7 Strategies to Be Productive at Work When You’re Depressed


depression at workAccording to Mental Health America, depression is as costly to the US economy as heart disease or AIDS, costing over $51 billion in absenteeism from work and lost productivity. The average lost time at work due to depression is approximately 172 million days yearly.

Staying productive at work is undoubtedly among the most challenging components of my recovery. It’s hard enough to get out of bed some mornings, not to mention wrap my brain around a press release, blog post, or, God forbid, a presentation. Some days I wonder why I bothered to put my two feet on the floor, as I accomplished nothing but staring into a computer for eight consecutive hours. Other days I am successful at squeezing a speck of productivity out of my depressed brain. Here are a few strategies I use to get there.

1. Break it up

Ugly, really ugly is the panic I feel when assigned even a petty task when I’m depressed. I envision the completed project like an island far, far away and immediately start hyperventilating accompanied with a flurry of negative intrusive thoughts: “There is no way in hell you are going to get there.” “This job is simply impossible feeling the way I am.” “Should I even attempt this?” “I’m a loser with a malfunctioning brain.”

After my emotional outburst, I usually had to the kitchen to eat something unhealthy. Then I take the beast of an assignment and break it down into very small pieces. As a writer with poor concentration when depressed, I tell myself that I need only write two paragraphs of the piece right now, this very minute. That’s all. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by two paragraphs, I break that down further into one sentence at a time. If it’s a longer project—like my book—I looked at the calendar, and gave myself fourteen separate deadlines, one for each chapter. Then I separated the chapters into sections. Finally the pieces were so small that the island far away could be reached by boat.

2. Start in the middle

If, after breaking down the task, I’m still paralyzed, I follow a piece of advice I learned from an accomplished writer friend of mine. I asked her what she does in the midst of a severe case of writer’s block.

“I start in the middle,” she said. “The beginning contains too much pressure. I don’t yet know the end. So I take a shot at the middle.”

Another writer friend of mine says he simply writes down any thought that comes to him. It can be completely unrelated to the piece he is writing, as it’s merely an exercise to warm up his stalled brain. That unrelated sentence might lead to another unrelated sentence, which might lead to a sentence that has something to do with the memo or essay he is supposed to complete by the end of the day.

3. Take breaks

Breaks are the allies of persons with depression. We often think we are most productive when we plug through a project without looking up; however research indicates that taking breaks can decrease stress hormones, increase dopamine and other feel-good chemicals, and strengthen the neural connections that aids memory and executive functions. In other words, breaks make us more productive. They are especially necessary for depressed persons, because our brains are already working overtime. Trying to reframe negative thoughts 24/7 consumes an incredible amount of energy. Your delicate noggin is going to blow a fuse if you don’t stop and breathe. Consider your brain as a weary body in a boot camp class at the gym. Best to take the water break and hydrate.

4. Lean into the wind

J. Raymond DePaulo, M.D., author of “Understanding Depression” uses a great phrase when talking about working while depressed: “You have to lean into the wind.” This means different things for different people. My job is flexible enough that I try to crank out as many tasks as I can when I am feeling good so that I can allow a little downtime when I’m depressed or anxious. I realize many positions don’t allow that luxury. However, perhaps there is some way you can take advantage of your stronger days to allow you the cushion on the days you struggle.

5. Learn some calming techniques

I break the rule on corporate etiquette by blasting calming music into a set of earphones when at the office. Of course, when someone sneaks up on me to tell me something, I scream, and that negatives the effect. But the music really does soothe my nerves. Even Yanni. I also practice deep breathing as I write, usually the square breathing method: inhaling to a count of four, holding my breath to four, exhaling to four, holding my breath to four, and starting again. It’s Deep Breathing for Idiots. You can also simply breathe out of your nose, which constrains your breathing and has calming effects. I also tighten my fist, envision the person I’d like to punch, and release.

6. Get venting buddies

I’m fortunate to have several people at work that know I’m fragile, stressed, depressed, anxious, and the good kind of crazy. So when I feel the tears coming on, I can usually grab one of them and head to the bathroom. Opening up to one or two people you think you can trust will make you feel less isolated. And, since they already know all the players at the office, they have an advantage over your therapist if you feel comfortable enough airing your frustrations related to work. Just don’t gossip too much, because that gives you bad karma, and you don’t need anything else working against you.

7. Personalize workspace

My desk is, well, a reflection of me and my pursuit to stay alive and functioning. First, I have a massive HappyLite that screams “Darkness, go away!!” Then there are the spiritual sayings hanging everywhere—the Serenity Prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis, and others–that scream, “Darkness, go away!!!” Finally, there are some favorite pictures of my family that scream, “You need this job!!! Don’t quit yet!” All of them inspire me to keep going. I get discouraged. I want to give up. I look at one of these things, and I think, “Oh yeah.”

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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1 Response
  1. Seems like every single person who is facing stress has similar habits! Even I have that problem with search for food and eating unhealthy probably because my mind is so obsessed with the sad stressful thoughts :/
    High time, I think I need to learn some calming techniques and has to be a little more positive. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article, it will be a great help for me 🙂