Coping with depression can have negative effects on your workplace performance and relationships.  Here’s how you can effectively manage your depression while at work

By Nicole Wray

Depression: How to cope at work

According to the World Health Organization, depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide among men and women aged 15 to 44. Not unlike people suffering from a more noticeable physical or learning disability, under Canadian human rights law, people suffering from mental illnesses like depression have the right to access accommodation in their workplace.

"Being a young woman who is new to the workplace, I want to be taken seriously and be treated professionally. I fear telling colleagues that I am bipolar would make people treat me differently and perhaps think I am less capable at taking on large responsibilities," explains Sarah*, a fund development officer in the not-for-profit sector.

People like Sarah who suffer from often invisible disabilities like depression or bipolar disorder face stigmas when employers or co-workers are unaware that a depressive disorder can be a workplace disability. Fortunately, accommodations for employees dealing with depression or bipolar can be easy to access and are often very low in cost for the employer.

How and when to approach your employer

Stigmas associated with mental illness can make approaching your employer to discuss accommodation intimidating and daunting, but "if there are performance issues that are starting to arise, taking a proactive approach is important," explains Kathy Jurgens, national program manager of Mental Health Works.

"You have to ask yourself ‘What are the requirements of my job? What are the areas I’m having difficulty with?’ and then come up with a solution. An accommodation shouldn’t be put upon somebody; it needs to be a mutual coming together of ideas and decisions," explains Jurgens.  

Depending on the policies that exist at your workplace, you may be required to meet with human resources to discuss arranging formal accommodations. In other cases you may be required to talk to your manager or supervisor. Check your workplace policies first, but "certainly approach who you are more comfortable with," says Jurgens.

What accommodations can you ask for?

Mental health issues are no different than physical disabilities when it comes to making accommodations in the workplace. You wouldn’t shy away from asking your employer to build a wheelchair accessible route to your desk and you shouldn’t feel hesitant to ask for accommodations that can lessen the burden of your mental illness at work.

If you are wary of sharing the details of your mental illness with your employers, "there are many ways to get accommodation without sharing (or needing) a diagnosis," says Jurgens.

For example, you may find your performance at work can be greatly improved with simple solutions like working from home one day a week, finding a quieter work area or asking for written rather than verbal instruction. Such accommodations can be arranged with little or no cost and without your employer needing to know your specific diagnosis.

How to talk to your co-workers

Although employees have the right to keep their illness completely private, in some cases it could be helpful to approach co-workers with some information. This may help avoid undue anxiety or office politics about the special considerations you may be receiving.

"As an individual, you have to weigh the pros and cons. If it is causing a lot of stress and anxiety among co-workers, again, you don’t have to share the diagnosis," explains Jurgens. It’s often enough to state that these accommodations are for medical reasons, she says.

If you decide to disclose information about a mental illness to one or more co-workers, preparing a vocabulary of language can help maintain your preferred level of privacy while helping co-workers better understand your illness. For example, to disclose your illness without referring to depression or bipolar disorder, you could use specific terms (such as a biochemical imbalance or a brain disorder), very general terms (such as a medical condition) or simply refer to mental illness.

Where to find helpful resources

If you encounter an employer or co-worker who is dismissive of your mental illness, it’s likely that they are simply unaware of the realities of coping with a depressive disorder. In such situations, it’s helpful to "coach up to your supervisor (or co-worker) and help educate them on the importance of mental health in the workplace," explains Jurgens.

Look to Mental Health Works, the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Mood Disorder Society of Canada for free resources you can access, and even share with an employer or co-worker.

Talking about depressive disorders in the workplace isn’t likely to be an easy or comfortable process, but neither is living with an unaddressed mental illness in a place that you spend the majority of your days. By educating yourself and if need be, your employer, you can often create simple strategies to improve the quality of your work as you cope with depression.

* Name has been changed.

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Web exclusive, October 2011

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