5 Work Habits That Are Secretly Depression In Disguise

Depression doesn't always look like sadness at your job. Don't ignore these subtle warning signs.
Depression does not always show up as sadness at work. Often it can show up in ways you would not expect.
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Depression does not always show up as sadness at work. Often it can show up in ways you would not expect.

We all go through ups and downs at work, but if hard days are becoming your new normal, you might be experiencing what 280 million people go through worldwide: depression.

Depression is a mental health condition that can show up as visible sadness and exhaustion, but a lot of times, it can also show up in ways you would not expect.

“Depression symptoms at work can sneak up on you, and it’s common to be tough on yourself about them rather than recognising them for what they are,” said Shannon Garcia, a psychotherapist at States of Wellness Counselling based in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Sustained feelings of hopelessness, diminished pleasure in activities, weight loss or gain, sleep disturbances, fatigue, feeling worthless, or difficulty with concentrating are depressive symptoms that can affect you on-and-off the clock, said Ryan Howes, psychologist based in Pasadena, California, and the author of “Mental Health Journal for Men.”

To help professionals learn the difference between a bad day and a depressive symptom, HuffPost asked different therapists about the work habits that are commonly signs of depression in disguise. See if these work behaviours resonate:

1. You are working harder than ever to avoid going home.

Depression can look different from person to person. Some co-workers may never guess that you are coping with depression because you are still functioning as a hardworking, reliable employee.

“For successful working professionals who have made a career out of achievement and getting validation from work, depression might look more active,” said Alicia Velez, a licensed clinical social worker based in Brooklyn, New York.

She gave the example of an employee going through a divorce or taking care of a sick family member.

“You might have someone working more hours than usual, maybe raising their hand to go on that long business trip, or wanting to be the one to tackle challenging cases or problems,” Velez said. “Validation and recognition at work tend to feel better than having to confront that a marriage may be over or that a family member may be at the end of his/her life.”

2. You were once a social butterfly but now you avoid co-workers.

How you interact with co-workers at work can help you understand if you are dealing with just a bad day or something deeper. Withdrawing from colleagues and isolating yourself are two common signs of depression, Velez said.

“This may look like someone who used to actively participate in meetings is [now] quieter, sits in the back of the room, or even misses the meeting altogether,” she said. “Perhaps the employee no longer takes part in off-sites or after work happy hours. He or she might find ways to evade interactions with colleagues or managers. The worker may let their calls go to voicemail, or be slow to respond to emails or even not respond at all.”

In extreme examples, a person who is exhibiting these behaviours can get in trouble at work and be at risk of losing their job, which can also result in a cycle of shame and guilt, Velez said.

3. You are continuously missing deadlines and meetings.

If handing in work on time or even showing up to work is becoming a daily struggle, it could also be a symptom of depression, Howes said.

“I knew someone who enjoyed his work, was actively engaged in his projects, and had a lot of contact with his coworkers. When he became depressed, he started sleeping through his alarm and showed up late to work. He was falling behind on deadlines, stopped going to lunch with colleagues, and became highly critical of his [own] and his co-workers’ performance,” Howes said.

“All of these changes were noticed by colleagues and bosses, who reached out to him and encouraged him to seek help,” Howes continued. “Fortunately, he did, and through a combination of changing diet and sleep hygiene, beginning therapy, and receiving a prescription for an antidepressant, he was feeling better within a few months.”

4. You are having angry outbursts at work.

“Depression isn’t just feeling down in the dumps ― it can make you super irritable too,” Garcia said.

If every little annoyance is setting you off at work, it could be a signal to look deeper at the cause. People with depression deal with symptoms of overt or suppressed anger, and can make their colleagues the target of their ire.

“At work, you may find yourself easily annoyed by everyone and everything. Your fuse is short with your co-workers, customers, and even your inbox,” Garcia said.

