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So you’re depressed, but still have to do that adulting thing, and you’ve googled “how to be productive when depressed” out of desperation. Welcome to the club.
Depression is a fairly common occurrence (estimates put the portion of the U.S. population with depression at around 17 million), so people all over the world struggle with productivity while dealing with depression every year.
We’ve all read the studies: the economic costs of depression, the medical costs of depressed workers. People with an annual salary struggle with it and so do people who make an hourly wage. Are smart people more depressed? Perhaps (the answer is a little more nuanced) but intelligence doesn't dictate when a depressive episode will strike.
But economic impact isn’t what really matters — it’s your own mental health that should be number one.
Depression has many forms. Some may make it easier to be “functional” than others, but the reality is that whether you’re able to perform as a high-functioning person with clinical depression has little to do with the severity of your condition, and everything to do with how well you manage it.
Luckily, we’ve got some tips for managing depression and working all the while through it. But before we hit you with those tools, you need to know some background about the relationship between depression and productivity.
Depression is a mood disorder that affects your quality of life, and it can indeed make you as sad as many people commonly assume from the depictions of depression in popular media. But lest we forget that TV and movies are fiction, it’s important to realize that they don’t tell the full story on mental health.
In fact, depression isn’t just sadness — a loss of interest in joy is another big, characteristic symptom of depression too.
Depression makes it hard to be productive because the things that once brought you joy no longer retain your interest. You may become less productive because of this lack of joy or because of other depression symptoms like feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, sleep disturbances, reduced pleasure levels and even impaired attention.
In short, all of those background apps your brain typically runs to keep you productive — to keep you invested, focused, caring and moving forward on your task list — all encounter errors and have to close. And when your brain restarts them, an error prompt just tells you “meh.”
Suddenly, deadlines that scare you may still scare you, but not enough to do anything about them. Getting up to exercise or bust out some work doesn’t seem to matter — why not just do it later?
Can you just “cheer up,” “push through,” “pull yourself together,” “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” or solve this problem with any other tired and inaccurate boomerism? Well, it’s complicated.
So can you just power through, really?
Well, no. Studies have shown that a lot of things are helpful in fighting depression, including medications like antidepressants, therapy and some other stuff we’ll get to in a moment, but nowhere do any resources curated by experts mention “toughing it out” as a form of effective depression care.
If anything, research shows that people who don’t get professional therapeutic support have much lower rates of improvements in depression symptoms over time.
Chances are you’ve heard someone at work, home or in your social circles suggest, well-meaning as can be, that you just shake it off. It seems like a nice thought, but that advice is just not going to get you anywhere you want to be.
You can’t power through depression — you can only manage it. Depression is a chronic condition, and treating it will help you cope with depressive symptoms over time, and eventually find success in taking control.
As for that productivity question, well, part of managing your depression means learning to work around it. Let’s talk strategy.
Working through depression is a courageous act in and of itself. But dumb courage and smart courage are two different things. Here are seven suggestions for how to be smartly courageous (and get shit done) in the face of depression:
First and foremost, your strategy should include a system for who to talk to and when to talk to them when you need support, which is going to be often. We’re not talking about therapy here, but about coworkers, bosses and trusted friends and family members, all of whom can support you and acknowledge what you’re going through, so you’re not going it alone.
Basically, they’re there to remind you that the burden of depression isn’t one you need to carry by yourself.
Oh, and even before you get support, you need to accept your depression on your own. Denial of mental health conditions just doesn’t work, and when you try to “push through” because you’re just tougher or whatever, you’re either going to burn yourself out or crash, or both.
Accepting your depression is a little like acknowledging your leg is broken — you can still get around, but once you’re past the “tis but a flesh wound” stage, you can stop making it worse.
Planning ahead is the easiest way to mitigate the damage depression can do to your productivity. Psychology Today recommends stocking up on healthy foods if you tend to eat poorly when depressed, but you can apply that same logic to giving yourself extra time to complete tasks or giving yourself more time to rest each evening.
The indirect costs of not setting yourself up to succeed can pile up in the midst of chronic depression, so build protections into your daily routine to prevent that.
Employers can suck for a lot of reasons, but it seems like many of them are starting to get better about health support and accommodations for conditions like depression. If you need to work from home a couple days a week because it’s a choice between showering or answering emails, we hope you’ll feel comfortable asking your boss for the accomodation.
The severity of your depression won’t always give you a lot of say in your day-to-day functioning, but whether you’re experiencing major depression or something less severe, planning can help.
While we’re talking about accommodations, you need to accommodate yourself. The best way to do this: create a realistic schedule for yourself to prioritize the important things and make realistic plans to address whatever is left over.
You don’t need to do everything, with or without depression, but when you’re depressed, focusing on the crucial things is key to productivity.
On the opposite side of seeking accommodations is setting boundaries. The people who always manage to get a few hours of your time each week may be great people, but right now you need to be worrying about yourself, not everyone else.
Whether you genuinely want to help or do it out of obligation, learning to say no to protect yourself is important, especially when depression is riding high.
Focus on your goals when you’re in the depths of a depressive episode. Make your days about finding and embracing that drive. And everything else? It can wait. We’re not telling you to blow off work or responsibilities entirely of course, but when you have a clear path, it’s easier to make progress, which itself can give you a sense of momentum.
Of course the most important strategy of them all — the number one way to be productive again when depressed — is to get treatment for depression.
There are a lot of ways to treat depressive disorders, but right now there are two main categories: therapy and medication.
Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors work to help provide your brain with an additional supply of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has been found to help people with depression and other mental disorders regulate their moods.
There are also other medications like tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which are used if SSRIs don’t work or the side effects are too hard to handle. These medications and their side effects can take longer to adjust to for some people, but your healthcare provider will help you find the right medication for your individual needs.
Speaking of tailored treatment for your depressive disorder, a healthcare provider such as a psychiatrist will also help you when choosing the best therapeutic support for your needs. These days it’s most likely to be cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT is a strategy whereby you learn to identify, control and eventually reduce your own depressive reactions to thoughts and feelings, giving you both empowerment and reduced symptoms over time.
Let’s get real for a second, because we all know someone who talks about their high-functioning depression and how they just power through.
Workers with depression don’t tend to power through, so much as they burn themselves out. You’ve probably seen depressed employees get the job done, but what you likely didn’t see is how much productive time they lose from leaving this chronic condition untreated.
Life isn’t just about checking tasks off of your to-do list — it’s about the quality of your time on this planet, and forgetting that is an important sign that your medical condition could use more support. Productivity losses happen, but remember that you are more than your productivity.
If you’re struggling with depressive symptoms, it may be time to get help with the burden of depression and seek out enhanced care. Not sure where to start? Consider speaking with one of our health professionals today about the productivity impairments you’re struggling with. Make your number one task getting better — that’s the best productivity advice anyone can give you.
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Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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