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Depressed at Work | How to Survive and Thrive

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

A tired man sighing over a laptop.

A depression or anxiety diagnosis can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to derail your career. In fact, many professionals navigate similar mental-health issues and, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Major Depressive Disorder affects over 16 million adults every year.

It’s normal to have questions about how to handle depression in the workplace. What adjustments should you make to perform well at work? Should you take time off for therapy appointments? How will you afford care? Do you need to tell your boss and coworkers you’re depressed, or should you keep your condition to yourself?

We offer a great guide on how to take control of your mental health, but in this post, we’ll go deeper into the specifics of depression management, including your rights and responsibilities.

A quick note: We're social-impact experts, not healthcare professionals. If you are seeking medical advice, please be sure to contact your physician.

Know your rights

Did you know that you’re legally protected from discrimination based on a mental health condition? Your employer can’t fire you, dock your pay, deny a promotion, or force you to take leave simply because of your condition. However, exceptions will arise if you pose a safety risk to yourself or others, or if you can’t perform your job at all.

If a mental health condition is substantially limiting your job performance—making your work more difficult than it would be otherwise—you can find ways to make work easier. For example, you have a right to request a reasonable accommodation that works for you. A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment to your work environment that allows you to fulfill the duties of your job while managing a medical condition. For instance, you might need:

  • Scheduling flexibility to attend therapy or a treatment program—such as arriving late, leaving early, or taking a specific shift assignment.
  • Permission to work from home.
  • A quiet workspace, or access to a quiet workspace.
  • Written instructions for tasks, if these are not normally provided, to help with focus and memory.
  • You may qualify for a brief period of paid or unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Depression and anxiety aren’t one-size-fits-all conditions; symptoms are different from person to person and needs will vary.

Should you disclose to an employer?

Mental health conditions, like some chronic illnesses, aren’t always visible to an observer. So if you appear to be perfectly healthy, is it worth telling your supervisor, coworkers, or human resources representative about your diagnosis?

The most important thing to remember in this situation is that whether or not you disclose is completely up to you. You can simply say that you have a medical condition; you aren’t legally required to share the details. Some people choose to use phrases like "disabling illness," "biochemical imbalance," or "health problem." Medical professionals will use similar terms in any documentation you need to share with your employer if you ask them to do so.

Employers are only allowed to ask about medical conditions under certain circumstances:

  • If you ask for a reasonable accommodation.
  • If they notice objective evidence that you’re unable to perform your job.

Depending on your personal comfort level, you may choose to share the nature of your condition anyway. Full disclosure gives you protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to workers in organizations with 15 or more employees. Also, some mental health advocates promote talking openly about depression as a means to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Whatever you decide, your employer should work with you to find a solution. It’s in their best interest to have healthy employees, and remember, they’re on your side.

Getting treatment

Depression is treatable and there are plenty of treatment options depending on what type of treatment you’d like to pursue.

  • Simple fixes. Milder cases of depression and anxiety can benefit from mindfulness exercises or mobile apps targeted toward specific conditions. Tweaks to your environment, like a light box or lamp if you have seasonal depressive disorder, might go a long way.
  • Individual therapy (with insurance). Your insurance company should provide a list of therapists covered under your plan. Start searching as soon as possible as it can take a while to find the right fit. Some therapists may not be taking new patients, or your plan may list providers who aren’t actually covered.
  • Group therapy. Oftentimes, group therapy is a lower-cost alternative to individual therapy. Ask therapists if they offer group sessions or see if they recommend this option for you. The American Group Psychotherapy Association can point you to appropriate groups in your area.
  • Medication. Therapists generally don’t prescribe medication. Psychiatrists, and in some cases primary care practitioners, can consult about any medication you need. This will require a separate appointment.

Pro tip: You might be able to make appointments outside of work hours, or connect to a therapist remotely (on the phone or online). Some care providers have more scheduling wiggle room than others. It never hurts to ask.

Here’s a list of resources to get you started:

Handling cost

Cost is the number one reason people with depression and anxiety don’t pursue treatment. Sticker shock is understandable, but don’t get discouraged. Low-cost (and free) treatments are available, with or without insurance.

First, ask if your job has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAP is a program that connects employees to care providers for free. The coverage is often limited—an EAP might only cover a few initial therapy appointments—but it can get you started.

Next, check out free, low-cost, or subsidized local care providers. The waiting list for appointments may be long, so start searching early.

Clinics and providers may bill on a sliding scale, where you pay in proportion to your income. Bring proof of income, such as tax documents or pay stubs, to your first appointment.

Since low-cost providers are in high demand, they may have less flexibility in scheduling appointments. If you need to adjust your work schedule, remember you can ask for reasonable accommodation; just be sure to communicate your needs to your employer in advance.

Pro tip: The Partnership for Prescription Assistance connects users to hundreds of programs offering discount prescription drugs. Ask your doctor if there’s a savings program for your specific medication or a suitable generic version you can take instead of the name-brand.

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Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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