Everyone has bad days, but when does job stress become a real problem? We asked a psychiatrist about how to fight depression at work…

We all encounter stress at work, but when can it trigger depression and what can we do about it?

We chatted to Dr Renata Schoeman, psychiatrist and leadership lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) about how to overcome depression in the workplace.

When work triggers depression

When can a work environment cause depression?

According to Dr Schoeman, research has shown that the following factors at work (or in your personal life) can contribute to mental health problems:

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  • A lack of control – an inability to influence decisions that affect your job – such as your schedule, assignments or workload
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
  • A poor job fit – a job that doesn’t match your interests and skills
  • A mismatch between personal and organisational values
  • Extremes of activity – when a job is always either monotonous or chaotic
  • Lack of social support – at work or in your personal life
  • Work-life imbalance

“A lack of self-care also renders you less resilient and able to cope with the challenges of daily life,” says Dr Schoeman, “It is important to take regular leave – a week every three months or two weeks every six months.”

How to avoid job burnout

With many people feeling like they have to give work their all, how can job burn out and depression be avoided?

“Self-care – we all have 24 hours per day – but we each choose how to utilise it,” says Dr Schoeman.

When it comes to self-care, learning to switch off after work is important.

A study by Kansas State University found that people who don’t disconnect from work activities – like email – have higher levels of fatigue and job burnout than those who try to keep their work in office hours. Even feeling an expectation to answer work emails after hours has been linked to emotional exhaustion by a Lehigh University study.

“A lack of self-care also renders you less resilient and less able to cope with the challenges of daily life.” – Dr Renata Schoeman

Related: Are you headed for job burnout? 

If you bring work home regularly, it’s time to reclaim your free time. If you have to, schedule family and me-time like you would a work meeting.

“Choose to sleep sufficiently and regularly, exercise at least five times a week, stimulate your brain through education – formal, or informal (like hobbies, learning a new language or visiting a museum), following a balanced and healthy diet, avoiding substances – including alcohol and painkillers, and making time to socialise with family and friends,” advises Dr Schoeman.

How to support depressed co-workers

What can we do, as managers and employees, to support a depressed co-worker?

“Prevention is better than cure, so it is always better to try to promote a healthy culture and self-care to prevent mental health problems. However, when you’re at work and you notice behavioural, emotional or productivity changes in an individual, approach the employee in a sensitive and supportive way,” advises Dr Schoeman.

She says that early identification and treatment, to limit progression and complications, is crucial.

“The simplest step is to enable a person to access professional services: either through employee assistance programmes or to provide an afternoon off from work to be able to consult a psychologist/general practitioner/psychiatrist.”

She says it is not always necessary for someone with depression to be booked off, but you could consider reasonable accommodations at work, like a reduced workload initially or an afternoon off to be able to attend therapy.

If someone is depressed, and believe their work is the cause, what should they do about it?

Dr Schoeman advises on consulting with your general practitioner, psychologist, or psychiatrist as soon as possible.

She also says you should discuss your situation with HR and you may even be able to ask for an occupational therapist to assist with reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

Related: How to relieve stress in 2018

Don’t ignore it

If you own a business and manage staff, you can’t afford to ignore depression in the workplace.

A study by The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) found that one in four employees in South Africa has been diagnosed with depression. According to the IDEA study of the London School of Economics and Political Science 2016, depression costs South Africa more than R232 billion or 5,7% of the country’s GDP due to lost productivity.

“Undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions have direct impacts on a workplace through increased absenteeism and presenteeism (attending work while unwell), reduces productivity and increases costs. Most employers tend to completely underestimate the financial impact of mental illness on their bottom line,” says Dr Schoeman.

Sources: Dr Renata Schoeman and All4Women: Are you headed for job burnout?