Depression: what you can do in the workplace
This guide gives you advice about how to talk about your depression, manage symptoms at work and what your school, college or university should be doing to support you.
Guides / 12 mins read
What's in this guide:
- Low mood or depression: how to spot the symptoms
- Overcoming challenges: talking about depression at work
- How to manage symptoms while at work
- What should my employer be doing?
- How to support colleagues
If you live with depression, you might find it difficult to work due to lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating, losing interest in once-loved activities, or disrupted sleep. Depression can also make you worry more than you usually would about the work that needs to get done.
Our 2020 Teacher Wellbeing Index found an increase in symptoms of poor mental health which may become depression in the longer term if left untreated. These included insomnia, difficulty concentrating and tearfulness.
Depression can happen for a variety of reasons and everyone’s case is different. However, for some, it is stress in the workplace that can lead to depression or worsen existing symptoms. Examples of what can cause stress at work include:
- working long hours
- a large workload
- being asked to do things outside your competency level
- difficulties with colleagues
- unsafe working conditions
- demanding deadlines
In October 2020
of teachers told us they were stressed
of school leaders described themselves as stressed
You may meet certain classes you previously enjoyed with feelings of dread, or struggle to focus when faced with a mountain of marking. There’s no shame in this, and we’d like to provide some pointers on how to care for yourself, and others, who may be experiencing symptoms of depression.
This guide covers some of the challenges you might be facing that are holding you back from talking about depression at work, how to manage symptoms, and what your employer should be doing to support you.
For colleagues, this guide includes how you can become a supportive ally for those living with depression and how you can reduce stigma and discrimination.
Low mood or Depression? How to spot symptoms
Low mood: We all experience challenging times. These could trigger feeling unhappy or sad. However, these feelings last for a short period of time and don’t interrupt your daily life.
Depression: Is a mental illness known as a mood disorder, that does interrupt your daily life. Symptoms include, but not limited to:
- losing interest in what you once enjoyed
- feeling unexplainably teary
- not wanting to socialise
- trouble getting out of bed
- feeling hopeless, very tired, and irritable
- experiencing body aches and pains
- thoughts of self-harm and or suicide
Overcoming challenges: talking about depression at work
Sharing personal information at work can feel uncomfortable. However, letting your workplace know you are living with depression will make your day to day easier. Here are some examples of the questions or thoughts you might have, with reassuring support to help make talking about depression at work easier for you.
Who can I talk to?
If you are experiencing symptoms and have not yet done so, contact your GP. You can also search for your local mental health authority, where you can refer yourself to their services.
At work, HR is a good place to reach out to, or your line manager if you feel comfortable enough.
I don’t have the confidence to speak to my line manager.
You have nothing to be ashamed of.
The supportive line manager is the one who wants to make a plan with you first. However, you can make a start by writing three things you want to say. It's also good to have an idea of what you want to get out of the conversation. That might be another check-in session, or an agreed plan that offers flexible working, time off, fewer classes, or reducing your capacity.
Unfortunately, years of stigma around depression makes people think this way. This can also be particularly strong in sectors like education where the emphasis can be on taking care of others first.
Remember, we’re all human. When we how empathy, share concerns, or open a two-way dialogue, we tend to be more admired and respected. A culture of openly speaking about mental health will not only benefit you but your colleagues too, so try to remember this if you’re worried about what others might think when speaking about your mental health.
Unfortunately, some people don’t understand, but that’s nobody’s fault. Some people avoid sensitive issues as they’re worried about saying something offensive. They may not know first-hand how you’re feeling, but it is their job to make you feel heard, safe, and able to do your best at work. Your employer has a duty of care, and if you’re unwell, you have a right to say something without being marginalised.
I’m fine, no, really I am.
Everyone is different. No two cases are the same, we all feel differently, and we’ve all lived through different experiences. But that doesn’t mean your mental health is less valid than anyone else. No matter how minor you think your depression is, it’s always good to speak to your employer so that you can do your job in a comfortable and supportive environment, and minimise the risk of your depression escalating.
How to manage symptoms while at work
As well as speaking to HR or your line manager and having adjustments made as needed (see next section), here are some ways you can manage symptoms of depression while working. The most important thing to do is to try different techniques to find the ones that work for you.
Create a support network
You may have friends or family you can turn to for support. Knowing you have help can go a long way in managing depression. You might want to consider joining a depression support group – face to face or online.
