Depression at Work

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22 September 2014

This is a long piece. The topic was by request from a long term colleague, and more importantly friend, who asked me to write about how I manage my depression and work together to achieve the best work–life balance.

Admittedly suffering depression is becoming less of a ‘suffer’ as it has become more socially acceptable, and as government policy begins to align with those that need support.

With celebrity suicides (especially those that are popular) depression and suicide become even more empathised by the general populous, if not hyper-intensively so.

Having said that, depression is a significant burden.

It is something that is infinitely challenging for me to deal with. It is never a walk in the park, and is managed at best. It is not to be overly simplified—nor would I try to.

It is inexplainable, if not for metaphor. The most important thing to note is that managing depression isn’t just for work, it’s about managing depression quality of life, all the time.

For me the methods that I choose to balance my depression and work have been refined over 16 years of taking control, and working very hard at achieving balance. It would be ludicrous of me to say that these are silver bullets, but they certainly work for me.

While being depressed I have been able to achieve great things, to inspire both colleagues and employees alike. I try to use it to my advantage, rather than disadvantage but that isn't always possible.

Worth mentioning also is that this is a plan and not all plans work out, which is perfectly ok.

If it doesn't, you can't lose your head and feel as if everything is worse or even just the same. We need to focus our energy and try, and try, and try. Because anything is better than feeling helpless, and you control everything you do.

Firstly I need to break down the three elements of my mood and myself in order to explain how I deal with each three phases of bipolar.

Manic

Mania is very much a double–edged sword. In states of mania I feel that I can take over the world, and usually try to do so. It’s an exhausting experience for those around me as I drag them through a particular idea that has my attention at great speed.

My energy is suffocating, and I make decisions with haste, and with complete and unwavering commitment.

These stages typically last a few days before calming into a more rational mindset.

Rational

The rational side I often describe as an anchor point between the Manic/Depressive states. This is a state of being a realist and understanding that neither polarity is correct and I tend to regress some of the manic ideas I’ve had and ground them.

Again, this is usually for a few days before heading back to mania or further down into depression.

Depressive

While in a depressive state I tend to be a little numb around making decisions, and have little focus on detailed tasks. I can provide general advice/mentorship but producing detailed outcomes (documentation, for example) is challenging. As is maintaining focus to complete things. It is much easier to look for distraction.

I also want to be able to spend time processing great periods of thinking, and being alone to do so if I can.

This state usually lasts about a day, and taking a day off every now and then helps.

Get up, go to work

This seems glaringly obvious, but in times of a depressive state going to work is the last thing I want to do. It is though, the most important ways of moving through this phase.

By being around other people I can distract myself from overly negative thinking, and seek personal encouragement through small achievements.

By staying home I also add guilt to the mix that I’m letting my team down, or that my employers will soon tire of me. This makes the whole thing infinitely worse.

It’s better to take time in other ways.

Be transparent

While seemingly frightening to begin with, during the final rounds of interview I try to make a point of discussing my depression with a potential employer. Sometimes it might not be necessary, where I feel that my manager has an amount of empathy that also carries flexibility.

I find it similar to those candidates who surprise their employer with leave shortly after joining. It’s irritating to no end, but avoidable.

Typically, I explain that I have bipolar disorder but I manage it well, through a combination of therapy, medication, and a sense of grounded rationality. I try very hard to not let it get in the way of work, but occasionally I might need to take a day off.

I’ve never encountered an adverse reaction to the news, and generally am received with ‘ok, that’s good to know. Thank you so much for telling us/me’.

Naturally, I’ve never been declined employment on this basis. I don't think I'd want to work anywhere that this was an issue.

Speak up

The first step in doing so is being very transparent about how and what I feel. It helps me to ensure that I’m not leaving anyone in the dark about my particular feelings.

I try to establish a rapport about the topic with select people and make sure they know how I feel. It is very important however that they don’t ever feel a sense of responsibility by maintaining boundaries.

I achieve this by very clearly stating ‘I don’t want you to do anything with this information other than to hear it, my therapist is there to help me process and understand the thinking’.

Speaking up primarily helps the depressive state, so that if I do need time alone I can take it and it’s understood as to why.

Establish goals

One of the hardest parts about depression is the feeling of pointlessness and no general direction. By consistently having goals I’m able to continually look forward and try not to dwell.

I also set goals around my depression, kind of personal KPIs. One of them is ‘no sick days in three months’, or ‘six days of exercise in the next fortnight’.

Avoiding stagnation is also very important in avoiding a depressive state. But be realistic, you don't want to encourage mania.

Meditate, be mindful

The irrationality of bipolar is often only obvious to me when I’m rational, which makes catching it in the act particularly difficult.

If I’m coming into a busy period at work, or I can sense that I might be feeling a bit off I add in some repeating events in my calendar at 11am and 3pm; reminders to spend 5 minutes meditating.

There are a plethora of apps for both iOS and Android that will walk you through a few minutes of focused mindfulness. Find a quiet space (or even just your desk) and run through an exercise.

Find time for yourself

Particularly so in my position I work in a hectic production environment. Putting out fires is an hourly occurrence and being aware of the demands is important.

I have an ideal day of 1.5 hours, which means the other 6.5 hours is spent in conversation, meetings, and general business. To ensure my focus isn’t destroyed I print off my daily calendar and make sure as much is booked in as possible.

I’ve written at length about personal time management, and it’s fundamental in managing depression at work. I've also written about Working to Live, which you should.

Be realistic

There are four words I try to keep in the back of my head while managing my depression: consistent, grounded, present and genuine.

These are very powerful and personal values that go well with both a depressive and manic state.

Trying to achieve too much, take too much on, or ignoring your mental health will keep you from being any of these words and undoubtedly result in a massive crash.

Being realistic about what I can do, or what I can promise is an important step. I answer most requests of my time with ‘let me check my calendar and get back to you’, and I promptly do both.

I want to ensure that what I commit to is achievable and realistic.

Again, the above works in general for me, but I also manage my depression in a clinical sense. I need both medication and talk therapy to establish a grounded mentality to use the above.

If you’re suffering depression without at least talking to a professional—even just a doctor—then I suggest it is the first thing you should do, right now.

I’m no poster child, but being self aware of my feelings and remarkably candid means I can demonstrate the stability that is achievable.

If you do need help, in Australia, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.