Dealing with Work-Related Depression

If you find yourself sitting in a fetal  position outside your work, you may want to re-evaluate things.

It could be the beginning of the year, your work-anniversary, your birthday, or a Monday - any day that signals a new beginning. But then again, it might as well be yet another day. Nothing is different, everything is just as pointless as it was before, and whatever new reserves of energy you acquired that gave you the strength to go on are already depleting faster than the ozone layer.

You, my friend, are suffering from work-related depression.

So what's next? Cash in your 401k and give it to some obscure charity in a random act of kindness? Cancel your health insurance policy? Find comfort in the paralyzing motionless of traffic and get lost in your thoughts? A final toast?

While these are all acceptable behaviors, because when suffering from work-related depression everything seems both acceptable and unacceptable, there are milder alternatives that may actually have a stronger impact on the issue at hand. But first...

What is work-related depression?

Depression is a state in which the veneer of meaning, which serves the evolutionary purpose of keeping you living, is stripped. You slowly start to perceive the chaos and utter meaninglessness of your everyday existence, which was previously masked. For whatever reason, the genetically built-in mechanism for sorting chaos into order and bestowing the world with meaning is malfunctioning. It's like that scene in "The Truman Show," where the light falls down.

The state is generally marked by a paralyzing feeling of emptiness. Common symptoms of work-related depression include:

  • Emotional distance
  • Ambivalence towards the weekly staff breakfast your boss and co-workers find thrilling, and other group events
  • A lack of any serious engagement in all work activity
  • In other words, a complete and utter lack of motivation
  • Fatigue and a reduced appetite
  • A general absence of emotional reaction, beyond a lingering sadness (you may even find jokes funny, but not be able to laugh at them because, well, what's the point?)
  • Frequent sighing
  • Answering "good" in a broken voice, when asked how you're doing
  • Saying "yes" to every request no matter how ridiculous or impossible (because it requires less effort than saying "no"), but hardly ever following through
  • Experiencing an incapacitating anxiety attack when you realize you misplaced your favorite pen
  • Very present fear stemming from the weight of an ominous, massive, uncompromising and uncertain future
  • Thinking more than usual
  • Loss of confidence and a feeling of being trapped

The symptoms share a common theme: a withdrawal from the rituals of daily life. Yes, you may continue to do work and interact with people, but more mechanically than before. You, yourself, become absent. The meaninglessness of your work fully reveals itself and makes it impossible to fully immerse yourself in it. And while depression gets frequently ennobled in art and literature, and while it can provide insights, it also makes it damn hard to accomplish anything.

When you arrive at the office, everything seems stark and grey. The printer, like your life, is broken again. The water cooler is half-empty. And probably unplugged, dispensing room-temperature water regardless of what knob you use.

Your boss's antics no longer carry any weight to them. His greeting is shallow and disinterested. And when he asks you to do a project on which the future of the company rests, you get to it, knowing the company is doomed anyway. We are all doomed, and you couldn't care less anyway.

The work you do is rote, repetitive and mindless. It has no higher purpose than to give you a small paycheck you end up blowing on food, shelter, payments to utility and other companies for services you're not even sure you've received, and fleeting entertainment like the latest Adam Sandler movie, which is like all the other Adam Sandler movies, or the bottle of booze, which is gone too quickly.

Your co-workers, whose company you usually enjoy, all seem like the same person, engaging in mindless chatter which drowns out anything of significance. There is Jim happily pointing out he is wearing the same shirt as you and while you would normally smile at the significance of this, it now seems like a meaningless accident - like the universe in which everyone might as well wear the same shirt.

Regina is excited about some promotion she got from clerk to almost-head clerk, but titles no longer mean anything to you. Even the CEO is prisoner to his biology, and will eventually expire like the food in the fridge in the employee lounge.

Then there's Fred, who's complaining again about some decade-old company policy that hasn't and won't change, no matter how much it sucks. But when you tell him that the entire enterprise is questionable, he walks away quickly, afraid someone may have overheard.

People gradually distance themselves from you. They start to sense that you are trying hard at small talk, instead of just making it. The effort, painfully apparent, makes you a poor conversation partner. Things spiral downwards. Now, even your medium soy non-fat chai latte has a particularly meaningless flavor.

When did it all go wrong?, you ask yourself. How did all this start?

Causes of Work-Related Depression

There are many reasons you can become depressed at work, not all of them directly related to your job. I've made a brief list here of some of them for your enjoyment:

  • Moral qualms - If you're a relatively good person, and your job involves screwing over other people, repossessing their earnings, complicating their lives (or taking them away), or doing anything else that may cause a moral conflict you are a likely candidate for work-related depression.
  • Hostile work environment - Nobody likes assholes. If you're surrounded by them 40 hours a week, you're bound to start questioning things.
  • Meaninglessness of the work - How to touch this one without mentioning Marx's theory of alienation? By calling it the Jackal's Hypothesis of Estrangement. In broad strokes, if your job involves doing a small part in some massive corporation, the impact of which is never made clear to you, it can begin to feel meaningless. It's hard to feel good when you dedicate most of your life to doing something that makes little sense to you. And then, some jobs are just naturally depressing.
  • You no longer love what you do - This sometimes happens. Even James Bond and Ethan Hunt must have had days when all they wanted to do was get behind a desk and type data into an Excel spreadsheet. We all change, and it is naive to expect that something that interested us at twenty will continue to fascinate us when we're fifty (though it does happen). And sometimes, we simply become bored - repetition breeds familiarity which creates boredom which gives rise to doubt. And doubt is the source of all depression. 
  • Personal tragedy - Experiencing a personal tragedy can easily throw into question everything around you, including your job. As can any reminder of your own mortality.
  • You see a leaf getting trampled on - Nietzsche saw a horse getting whipped. Truman Burbank saw a light fall down. And for William Foster it was a fly buzzing in traffic. In life, there are small, seemingly innocuous events that manage to make us question everything around us. And when we see them, everything begins to unravel.
  • Genetic / biological - And finally, some of us are simply born on the wrong side of the bed. It's unfortunate and unfair, but those we're talking about are already aware of this. 