Put yourself first
If your symptoms are getting worse, stop. Assess what’s triggering your depression and make changes. Reach out to your support network, speak to HR, request time off – whatever it is that works for you, make sure you action it. There is no shame in prioritising your mental health.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
Eating well, sleep hygiene, and exercise can all play a role in easing symptoms of depression. You can read more about lifestyle and mental wellbeing in our guide.
Stress or feeling overwhelmed can trigger symptoms of depression. The more you can reduce stress, the better. Pressures of your job may be causing stress, which you should discuss with HR or your manager. You can also speak to your GP or refer to therapy for techniques to manage stress. You can read our guide to meditation here.
Routines can help
Symptoms of depression, such as fatigue and difficulty concentrating, make procrastination tempting. Putting things off fuels depression. It can lead to increased guilt, worry, and stress.
Consider setting realistic deadlines and reward yourself after you’ve completed a task. It’s also helpful to set daily goals that you practice regularly, such as 15 minutes of reading at lunch or eating a healthy breakfast before starting your day.
Speak to a professional
Ensure you’re in contact with your GP or local mental health authority to discuss treatment options.
Your employer has a duty of care, and if you’re unwell, you have a right to say something without being marginalised.
What should my employer be doing?
The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the importance of looking after employees and taking mental health and illness seriously in the workplace. Here are a few ways in which your employer can support you.
Your employer’s duty of care is to make sure they can reasonably do what they can to support you. It is illegal under the disability act to discriminate against anyone living with mental health challenges. Read more about your rights and what classifies as a disability here.
If you are considered disabled under the law, your employer must consider making reasonable adjustments. These could be one-to-one support, a phased return to work, or a change in working arrangements.
Investing in training employees as is an excellent way for your employer to show that they are prepared for and inclusive of anyone finding their mental health a challenge in the workplace. As a trained first aider, these individuals will know how to spot signs, engage in a conversation and signpost to professional help.
Being able to spot early signs of stress or mental illness can help prevent challenges from escalating. Knowing how to respond is crucial and your employer should be educated in signposting to qualified support if needed.
Encourage work-life balance
Over time, continually working long hours is not sustainable, nor is it productive. Championing a balance between work and personal life can ease symptoms of depression, but we know this can be tricky when your work is structured around busy term times. Your employer should be promoting work-life balance as part of a wider wellness action plan. You can also read about how to set healthy boundaries at work.
An inclusive and supportive culture
Creating an inclusive and supportive culture can make a massive difference to your general mental wellbeing. Your employer should be making efforts to be an inclusive organisation where you feel comfortable to speak about your mental health without discrimination.
Speak with your HR team to understand what support is available at your organisation. You can also encourage your leadership team to consider using some of our tools and resources to help them prioritise mental health and wellbeing at your school or organisation.
How to support colleagues
If you’re keen to support colleagues living with depression, here are some ideas to get you started.
If a colleague opens up to you, listen. You don’t need to offer a diagnosis or a final solution, but simply listening can go a long way in easing the burden of depression. It’s helpful to ask them what kind of support they would like – everyone has their preference.
People living with depression might find it hard to network or become involved in group activities, isolating themselves further. If you can, support them by inviting them to events and show that you value their skills. Ask for their advice or opinion - this will remind them how valuable their mind and contribution to work is.
Get trained to spot symptoms
You can ask your employer if you can train to become a Mental Health First Aider. Training will allow you to know how to spot triggers and signs of mental health symptoms, gain confidence to step in, reassure and support a person in distress, and give you the tools you need to signpost to external professional support.
Be an ally
Become an advocate for raising awareness and educating your colleagues about mental health and illness. Doing so helps reduce the stigma and replaces common myths with facts. This is extremely powerful in ensuring people living with depression know that they are being supported and not alone.
If you’re a people manager or a colleague, here are some examples of questions to ask and questions to avoid:
Questions to ask
- How are you doing at the moment?
- You seem to be a bit down/upset/under pressure/frustrated/angry. Is everything okay?
- I’ve noticed you’ve been arriving late recently, and I wondered if you’re okay?
- I’ve noticed the reports are late when they usually are not. Is everything okay?
- Is there anything I can do to help?
- What would you like to happen? How?
- What support do you think might help?
- Have you spoken to your GP or looked for help anywhere else?
Questions to avoid
- It’s really obvious to everyone that you’re struggling. What’s up?
- It’s not rocket science. Why can’t you just get on with it?
- What do you expect me to do about it?
- Your performance is unacceptable right now – what’s going on?
- Everyone else is in the same boat and they’re okay. Why aren’t you?
- Who do you expect to pick up all the work that you can’t manage?
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