1 in 6.8 people in the average workplace experience mental health problems. Working whilst living with depression can be exhausting. There is a lot that people don’t see. Sometimes it can feel as though we’re almost living two different lives. When others understand our experiences, it can help us to feel less alone.
Separate work life
While some are very open about their mental health and happy to share their experiences with colleagues, others prefer to keep home life separate from work life.
Sometimes, it’s important to us to have a consistent place. Consistent in terms of routine and expectations, and consistent in terms of relationships. Work can provide that consistency, and help us to retain a sense of identity and purpose. Talking about how we are all the time is often draining, and can become all-consuming. It can be nice to have an escape from that.
Appearing “okay” when working
When working, we often put on a ‘front’. In some jobs, we are required to look smart, smile, and chat with people.
Even if smiling isn’t part of our job description, we’ll often try to appear “okay”. We might worry that people will judge us if they know that we live with depression. Some workplaces can have a culture of keeping emotions locked in. Appearing outwardly “fine” avoids awkward questions. But it can feel like we’re on stage for eight or nine hours a day.
All of this acting comes at a price. It’s exhausting. Some of us feel like we’re in a daze as we leave work to head home. Peeling ourselves off of our office chair and dragging our body to the car can take a monumental amount of effort. Our limbs can feel heavy. We might need to lie down for a while (or even all evening) as soon as we get home. Light might feel too bright and sound too loud. Cruelly, once we head to bed, we might not be able to sleep. Instead, we lie awake for hours, thinking through every interaction we had that day. We’re so tired.
Systems and tools
Depression affects our memory and concentration. Brain fog can cloud our thinking. We can be prone to making mistakes. To combat this, many of us use systems, tools, and routines to try and keep mistakes to a minimum.
These tools might look like post-it notes, notes on our phone, writing on the back of our hands, lists stuck on the kettle and back door, excel documents, apps, and routines. Sometimes we use all of the above at once. We might have notes left all over our house.
If others see these various tools and systems, they might comment that we’re organised, diligent, or thorough. Some might question why we have quite so many lists, even for arguably ‘simple’ tasks. They may go as far as to tell us that we’re wasting time and creating extra work. But for us, they can be lifelines. Sometimes, they’re the only hope we have of completing our work to an acceptable standard, and avoiding little mistakes.
Occasional crying breaks while working
Sometimes we’re totally unable to cry. Sometimes we feel as though we could cry at any moment all day, every day.
When work or life gets too much; perhaps we’re frustrated with ourselves or struggling with a colleague, we might start crying. If we work from home, some of us might stay at our desks while the crying eases off, none of our colleagues any the wiser. In the workplace, we might take ourselves to the bathroom or our car for a bit of privacy.
Whatever our situation, we will often try to hide our tears from those we work with. We might worry about coming across as unprofessional, or be scared that people will think we can’t cope.
To cope with depression, some of us engage in self-damaging behaviours.
Self-damaging behaviours can be different for different people. Some of us might use them to cope at the beginning or end of a workday. Others find that the only way we can get through the day is by engaging in these behaviours whilst at work.
Many of us hide our self-damaging behaviours because they can feel shameful. Although the reality is that self-damaging behaviours are just another coping mechanism, media rhetoric, stigma, discrimination, and, potentially, our past experiences, can tell us to hide them.
Medication and appointments
Some workplaces will offer us time off work to attend appointments. Others ask us to use annual leave to cover appointment times, rearrange work hours, or try to get appointments outside of work time.
We’re all different, so our treatment is different. Some take medication, others don’t. Some have a form of therapy, others don’t. While some of us are happy for others to know that we’re accessing support, others may choose to keep any appointments and/or medication private.
Depression can make it feel as though we’re attempting to swim uphill, in sludge, with a lead suit on. It can take us so much longer to do things than when we feel ‘okay’.
Some of us will have to get up earlier than normal because our morning routine takes so long, and it takes ages for our brain to wake up. We may feel we have to work longer hours to meet deadlines. Alternatively, we might have to move deadlines back. Going to bed can take longer, leading to less sleep, and increased tiredness.
Everything can take longer – walking, talking, thinking, everything. So we have to adjust our time expectations to account for that.
Our brains can get very busy. Even when our thinking is slow and memory and concentration have almost disappeared, it can still whirr away.
Depression can create ‘automatic thoughts‘. This means that, for example, if we received a small piece of helpful, constructive criticism, we might automatically think “I’m rubbish”, “I can’t do my job”, “I should just quit”, “if I quit I’ll have no money”, “I might as well just give up on life”. That chain of thought can automatically whizz through our mind in about 0.3 seconds. We then have to spend time and energy mentally rationalising it.
