Depression in the workplace – let’s make it work

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Article by Daniel Månsson, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Flow Neuroscience

Depression affects over 260 million people worldwide, cross-sectioning ages, cultures and lifetimes.

The all-encompassing mental health disorder works around the clock; as the average UK employee spends around 8 hours per day at work, there is no separation between the working day and our mental health.

Despite the high numbers of people affected, as many as half of all UK employees who take time off for mental health reasons do not report it as such for fear of stigma and the perceived impact on their career progression. Considering that in 2020 around 828,000 people suffered from workplace anxiety or depression, accounting for almost 17.9 million lost working days, we need to do more as professionals to ensure a safe and supportive environment for people to report their real reason for absence. 

Understanding depression at work

Manifesting across a range of symptoms, depression is pervasive throughout someone’s experiences. Our workplace, the environment in which we spend a big portion of our time, has the potential to support or exacerbate depressive episodes.  According to the WHO, a negative working environment can lead to mental and physical health problems, prolonged absences, and lost productivity.

Some common symptoms that might be experienced which impact working life include increased anxiety levels, lack of motivation, increased boredom or fatigue, inability to concentrate, making excessive errors, missing deadlines, impaired decision-making capacity, loss of interest, and increased irritability or anger.

While it can be common to feel certain symptoms at different times throughout your working week, when the above experiences persist, and it is impacting your daily life, you might be experiencing clinical depression and you should seek advice from your doctor.

There are a few recurrent themes in a work environment that can further trigger depression or depressive episodes, such as the lack of control over work issues, fear of being fired, working place relationships, bullying, and harassment. Working irregular hours or consistently overworking outside of agreed hours are also problematic. Unfortunately, more employees have experienced this in the past year while working from home, juggling childcare commitments and the living room doubling as the office, making it harder to maintain clear boundaries.

Women more affected than men

The most recent statistics show that female employees have significantly higher rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety than males across all age groups. Long working hours, low income and physically demanding jobs are cited as contributing factors. 

Psychological safety

According to data from Flow Neuroscience, around 34% of patients are currently unable to work due to their depression and are on sick leave. This can perpetuate the depressive cycle;  while working and a sense of routine can provide positive habits to support reducing symptoms, a workplace environment that further triggers depression won’t allow people to flourish.

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. We need to encourage more space for employees to manage their depressive symptoms during the working day and ensure that if they choose to discuss their mental health with employers, it won’t negatively impact their careers. 

Making it work

Clinical depression is complex and can occur for a variety of reasons with many triggers. 

If you are experiencing any depressive symptoms whether borne from the workplace or not, it is important to view these seriously and consult with your doctor. Depression expresses itself differently in each individual and so taking a patient-centric approach is important, pulling in all the factors which might be combining to exacerbate symptoms. When it comes to the treatment of depression, we need to take a more thorough approach, providing a range of options that can work in each individual case and tailoring this to a person’s circumstances. For treatments that tackle the biological components of depression we have antidepressants and brain stimulation, such as the Flow headset, whilst for behavioural components, in-person therapy and science-based lifestyle habits help to manage the peaks and troughs of the disorder. 

It is important we approach depression in a succinct way so that both employers and employees understand the severity of the condition and that it isn’t something that can be just ‘gotten out of’. Workplaces have a lot to do in ensuring they are making their environments supportive and inclusive so that people who either are clinically diagnosed or who need to seek a diagnosis feel empowered.  

Regardless of the manifestation of your depression, there are some key habits that you can implement to help manage your symptoms, especially if they are triggered by your working environment:

  • Switch up your diet to include more whole grains, fish, vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts, seeds and cold-pressed olive oil.
  • Incorporate regular exercise into your routine, studies have indicated that 30-40 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week is ideal.
  • Start to regularly meditate.
  • Create healthy sleep habits by waking up at the same time every day and establish a bedtime routine.

If you have noticed one of your colleagues struggling, there are a few things you can do to support them:

  • Ask them what kind of support they need. Depression can feel overwhelming, lend a helping hand as much as an open ear.
  • Stay inclusive. Depression can be isolating and even if someone might repeatedly decline offers, it is good to keep asking.
  • Start regular walking breaks or fitness teams to encourage exercise during lunch breaks or after work together
  • Be mindful of their boundaries, well-meant is not always well-done.
  • Advocate for mental health policies at your company, be an ally. 

Looking to the future, we collectively need to implement more accessibility and acceptance in the workplace both from employers and employees in regards to mental health. Proactively allocating preventative resources, access to mental health professionals and enabling committees to focus on spreading information to reduce stigma. As colleagues and employees ourselves, we should take steps to look out for one another, speak up when environments become negative and create positive boundaries for our own mental health. 

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