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Listen: Employers, colleagues can help ease depression at work simply by ‘touching base’

In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, Ken Jones, a behavioral health administrator at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital, discusses how depression can affect work — as well as how employers and employees can ease it.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: Dr. Jones, we’re talking about “work depression” today. I’m wondering, is work depression different from “depression depression”?

Ken Jones: We believe that depression is a multifactorial type of disorder. And so that includes genetics, biology and psychosocial factors. So work kind of falls under “psychosocial factors” where at its extreme, it can exacerbate or even cause depression, but the symptoms are just present in a different environment. 

Allison: For a lot of us during the pandemic, work has been especially difficult. How you can tell the difference between depression versus something like stress or something like burnout? 

Jones: Stress is something that we all experience anyway. So there’s a little bit of a baseline to that. There’s actually positive stress — we call it eustress — and negative stress, which is more of a distress. So we do deal with stress all the time. The difference is the resources that we feel that we are able to marshal to manage a particular set of stressors. So when stress increases to the extent that it exceeds our resource ability to manage it, then we experience what we would traditionally call, “I’m stressed out,” or even symptoms that we might refer to as burnout in the workplace. So it really has to do with, “Do we have enough resources to manage what’s coming at us?” 

You mentioned COVID, and certainly COVID has stretched all of our resources to a great extent, and changed our work environment, physically. A lot of us are working from home or working from home more than we would otherwise. There’s a lot of changes that are taking place in the workplace. Sometimes it’s easy to keep up with, and sometimes we find ourselves kind of getting bogged down or having more difficulty than we normally would with these types of changes, especially over a prolonged period of time, like we’re experiencing.

Allison: What is the relationship between burnout and depression? 

Jones: Burnout describes that space that we get in, in which we start to experience symptoms that begin to begin to affect our performance at work. That’s usually one of the first ways that we can tell that we’re experiencing burnout: We don’t feel the same way we did about going to work. We’ve noticed that our performance starts to lag, and it can create cycles, in which the anxiety of our decreased performance creates its own sense of fear and difficulty focusing and can kind of spiral into something that’s hard to get out of.

Allison: What would the symptoms be of depression at work?

Jones: I would expect to see difficulty in focusing and completion of tasks that we would normally manage pretty well. Anxiety under work-related deadlines. So when we have deadlines, or performance-based tasks, those can become quite stressful when we’re experiencing work depression. Decrease in energy, motivation, perhaps some degree of apathy, what we call anhedonia, which is a loss of pleasure in activities that we would normally enjoy.

So in the workplace, there may be projects that we are either leading or are typically involved in with some degree of energy, and we’re just not that interested in those types of things anymore. Irritability might be something else that we would see, that would be a little bit unusual and may strike our coworkers as, “Wow, that seems a little bit different.”

And then what I would call “decision paralysis,” and that’s really that place where we just become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of decisions that we have to make throughout the course of the day. And so a person might find that by mid afternoon, they’re just tapped out on making even one more decision. So it feels like a paralysis: You just freeze up and don’t want to make any more decisions or let other people make decisions that might not be exactly what would be the best for a particular situation.

Allison: It sounds like depression and burnout both affect a person’s ability to navigate their work and maybe be as productive as they were before. If a person were experiencing this lack of productivity, how would you advise them when it comes to seeking resources for depression or burnout?

Jones: Recognition is always the first part. It’s important to recognize, “Hey, something is different. I may need to seek help from a toolbox that is deeper than the one I currently have.” And so in terms of recognizing, “It’s time to reach out for help,” many workplaces have wonderful resources with regard to their employee assistance programs that are designed to provide that kind of therapy support for individuals who are experiencing extreme fatigue in the workplace. So I would encourage reaching out to your EAP at work, or perhaps using the resources that you have to to seek a counselor. If you’ve had counseling before, it might be a good time to pick up the phone and get a few sessions in and see if we can kind of help get out of that stuck spot. It may involve medications based on the assessment and recommendations from a mental health professional, but being willing to do whatever it takes to get yourself back in a position to be successful again and to kind of get out of that particular depressive spot.

Allison: What is an EAP?

Jones: Employee Assistance Program. (It’s) one where they have licensed counselors that are available, typically. It may be like four to six sessions to start, and if that’s enough, then they would be able to assist in that way. But EAP is designed specifically to help individuals with depression, anxiety and work-related stressors that are impacting performance at work. So it’s really a great resource to turn to in these situations.

Allison: What are some of those other resources or strategies that you would give to managers or employers?

Jones: Understanding the signs and symptoms of work-related depression or burnout is really important from a manager standpoint, in terms of being able to have some of those crucial conversations. When you see someone appears to be different, or appears that something has changed, rather than just focus on the performance end of it, possibly checking in and going like, “Hey, how are you doing? What’s what’s going on? I noticed something is different.” And for people to hear that the change has been noticed by a caring coworker or manager really can be an important turning point in terms of their willingness to seek help. So recognizing and reaching out, touching base. We all really need to take care of each other these days, given everything that’s going on. 

It’s really important for that personal connection to reach out. And then individually, you might start with just looking at some of the work-life balance things that may have gotten pulled askew given the current demands. Am I getting enough rest in the evening? How’s my sleep? In terms of eating habits, am I taking care of myself? Exercise is extremely important. Getting outside, getting some fresh air, regular exercise two to three times a week may be enough to help the person move back into a balanced space, as well. So there’s some selfcare things that are really important once we recognize that we’re out of balance, and we’re trying to get back into feeling more like ourselves.

Allison: I’m not sure I could explain the difference between burnout and depression. Can you re-explain how they differ in the workplace?

Jones: Clinical depression is an actual disorder. We use the term “burnout” — it’s not necessarily a clinical term, but it’s descriptive enough to kind of let us convey the idea that, “My resources are exceeded by my demands.” So, burnout can lead to clinical depression, and when it does, it’s important to reach out for professional help at that point.

Allison: Thank you for clarifying. Is there anything else that you think listeners should know about this topic?

Jones: Amid all the changes that take place in the marketplace, within the job arena, and even outside, it’s important for us to find ways to center ourselves. Selfcare is an important aspect of that. If you find yourself working in a different environment, such as working from home for extended periods of time, making adjustments to how you manage that different work environment can be important. 

So I’d recommend ensuring that your workplace is separate from the home environment so that you’re creating a professional space that feels a little bit different than the rest of the house. The dining room table can be incredibly convenient, but it might not provide you the mental space that you need to actually perform at your best. It’s also important to take breaks. One of the advantages of being at home is that you can go out and take a walk but get some fresh air and make sure that you’re not sitting at the computer, at your desk for the entire time that you’re working. Creating that work-life balance at home is actually just as important as it is if you’re in an office or in a traditional work setting.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here

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