5. You lose motivation or interest in the work you used to enjoy.

There’s a difference between a one-time boring assignment and a worrisome pattern of apathy. Notice changes about how you feel regarding work that you used to take satisfaction in doing, Garcia said.

“You might notice yourself just staring at your screen, pretending to be busy, or doing anything but tackling the big stuff,” Garcia said. “That loss of interest that depression can cause may have you thinking ‘I just don’t care’ about your work.”

Missing deadlines and angry reactions can both be a sign of something deeper.
10'000 Hours via Getty Images
Missing deadlines and angry reactions can both be a sign of something deeper.

What you can do next if you suspect you have depression.

If these signs are resonating with your experience at work, know that you do not have to deal with depression on your own. There are steps you can take immediately to address how you are feeling and get better:

Listen to what your body is telling you about your health.

If your depression shows up as you hyper-functioning at work, it helps to check in with your body.

“It can be easy to miss depressive symptoms when work is tricking you into feeling competent and self-efficacious,” Velez said.

That’s why Velez suggests asking yourself questions that can help you notice changes in your physical health like: Are you feeling more tired than usual? What’s your relationship with alcohol or marijuana? Are you getting too little or too much sleep? How is your relationship with exercise and movement? Are there points of nagging tension anywhere in your body?

“Physical signs and signals can alert you that it may be time to acknowledge those uncomfortable feelings,” Velez said.

Talk to loved ones and trusted peers about how you’re feeling.

When you are depressed, you might not want anyone to know and may feel unworthy of your friends’ support. But in fact, talking to a few trusted peers and loved ones can be just what you need to help you against withdrawing and isolation.

“The best way to start managing depression is to talk with someone about it,” Howes said. He said you could open up to a friend or loved one, and let them know what you’re experiencing and how it’s impacting you.

Velez said it can also help for employees experiencing depression to ask trusted colleagues to stop by their desk for a quick coffee chat a couple times a week or to check in with them via text.

Seek professional help.

“Know that depression is very common and often responds well to treatment,” Howes said. “If it seems like this is depression, talking with a physician or a mental health professional is crucial. They will be able to assess your symptoms and recommend a course of treatment that may include therapy, medication or both.”

With written documentation of your depression by a medical professional, you may also qualify for reasonable accommodations at your job under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Examples of these accommodations can include permission to work from home or an altered schedule.

If you choose to share your condition with HR or your manager, they may be able to help you get company-sponsored resources and support.

“Many workplaces offer EAPs [Employee Assistance Programs] which have counsellors on staff to provide short-term therapy or can also give the employee referrals for other services that may be needed such as child care, food and housing assistance, and therapists in the community,” Velez said.

Assess whether your job is making your depression worse.

Citing psychiatrist Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s research on cognitive behavioral therapy, Velez said it is also important to learn if your job is providing you with the ability to feel pleasure, or a sense of enjoyment, and mastery, or a sense of achievement, because those are factors people need in order to combat depression.

To monitor if your job is exacerbating symptoms or is the source of them, Velez said an employee can keep track of work activities for one or two weeks in a spreadsheet, with one column for “pleasure” and another column for “mastery.”

“Having visual evidence can be a great way to confirm or deny our feelings,” Velez said. “Taking an inventory can let you know if you are getting pleasure and mastery from your job or if it’s time to start looking for a new job.”

Understand that tiny wins do make a difference.

“Depression often pushes you to isolate, do nothing, and be unkind to yourself. Doing the opposite, even in tiny ways, can really help,” Garcia said.

For instance, Garcia said that if you’re struggling to get out of bed and are showing up late to work, you can try sitting up when you wake instead of staying horizontal. And if projects feel overwhelming, Garcia recommended breaking them down into smaller steps or committing to just five minutes of focused effort.

Ultimately, it helps to understand that you are more than your depression.

“See depression as something separate from who you are and practice resisting its urges,” Garcia recommended.

The point is to remember that depression can be a tough mental health condition that affects millions of people every day, but it is a manageable one.