.
Seeking treatment like psychotherapy and antidepressants can help you feel better at work and in all other areas of your life. If you're not sure where to start, your primary care provider can help.
However, if you've already begun seeking treatment and have tried multiple depression medications with no results, there are other options available to you. Non-medication treatments, such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), often work where medications haven't.
It's important you find a treatment option that works well for you. After all, prioritizing and supporting your mental health is key to improving your quality of life, whether on the job or not.
If Covid-19 and social isolation are heightening your symptoms of depression, Greenbrook TMS therapy may be able to help. At Greenbrook, we specialize in TMS therapy — an FDA-cleared, non-invasive treatment for treatment-resistant depression and OCD without harmful side effects. See if TMS therapy is right for you by clicking here to take a brief assessment: