How to deal with work when you’re struggling with depression

That said, telling your employer that you’re suffering from depression isn’t always easy. ‘As mental health conditions aren’t as visible as a physical illness, it can be more difficult to explain the symptoms and impact,’ says Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director of mental health at Bupa UK. Dr Vandenabeele suggests making some written notes before approaching your employer. ‘A statement from your GP might also help,’ he adds. Of course, there’s no obligation to ‘come out’ about your depression, but if you do, you can then request reasonable adjustments to make your working life more manageable. ‘Some of the ways an employer can help an employee manage their depression are to look at flexible working hours, giving them time off, and offering health cover that gives them access to support with mental health conditions,’ Dr Vandenabeele says. You might, for example, find mornings difficult, and benefit from changing your working hours to start later and finish later. ‘My best tactic is to work at night when I feel more alive,’ says Hayley Smith, director of Boxed Out PR, who deals with depression and anxiety. ‘It means I can work through things without people constantly making demands on me, so I feel less anxious and more organised and together.’ Likewise, you might find it beneficial to tell a few colleagues about your illness so they can help when you’re at a low ebb. ‘Alerting those around you to the signs and symptoms can ensure that you get the right support as and when you need it,’ explains Dr Vandenabeele. Many people with depression struggle with productivity at work, as it can hamper concentration, attention and memory. Developing routines can help when you’re battling with this ‘brain fog’. ‘It’s all about planning and setting small daily goals,’ says Ms Smith. ‘These help me see what I’ve achieved at the end of the day, and make me feel more positive and prepared for the next day.’ As someone with depression myself, I’m a big fan of lists (crossing out completed tasks gives me a sense of accomplishment), and keeping a paper diary helps me feel on top of my workload in a way that a computerised calendar doesn’t. Taking a proper lunch break that includes a bit of fresh air, regularly decluttering your inbox and setting reminders to prompt you about important tasks or meetings can also help. But it’s not just what you do at work that affects your ability to keep working despite being depressed. Your home life and routines matter too. I know that if I stay up until midnight binge-watching a drama series, I’ll struggle the next day. On the other hand, trying to stick to regular mealtimes and bedtimes and also spending some time outdoors is beneficial to my mental health and makes me more productive.


‘The key is to manage the illness well,’ says Dr Vandenabeele. ‘You can do this by avoiding [mood-altering] substances, managing your stress levels, ensuring you get enough sleep and taking your medication properly.’ With the best will in the world, sometimes depression becomes too much to handle. Many employers are now receptive to employees taking the occasional mental health day. Indeed, last July, one boss’s sympathetic response to an employee’s request for a day off went viral. Others are less understanding, which can lead to employees making excuses for needing a day off. Jenny, who asked we don’t use her real name, works in catering, and recently feigned sickness when she needed a mental health day. ‘Lying about being physically sick doesn’t feel right, but it wouldn’t go down well if I asked for a mental health day, whereas working with food, they have to let me have time off if I say I’m throwing up,’ she says. Sometimes, you might need longer off work to tackle your depression. I’ve had to take several long periods of sick leave when I’ve been hospitalised. Try not to beat yourself up: this will only intensify the feelings of guilt and worthlessness. You wouldn’t hesitate to call in sick with flu; depression should be no different. It’s increasingly common for employers to allow people to self-certify, but if you’re off for seven days in a row, you’ll need a doctor’s note to qualify for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). Returning to work can be difficult, and it’s important to be aware of things that may trigger another bout of depression.

If you’re off for more than four weeks, you may be considered long-term sick. In this case, your employer has to consider what provisions could be made for your return to work: for example, working flexibly, part-time or in a less stressful role. ‘I’d advise not putting too much pressure on yourself, easing back into the routine, and trying to avoid too much stress,’ says Dr Vandenabeele. ‘I’d also recommend meeting with your manager about what workload you might be able to handle, and whether options like a phased return might work.’ I’ve experienced first-hand the difficulty of returning to work after being off with depression, but just as a broken leg is still achy and weak once the cast comes off, it takes time to build yourself back up after a depressive episode. Sophia Abbar-Rimlinger agrees. ‘Take it one step at a time, and don’t be too hard on yourself,’ she says. ‘After treatment, the process isn’t over: depression affects cognition, and this can be felt weeks after recovery. ‘Aftercare is important to stay well, but be proud of the progress you’ve made.’

Read more: