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‘It just feels like a black hole’: Getting through work when you’re depressed

Mental health and the workplace
WATCH: Mental health and the workplace

When you’re struggling with depression, there are days when leaving the house can feel like a challenge.

Add on the demands of a job and life can feel overwhelming.

For Lisa, who asked Global News to change her name to protect her identity, depression has affected her ability to function at work. The 29-year-old has dealt with anxiety and depression since her teens, but when she lost her mother a few years ago, her mental health greatly suffered.

READ MORE: People with depression are often told to exercise. What if they can’t?

“I would find myself sitting at my desk having no idea what I was doing there,” she said. “I couldn’t focus, I would stare at my screen and let tears roll down my face without any emotion.”

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What is depression?

Lisa is not alone. Around one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem, like depression or anxiety, at some point in their lives. While depression has various markers, common symptoms include trouble concentrating and a loss of interest in work, which can directly affect how someone functions in the workplace.

Aside from work, people dealing with depression can also experience a lack of interest in friendships, hobbies and relationships. Symptoms of depression also include suicidal thoughts, irritability, trouble concentrating or making decisions, and crying easily.

How to help take care of your mental health while in school
How to help take care of your mental health while in school

There are often physical symptoms, too, including muscle aches and pain, psychomotor impairment (like slowed speech), changes in appetite and low energy levels.

While everyone experiences sadness, major or clinical depression is a mood disorder that affects the body and mind. One of the main differences between sadness and depression is a despairing mood that lasts more than two weeks, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) points out.

Depression can be caused by various factors including genetics, personality, hormones, brain chemistry and major life stress, according to CAMH.

How does depression affect work?

For people with severe depression, getting out of bed to go to work may not always be possible, said Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

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READ MORE: Men struggle to keep friends — and it’s hurting their mental health

“Many of the people who are most severe are not going to work. They’re literally not leaving their bed, not leaving their bedroom, and that’s when it gets really dangerous,” he said.

People experience different levels of depression, he explained, meaning those with mild or moderate cases may still maintain professional commitments — even if it’s very challenging.

“A critical feature of depression is nothing seems to matter; there seems to be no point in doing anything,” he said.

At work, depression can make it harder for people to concentrate and be productive, said Nasreen Khatri, a registered clinical psychologist and clinician scientist with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. Depressed workers may also feel exhausted or overwhelmed.

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‘Suicide in seniors happens more often than we’re willing to admit’: Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary

Depression can also make employees more socially withdrawn, and all of this impacts workplace productivity.

“Mental illness costs the Canadian economy $51 billion a year, and 500,000 Canadians call in sick every week due to a mental health issue,” Khatri said.

“Most short- and long-term disability claims are made for a mental health issue.”

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When 29-year-old Natasha was going through a hard mental health period, getting through the workday was often a challenge.

READ MORE: 28 per cent of men believe they could lose their job if they discuss mental health at work

Natasha, who asked Global News to change her name for privacy reasons, works with children. While her therapist told she was experiencing depressive symptoms, those symptoms really affected her job.

“I was super distracted,” she said. “In my job, I literally have to be excited and upbeat, and it was just hard for me to do that.”

Getting help for depression

Depression is a health condition like any other, and it’s important people speak to their doctor if they’re experiencing symptoms or struggling with low mood, Khatri said. Treating depression is key to managing its symptoms.

A health professional will recommend the best treatment plan, which can include medication and therapy. Joordens says cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can be very helpful in treating depression as it helps change thinking patterns.

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In addition to treatment, Khatri said doctors can also help patients figure out a professional plan that may include accommodations at work or a leave of absence.

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“It’s important to focus on the basics when depression can make even the smallest task seem like an effort,” she said. “Doing your best to get adequate rest, sleep, eating well and reaching out to supportive friends and family is key.”

There’s unfortunately still a stigma around mental health issues, which can prevent employees from seeking help or asking for accommodations. But workplaces need to recognize depression as a serious health issue, and implement ways to support workers, Khatri said.

READ MORE: ‘Depression isn’t like a broken bone’ — Steps to overcome this common mental illness

This can include crafting a “practical road map” of how to support workers dealing with mental health issues, she said, like making employees aware of assistance programs and creating a step-based approach that makes it easier for employees to approach bosses about their mental health concerns.

It’s also vital for workplaces to model positive mental health behaviour, she said.

“Cultivating a culture of psychological safety, so that everyone at work feels welcome, safe, comfortable, confident, and feel that they can share ideas and speak up when they want or need to is key.”

Natasha was close enough with her colleagues that when they learned she was struggling, they offered support.

“They would step up and take more of a lead … because I was just not myself,” she said.

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How cooking helps ease symptoms of anxiety and depression
How cooking helps ease symptoms of anxiety and depression

Both Lisa and Natasha found therapy to be helpful for managing their conditions at work and in their personal lives. Through medication and therapy, Natasha says her mental health has greatly improved and she can now better cope with work.

Lisa says her partner is very supportive, and always listens to her when she’s struggling.

“Depression is something that I know I will always deal with [and] for me it’s important to have people I can talk to and won’t be judged by,” she said.

“My biggest fear for my mental health in the future is when I go through another trauma with loss. I truly hope I am able to see the light at the end of the tunnel but when you’re in it, it just feels like a black hole.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca