Depression and work

Many young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have not yet had time to develop a long or diverse work history, regardless of whether they are depressed. Nonetheless, most people we interviewed talked about the impact depression had on their experiences with work, and/or about how work influenced their depression. Some also described how and whether they “went public” with their depression in professional environments, or what role income (or its absence) played in their lives.

Work making depression easier

A number of people described how work functions as an effective antidote to feelings of isolation, powerlessness, or low self-esteem that accompany depression. For some, being busy with work and “having a routine” as well as needed income was a tremendous help: as Meghan put it, “busy people are organized people and [having a campus job] has helped a lot… just being committed to something [and]… having a schedule that I can maintain.” Other people talked about work as a “productive distraction” which provides relief from endlessly “thinking about how I’m feeling.” Marty used his job to practice “step[ping up] and being a leader.”

Joey says getting even a 'crappy' job added necessary structure to his life and immediately made him less depressed.
Interview Transcript

… having a job, even like a crappy one, which, I kind of tire of jobs really quickly, but, I mean, I started working and it was like, even after, you know, like, being on medication for six months and like doing really good, like feeling, feeling better, I mean – got a job. And … but once I started working, it was like, just, instant like, overnight, just like, doubled like how I felt about myself. Even, and it, wasn’t anything particularly rewarding, you know, it was [Name], like, I wasn’t like, you know, “Hey! I’m going to go be a sales associate at [Name]!” It was just like, leaving your house – every day. Like, coming home after working for hours, having money that you actually earned that, you know, you didn’t get, from the government or your parents, like … It helps a lot, but yeah. Friends and like, some sort of, like – even if it’s like, three hours a day – like, some sort of work or something. I think, are the, at least, for me, have been the most helpful in getting out of that rut.

DEP Joey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 26

Background: Joey lives in an apartment in an artists’ building in an urban area near where he had gone to college. He works part time in retail stores and is a musician. He is White.

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For Jacob, having a job creates a positive feedback loop: interacting with others lessens his depression, which in turn creates more motivation to excel at work, which lessens depression yet more.
Interview Transcript

I got a, a job that I actually, just like, technologically speaking, enjoy. I’ve always been in soft-, in the software engineering field, but now, it’s a, slightly more interesting branch for me. So that, at least set me up for success. And then, probably the, the constant evolution of me and my anxiety, helps a lot, because I’m far more social and far more interactive than I was in past jobs, which makes my depression easier to deal with, which means I have more motivation, which means I can excel and excelling, also combats my depression. So, it just kind of feeds on itself.

DEP Jacob
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Jacob is a software engineer at a large company. He lives with his girlfriend and a cat. He is White.

Click here to view Jacob's profile page

A few people mentioned how the substantive focus of their work or the specific requirements of their job challenged them to move through symptoms of depression by making it necessary to “come out of my shell” or to be intensely “emotionally aware” of self and others. The opportunity that work creates to meet and spend time with other people was highlighted by several people as particularly meaningful.

Colin's job gives him the chance to be 'part of something' with other people.

The friends I met now I’ve met through my job, I work at a dining hall. I got promoted, I applied for the promotion, I’m a supervisor there.

And after that it was like the first time I’ve ever, since I’ve been in college that I’ve been like a part of something, like a group of people. And we have like these supervisor meetings and these, it’s kind of like, it’s like a club.

And everybody there is so hard working and really admirable and I had jobs in the past that I felt were good hard working jobs as well. A lot of people haven’t had experience with that, like hard work, which is something my parents really tried to instill in me and that I really respect and I found, I found a lot of hard working people out there and I’m really drawn towards them. And yeah I met one really good friend through work this, just this year and like probably four or five others that are still pretty good, I maybe hang out with them once a week and it’s always the highlight of my week.

DEP Colin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Colin works at the college he attends and lives with a roommate. He takes medications and sees a therapist. He is White.

Click here to view Colin's profile page

Several people emphasized that earning money was a good motivator for them, and that having an income solved other problems in their lives such as tensions with partners about money.

Depression making work harder

Work was described by many people as a substantial or even overwhelming challenge. For some, depression and related issues made the daily stress and pressure of a job hard to manage. Getting up and out of the house can be a substantial barrier in and of itself: as Sam summarized, “I was consistently calling out because I was not able to get myself up in the morning to go to work.” Pete said depression makes it hard for him to focus and multitask as he is required to do at work. Colin recalled that when he was in a bad phase he “just couldn’t keep up” with demands on the job.

Ben says depression combined with several other problems made it difficult for him to work.
Interview Transcript

What, how does your mental illness make it hard?

Just my interactions with coworkers might be a little bit inappropriate, just, not inappropriate, but I might come, like, off, off aggressively or might scare people or, I might like, talk to myself and people might think I’m weird or get a little bit worried or concerned … and it, it was just hard to deal with. Just, and now, and, there was times when I was homeless and like I said I wasn’t taking showers, like I said before. And, it was, it was very – substance abuse, depression, homelessness, taking – on meds, off meds, taking different meds. And, isolation, depressed, you know, lacking friends, lacking companionship. You know, just, just a lot of stuff going on…

DEP Ben
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Ben lives in transitional housing for formerly homeless people and is looking for work. He has one son. He is Puerto Rican/Hispanic.

Click here to view Ben's profile page

A number of people described losing jobs because depression made it too hard to continue. Casey’s job as a canvasser required him to be “energetic,” and he couldn’t sustain it through a downward spiral of his depression. Several others also described losing jobs because of poor attendance.

Sierra Rose says depression makes it hard to hold down a job.
Interview Transcript

When the depression would kick in, I’d stop caring as much about my job, and figure, “Oh, well, you know, what’s the point of it? I’m just, low-class American anyway.” I would stop smiling all the time. I’d start brooding.

It makes it extremely hard to hold down a job, because, I’ll get a job and I’ll be doing great. I’ll be ok, and then, the depression is like, “Wait you’re happy? No, you’re not allowed to be happy.” And it draws me back down into being depressed and then I lose my job, because, “Oh, you’re not who you told us you were when we interviewed you. You’re not who you were when we hired you.” It makes it extremely hard to have relationships, to keep a job, to do, anything…

DEP Sierra Rose
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Sierra Rose lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, another roommate, and three beloved cats. She spent a week in the hospital shortly before her interview, and was continuing with out-patient care but struggling to pay for some of it. She is Italian and Jewish.

Click here to view Sierra Rose's profile page

(To learn more about the difficulty of performing day to day tasks, see ‘Depression and everyday tasks’.)

Unemployment and depression

Having a job is challenging for some depressed young adults, but lacking one can also be stressful or make symptoms of depression worse. Most talked about struggling with low self-esteem and too little structure in life when they didn’t have or couldn’t find a job. For several, transitions between jobs or between school and work triggered painful episodes of worsened depression.

Ben's mental health and substance abuse struggles contributed to him losing a steady job, and then unemployment made his depression worse.
Interview Transcript

…right now I just, I really just need a job. I really – but I get distracted – but, I really, I think that’s why I’m losing my mind right now. I’m really depressed, because, well, right now at the current time, I think that’s the biggest problem right now. Could, it could be the biggest problem, that I’m unemployed. And I have too much free time … and, I actually, am in jeopardy of like, triggering a, a relapse because, you know, when you have so much free time…

… I’ve been clean for 7 months, over 7 months now, but now, I have not been able to find employment. And, that’s, that’s making me depressed because I have nothing to do. I don’t like, I’m not, I wasn’t a member, I was a productive member of society and was working, now, I feel very depressed because I don’t have a job and I want to go back to work and do something and make some money.

DEP Ben
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Ben lives in transitional housing for formerly homeless people and is looking for work. He has one son. He is Puerto Rican/Hispanic.

Click here to view Ben's profile page
Elizabeth's depression returned after a five-year gap. When she finished college and applied for jobs every rejected application made her feel like a failure.
Interview Transcript

By the time that I got the job that I’m currently at, I had applied to 76 jobs. And, again, I felt like a failure, I felt like, “Oh my gosh, I just spent five years in school, busting my hump for something I never thought I’d accomplish and, I can’t even get a job.” And, something just chemically goes wrong at those moments, and, I stopped eating, I didn’t shower much, I didn’t really talk to many people and I just really shut down. And I remember calling my therapist and saying, you know, “I know we’re not scheduled for a week, but I would really like to see you.” And I literally just sat in her office and stared at the floor and cried for most of the 50 minutes. And that’s a woman that I had been seeing for about five years at that point and I really couldn’t say a word. So, something, you know, that’s one of those moments where, I was doing well and great and something just happens and it brings you back.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

Click here to view Elizabeth's profile page

Stigma, masking and work

A number of people talked about whether or not to “go public” with their depression at work. (See also ‘Going public with depression’) Some worried that their history of depression might “negatively impact” career paths or that unmasking to anyone in a professional environment would create the impression of being “weak or crazy.” Others felt safe talking with employers about some aspects of their depression: Joey, for example, said he “wasn’t so specific when I told them at work,” but he did mention going through a “rough patch.” Mara and Sally both spoke about the importance of maintaining their appearance at work and hiding any physical evidence of depression or other mental health issues.

Kate is learning to be more open about who she is, but she is still not ready to reveal anything about her depression or anxiety at work.
Interview Transcript

When I was in high school and I still had that, kind of, disconnect between what I wanted other people to think me of, think of me as, and what I thought of me as [cough]. Very few people really got to see what I viewed as my weakness of being very self-conscious, being very self-critical. And now, as I approach people, I’m a bit more whole because the masks that I have is a bit closer to who I actually am. But I do still keep a lot of things that I perceive as weaknesses very close to my chest. So, you know, a lot of people could probably guess that I have depression, anxiety, and what have you. But, I wouldn’t really, be very open about that. Especially in some kind of professional environment. They don’t really need to know that about me. I’m, I’m fine with not telling them. [laughs]

DEP Kate
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 12

Background: Kate is an actress who works in an art gallery. She lives in an apartment with a roommate and a cat. She is white.

Click here to view Kate's profile page
Jacob says his employer is pretty supportive when it comes to mental health issues, and he thinks there is less stigma in other workplaces, too.
Interview Transcript

There is much less of a stigma now, I would say, which is fantastic. I feel like a lot more people are seeking help. In my company, in particular, I know of, of people who have actually taken a medical leave for it. Things just get overwhelming and they need some time off. They’re not as effective at work anymore because of it, and they take, you know, a couple weeks to, sort of recover. So there is absolutely more support for the condition than there used to be. And I think just in general, socially, people are a lot more willing, myself included, to then, to talk about it.

DEP Jacob
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Jacob is a software engineer at a large company. He lives with his girlfriend and a cat. He is White.

Click here to view Jacob's profile page

See also ‘Going public with depression’, ‘Depression and school’, ‘Depression and everyday tasks’, and ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life.’

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