From the outside, it’s unlikely to be obvious that we’re spending a lot of time unpicking unhelpful brain spirals, talking ourselves down, and rationalising automatic thoughts. Inside, all of this can be going on while we attempt to carry on working.
Confidence is something else that can be hit hard by depression. We can lose almost all of our self-confidence, resulting in a lot of mental back-and-forth.
We might have thoughts, or a voice in our head, constantly wearing us down. Telling us that we look a mess, are a failure, can’t do anything, are a burden, let people down, and so much more. Sometimes, we have the energy to counter this. Sometimes, we just let it carry on in the background while we try and focus on our work.
Catching up with work
Depression can clog our brain up, activating “go slow” mode. On top of that, the tools and systems we implement to counter our poor memory and concentration take time. This combination, along with some other depression-related symptoms, can mean that we find ourselves falling behind. To try and overcome this, we might work late evenings, early mornings, and/or take work home.
All of this time is likely to be unpaid. Even if we could claim some pay, we might feel that we shouldn’t because we blame ourselves for struggling to focus. Guilt can overwhelm us. Guilt about not measuring up to our full potential, and about that not being fair to our employer.
This catch-up work can be exhausting because, at times when we would ideally be resting, we’re working. It can lead to burnout. But we carry on anyway because this catch-up work can stop our colleagues from seeing quite how ‘not okay’ we are.
Intrusive thoughts while working
Some of us have intrusive thoughts. Sometimes these are words, sometimes they might be mental pictures or films.
These thoughts are usually automatic and can be deeply distressing. Some of us get used to them playing in the background of our mind while we try to work. If we can get them to fade into the background slightly, then we can sometimes continue working while they rumble on.
Those we’re speaking to might have no idea that at the same time as discussing something work-related, we’re also watching mental films or batting away intrusive thoughts.
Depression can be expensive.
If we’re struggling to feed ourselves because we simply don’t have the energy after work, then we can start relying on pre-prepared food. This costs more than cooking from scratch. We might be forced to reduce our work hours. Perhaps “silly” mistakes end up costing us a fortune. Our poor memory and concentration can mean we do things like forgetting to pay for parking tickets or renewing our insurance, which hikes up the cost when we finally do remember. Sometimes we’ll buy stuff in the hope that it helps us to feel better. We might have to pay for medication or therapy.
Money concerns hit vulnerable populations hard. We can end up in debt as we struggle to stay on top of everything. Debt can feel shameful, and we might not want our colleagues to know how much we’re struggling. It can cause stress, stress can worsen our depression, depression can affect our finances – it can go in circles. But until it starts to affect our outward appearance, our colleagues may never know.
Hacks for tricky times
Washing our hair takes a lot of energy. Getting ourselves into a bath or shower can, too. The worse our mood is, the harder self-care can be. We might keep falling behind with our washing because we collapse on our bed the minute we get in from work and stay there all evening.
Dry shampoo, baby wipes, body spray, and increasing the amount of underwear we own so that we run out less often, are just some of the hacks we use to try and keep everything ticking over.
Some relationships are incredibly supportive when we’re unwell. Unfortunately, some of us lose friends when we’re going through a bad patch. There are people, people we’ve previously called friends, who struggle to support us when we’re unwell.
Depression can be incredibly isolating and sometimes our work, and the occasional supermarket trip is the only human interaction we get.
We might leave work on a Friday evening and not see or speak to another person until Monday morning. Leaving the house can be hard, especially if we have nowhere to go.
Ruminating while working
Ruminating is a big one when we live with depression and/or anxiety. We can worry about almost anything. Turning thoughts over and over, and over again. Sometimes, we might appear ‘switched off’ as we lose focus and end up in the land of head-thoughts.
Constant rumination is tiring whether we mentally engage with it or not. It takes an awful lot of energy, something which depression already limits. Sometimes, it’s helpful to talk over our ruminating thoughts with someone who can offer a fresh perspective.
Calming down a panic attack
Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Panic attacks can come almost out of nowhere and completely floor us.
Working from home, behind a screen, this can be relatively easy to hide from our colleagues, while we process it and let it pass. In a physical workplace, hiding a panic attack is harder. We might excuse ourselves and go to the nearest bathroom until we breathe normally again.
What we need from you
It’s often tricky to ask for what we need, especially if we’re not sure how others will react.
We’re all different, so our needs will vary. However, learning about depression, how to support someone with depression, and how to support people in the workplace, can help to improve awareness. Something really important is that those around us are non-judgemental. We need people to be kind, and to remember that we’re human.
It’s also helpful to be aware of the support available for those with depression and other mental health concerns. Different organisations support people with a variety of needs. This means that if a colleague speaks to us about tricky feelings, then we can signpost them to some support. Not only will this help the person in question, but it can put our mind at rest a little, too.
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