This is a general list of various causes of possible work-related depression. But all laughter aside, depression carries major implications for the workplace. 

This insightful study by Purdue University reports that one in five employees suffer from work-related depression. It estimates the financial costs at $30-44 billion, both due to work absenteeism due to depression, and to something called "presenteeism," namely being "present on the job but [having] significantly reduced productivity." It also goes into more detail on the subject of the causes of work-related depression.

So, now that you're more informed, how do you deal with it?

Dealing with Work-Related Depression

People react to depression differently. Some may become active in their depression and externalize the meaninglessness they feel through various drastic actions that underline their own purposelessness. This can naturally lead to self-destructive behaviors, like getting hammered, doing drugs, having promiscuous unprotected sex with multiple partners, fighting bare-handed with multiple opponents, or building a mountain out of your mashed potatoes. While others internalize it, becoming quiet, introverted, and absent.

The problem with getting over depression is that once the veneer of meaning is lifted, it is very hard to put it back up. It's sort of like walking in on your parents having sex. It's happened and it cannot un-happen. The word doesn't even exist. But of course that doesn't mean you won't grow up to be a thoughtful, intelligent and well-adjusted individual.

So what can you do?

Most people will tell you: get another job. That's much easier said than done, and the economy isn't helping. While resignation is certainly an option, it should be carefully thought-through and prepared-for. It's easy to do neither when depressed. Tim, an attorney from Missouri who dedicated a whole article to the issue of job depression, refers to this phenomenon as "Craving Closure."

This involves rash, behavior whose ultimate goal is to quit or get fired - you know, threatening your co-workers, breaking office equipment, refusing to do work by crossing your arms, sitting in the corner and saying "No!" firmly. Once again, the Jackal believes that sometimes quitting is the appropriate response, especially since life is too short and mental health too precious to endure a job that endangers both. Nevertheless, Tim's article is not only a great source of information on job depression, but also contains a solid list of work-related depression resources.

There are other alternatives:

  • Vacation - This article highlights a very basic strategy to alleviate depression. Sometimes, taking some time off and going on a trip to some exotic place can help de-stress and gain a different perspective on things. Conversely, it can also make you hate your job even more. 
  • Keeping busy - Depressive thoughts fuel depression. As a result, one of the surest ways to alleviate it is to find something to take your mind off things. From knitting to fly-fishing, from hiking to joining a fight club, from reading books to painting caricatures of already funny looking people, hobbies are an essential part of life, and an essential part of maintaining your sanity.
  • Be active - This is an extension of the above point. If you are depressed, the Jackal begs you to find a physical activity you enjoy doing. Swim. Run. Work out. Fence. Learn judo. Climb rocks. Ski. Play lacrosse. Golf is not a sport.
  • Meditation - Yoga, zen meditation, and other forms of meditation have promising results in combating depression.
  • Counseling - In the olden days, people used to get together and talk. You know, have conversations about life and its various puzzles. Today, we have texting and counseling. I'm not going to shit on either and simply say that if you have health insurance, and it covers counseling, then don't be afraid to give it a shot. Sometimes, we just need to talk.
  • Eat healthy - We are what we eat, and we can either eat unhappy foods, or happy ones
  • Drugs - You can also try drugs. Check if your insurance covers therapy and you may get a nifty prescription. For the longest time I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on with my boss, until I started receiving memos on stationary promoting Lexapro. And, come to think of it, she has been chirpier of late.
Here are two good sites that offer some additional tips for combating work-related depression. Although, I am not fond of the tip to literally "smell the flowers" offered in the first one. Not the tip so much, but the ridiculous writing. 

Finally, it's easy to forget that work-related depression is not all bad. It can give you a distinct perspective on things, whose benefits should not be denigrated. Because stupid things that would normally drive you crazy lose their significance, you may end up feeling less bothered by them. And you may find other things that are truly meaningful.

So, if you get over depression, you might gain an interesting perspective on life. That alone might be enough to put a half-hearted smile on your face.

Even she smiled about something.


  1. Dear Jackal,
    Thanks for the info on work related depression. It's a great entry. It's nice to realize when it's time to look for a new job..health or work? health!

  2. You're welcome Anonymous, and good luck on the hunt! To quote Indiana Jones: "You have chosen wisely." Hope you find a good one!

  3. "Depression is a state in which the veneer of meaning, which serves the evolutionary purpose of keeping you living, is stripped. You slowly start to perceive the chaos and utter meaninglessness of your everyday existence, which was previously masked. For whatever reason, the genetically built-in mechanism for sorting chaos into order and bestowing the world with meaning is malfunctioning."

    Thank you for that. I fight and fight my depression, and I don't tell anybody about it, partly because I know they don't understand, and partly because I know I don't have the words to help them understand. These words might be able to help (though I still remain skeptical that anyone who never had severe depression without obvious reason would ever understand my battle).