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John Folk-WilliamsJohn Folk-Williams
A Blog About Strategies and Methods for Self-Help in Healing

Depression and Stress at Work

John Folk-Williams Updated: Dec 29th 2011

Sooner or later depression forces you to make changes in your worklife. If adapting at your present job doesn't help, then it's probably time to look at other possibilities. However difficult, impractical or even impossible the alternatives might seem, it's worth considering what else you could do.

help me sign on deskThis post looks at three strategies that could help you manage depression by changing your work situation: frequent job changes, getting out of a toxic work environment, or changing the type of work you do. These are a few ideas to help you come up with your own solution. At the least, they might help you ask the right questions about what you want and need.


1. Moving from Job to Job

Many people have learned to handle depression by shifting jobs frequently. Their experience tells them that if they try to stay with one job too long, the limits imposed by their illness will undermine performance and probably lead to their being fired anyway. They need full-time employment, and this way they avoid having a job history with a long string of dismissals.

Others know they can't handle the stress and social interaction of a steady job. Doing temporary work that moves them from one short-term assignment to another is one solution. Finding a way to earn money from home could be another. However they manage, they've adapted, in many cases, to earning just enough money to get by.

You might well feel that this approach carries too much uncertainty for you. Or perhaps you need to have steadier work to feel like your doing something productive with your life. If that's the case, but you can't deal with your present job, you could look at the work environment you're in every day. That could be a major problem.

2. Finding a Better Work Environment

A damaging work environment that overloads you with work and high stress is getting to be the norm. Surveys report 40-50% of US workers work under high stress and need help learning how to manage it. Stress is linked to many health problems, including depression. If you have severe and recurrent depression, a toxic workplace will only intensify your illness.

As Tony Giordano describes his experience in It's Not All In Your Head, his workplace had become punishing, abusive and unfair. He faced a combination of impossible deadlines, job insecurity, backbiting among workers fearing for their jobs and managers taking out their own shortcomings on staff. Combined with depression, these conditions gradually undermined his ability to function.

If you're trying to manage a job in a workplace like that, while also living with major depression, you could run the risk of a collapse like the one Giordano went through. You may have to find a better work environment, hard as it is to find one, just to keep going.

But if these strategies don't help, maybe it's time to look at the type of work that you've been doing.

3. Changing Your Work, Changing Your Life

It's not easy to figure out if the work you know best and have been doing for a long time is actually making your illness worse. In the midst of severe depression, it can be impossible to function well in any occupation. After the worst is over, however, you may be able to return to your job or profession and be as effective as before. Hopefully, you would also find it just as fulfilling and rewarding as it has always been.

But it could be that any progress you make in treatment is lost as soon as you get back to your familiar work. After trying other strategies, you may realize that the problem is not about employers or clients, not about the atmosphere of the workplace, or the number of hours you put in each day or anything else in the conditions of your work. It must be something about the work itself that is worsening depression and generally undermining your well-being.

Barriers to Change

Personal Investment: That's a conclusion, though, that you might resist and avoid for years because you have so much invested in doing this particular type of work well. Admitting that it's become impossible to pursue might seem like a terrible defeat, a surrender to the illness.

Financial Risk: You ask yourself: How else could you possibly earn a living? There's no way you could swing it financially. You can't afford to lose your income, even for a few months. You're sure that it's totally impractical, nothing but dreaming.

Depressed Thinking: When depressed, you probably have trouble making any decision, let alone one about changing the life you now lead. You also tend to underestimate yourself. You may be convinced you're not talented enough to do anything else, even an occupation you'd always hoped you could do.

You may feel too empty and lacking in energy to make the effort. Depressed thinking is also telling you that there's no point in trying since you'd probably fail. You're convinced you couldn't learn new skills, especially if it means going back to school or enrolling in a more limited training program.

In the end, even if all these thoughts and beliefs win out, you have still made a choice - to do nothing. For many years, I couldn't get around obstacles like these. Staying with it, however, ultimately led to a collapse in my ability to function. Doing nothing was no longer a choice. Like it or not, I had to take the leap.

Finding Alternatives

Temporary Work: The problem is that the longer you wait to take action, the fewer alternatives you have. At that point, you may have to take the first job you can find, often at low pay. You might try the strategy of frequent job shifting or relying on temporary work. Or, if depression is too severe, or other opportunities too limited, you might need to get out of the workforce altogether.

Leaving the Workforce: If you're fortunate, you might have a retirement option or a good severance package from your last job. If you work for a large company or public agency, they might offer an early retirement incentive as they try to reduce the workforce. Or you might qualify for a disability pension - either from an employer or from Social Security.

Planning Ahead: If you give yourself enough lead time, you could plan ahead with the help of a therapist who specializes in transitions of this type. I think it's important to consult with someone who has a good grasp of the possibilities. The more depressed you are, the more help you need to open your thinking to new possibilities, identify the skills you have, and focus on the practical possibilities of finding more fulfilling and less stressful work.

There's no formula for this and no easy way to do it. But you may have to make such a major change to manage depression. It's a matter of balancing practical needs with the more basic ones of regaining health, saving relationships, perhaps even staying alive.

Have you had to make changes in your worklife to adapt to depression? What strategies have you tried, and how much have they helped? Have you been able to deal with the financial problem? Are there barriers that still stand in your way?


John Folk-Williams

After recovering from decades of recurring depression a few years ago, John Folk-Williams became a full-time blogger on mental health. Writing the award-winning personal blog, Storied Mind, proved to be a turning point in his struggle to end his illness. To share his ongoing learning about strategies and methods for self-help in healing, he has expanded the scope of his online writing. You can find a collection of his posts at Health Central's My Depression Connection, and also follow his new website, Recover Life from Depression.

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