Coping with your job: Stress and depression in the workplace

For most of us, a job is a source of income and identity and the place where we spend
almost half our life. Think about it. Most of us spend at least eight hours a day at work.
When we include travel and overtime, it can amount to 10, perhaps even 12 hours a day.

Are we working harder and enjoying it less?

Jobs can be a source of ill health and unhappiness. In today’s workplace, two factor
stress and clinical depression-have surfaced as “job busters.” According to a national
survey conducted by the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), stress
and clinical depression rank as the second and third most significant problems in the
workplace behind family crisis. It is estimated that in the United States billions of dollars
are lost every year due to reduced productivity, absenteeism and premature death.
Spending such a large portion of our lives unhappily, and letting that unhappiness spill
over into our personal lives, doesn’t make sense. Learning to recognize and cope with
depression or job-related stress is necessary to lead productive and rewarding lives.

Stress and success

To do our best work we must generate some tension and stress. We need to get the
adrenaline flowing. But too much stress is a different matter. It is ironic that the
qualities most likely to make us successful in the work force—aggressiveness, ambition,
drive and energy—are those which are most likely to hurt us if not channeled in the right
Fifty percent of the mortality from the 10 leading causes of death in the United States can
be attributed to behavioral factors, including stress.

Job Stress: the symptoms

The most common symptoms of excessive job stress are fatigue, insomnia, high-blood
pressure, headaches, ulcers, heartburn, inability to concentrate or relax, changes in
appetite, and waning sexual interest.

When a person feels hopelessly overloaded at work, is unable to leave job problems
behind at night or on weekends, experiences a trapped, immobilized feeling, there is a
definite problem.

If not addressed, clinical depression may result from workplace stress. The depression
may surface as impulsive or indecisive actions, irritability and anger, late arrival and a
tendency to avoid colleagues.

What Causes Job Stress?

Work overload and personality conflicts (especially with supervisors) are two of the most
common causes of job stress. Too much responsibility is another.

People in management jobs complain most often about work overload. But they have an
advantage they may not be aware of—flexibility. Through discussion, even
confrontation, they have the power to change their workplace stress.

This option does not always exist for other workers, such as assembly line workers or
those in routine clerical positions. Research shows that jobs which are perceived as
boring and repetitious can be just as much of a strain as the high-powered executive

Another cause of stress may be advances in technology, which are a threat to many
workers especially older ones who may be intimidated by these changes while other
workers, who have not been trained properly, feel “out of the loop.”

In some cases, workplace stress may arise because we genuinely cannot handle our job.
Sometimes, newly promoted people simply need training for a new role—especially if
this is their first supervisory or management position.

Five basic reactions to workplace stress:

1. Sharing grievances with others, without taking direct steps to change the situation.
2. Working longer and harder to reduce the overload.
3. Switching to an engrossing recreation activity, so we can return refreshed and do
more work in a shorter time.
4. Withdrawing physically from the situation—quitting, seeking another job, or
reducing the time and energy spent at work.
5. Analyzing the situation, revising strategies and looking for ways to change things.
At first glance, number 5 seems the most practical alternative if we recognize how much
of our job situation is out of our hands. So much depends on the actions and rules created
by others, that even our most constructive efforts cannot guarantee success. What can be
guaranteed is the good feeling of “taking charge” of our situation. Because individual
circumstances vary so much, “the right answer” will be different for everyone.

Remember: There may be no immediate solutions to the difficulties cause by stress on
the job.

Suggestions for reducing stress on the job

1. Take charge of your situation. To the extent that this is possible, set and re-set
priorities. Take care of important and difficult tasks first. Organize your time.
You can be more effective.
2. Be realistic about what you can change. Don’t set yourself up for frustration and
failure. Set realistic and attainable goals. Do what’s possible. Accept the rest. Now
you’re ready to carry on.
3. Take one task at a time. Divide each large project into smaller, manageable tasks.
Make a list of everything, which needs to be done, and the approximate time for
finishing each task. Prioritize the tasks. Complete the first task then go on to the
next one. Keep the tasks small until you are feeling a sense of accomplishment
and control.
4. Be honest with colleagues. This includes the boss. Make it plain you feel in a bind.
Chances are others are feeling the same. Don’t just complain. Be constructive and
make practical suggestions for improvement.
5. Let your employer help. Many companies help their employees deal with the effects
of stress through their employee assistance program (EAP), corporate fitness
programs or special clinics for diet, smoking and alcohol. Find out what services are
available to you
6. Slow down. Learn to say “no.” Drop activities that are not crucial
7. Recognize danger signs of job stress. Learn the symptoms of job stress and take action
as soon as they appear to be getting out of hand.
8. Take care of your physical health. Good physical health increases your stress
tolerance. Eat and sleep sensibly. Get plenty of exercise. Cut down or eliminate
alcohol, tobacco and drugs, which alter our regular body rhythms and sleep
9. Learn to relax. Find a safety valve, whether it is a sport, hobby, music, reading or just
walking. Use it to create a “bridge” between work and home life.
10. Don’t neglect your private life. Work out a schedule, which allows you to do justice
to both work and personal life. Stick to it.
11. Consider changing or quitting your job. It’s a last resort, but still an option to you. If
finances will not allow you to consider this, you might choose to concentrate on your
personal life. If home life is more productive, more stimulating and more fun, it can
take some of the sting out of an unhappy work situation.
Seeking professional help is just one more method of coping. Knowing when you need
professional help is a sign of strength and self-knowledge, not a weakness.

Depression in the workplace—an overview

Almost all of us have, at some time, felt depressed over such stressful life events as job
loss, illness, or a death in the family. This depression may temporarily affect
concentration and performance at work. The situation may be serious if depression
persists for more than two weeks.

Clinical depression, all illness that strikes more than 19 million American adults
annually, is one of the most treatable of all medical illnesses. More than 80 percent of
people with depression can he treated successfully with medication, psychotherapy, or a
combination of the two treatments. Only a qualified health professional can diagnose if
someone has clinical depression.

Depression may be caused by many factors such as an imbalance of brain chemicals;
some medications; serious illnesses such as cancer or heart disease; or difficult life events
such as death or divorce.

If you or one of your employees has experienced some of the following symptoms for
several weeks, it may be time to talk with a mental health professional:

  • marked decrease in ability to get job done
  • working more slowly than usual
  • frequently mission deadlines
  • making excuses for not finishing work
  • frequently calling sick
  • appearing listless, unable to concentrate at work
  • frequently looking distracted or ‘far away’
  • showing decreased interest or involvement in work
  • withdrawing from interaction with co-workers