Lisa S., an administrative assistant who suffers from depression, finds her feelings of sadness swell around the holidays, and her work suffers as a result.
“You just feel like work is mundane,” Lisa says. “It’s hard to focus.”
Even though her drug-resistant depression is more contained now that she uses an implant called a vagus nerve stimulation therapy, the holidays always set her back.
“I just miss my childhood Christmases,” she adds.
For Steve, a writer from Boston who is bipolar and takes medication to deal with his condition, this time of year is always difficult to get through.
“The holidays can be problematic,” he explains, “and that impacts my work. I just don’t have the same degree of fluency. I can sit there and ruminate over several things and never get past square one. If I have a deadline, I’m in trouble.”
Every year around this time, stories about the holiday blues seem to be everywhere. Typically they focus on healthy and well-adjusted people who are suddenly over-stressed and over indulgent, and we in the media offer tips on how to make it through until the tree comes down.
But for employees who suffer from serious mental illnesses, this season magnifies their anxieties and depression, often leading to issues at work including absenteeism and a drop in productivity. And those feelings don’t go away just because the holidays are over.
Sue Bergeson, president, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago, is perpetually annoyed by all the reporter calls she gets after Thanksgiving about the holiday blues.
“It’s like, all of a sudden, depression and bipolar disorder are popular and acceptable topics,” she says. “It’s like mood disorders get lumped together with feeling sad because of unhappy memories of holidays past. Depression is seen as just a feeling of sadness and not the difficult and life-threatening illness that it is. I often remark that comparing this kind of sadness to depression is like comparing an upset stomach to stomach cancer—it simply is not the same thing at all.”
Indeed, true mental illness can impact every aspect of a person’s life, especially their work life.
“Work is obviously a huge part of our lives so the connection between mental health and workplace is very clear,” Clare Miller, director, Partnership for Workplace Mental Health. “Depression is extremely common, affecting one in 10 adults every year, and often it affects them during their prime working years, so it’s prevalent in the workplace.”
On average, major depressive disorders are associated with nearly 9 days absent from work, and more than 18 days of lost productivity every year, according to Mental Health America.
And, it turns out, women are twice as likely as men to experience depression.
One study found that depression among women is the top obstacle keeping them from being successful in the workplace.
According to a survey released by the National Mental Health Association and the American Medical Women's Association, 83 percent of the women polled said the biggest obstacle to their career success is their depression, ahead of raising a family and sexual harassment. Their depression often leads to things like absenteeism, avoidance of contact with coworkers and the general inability to face work responsibilities.
There’s help to be found in the workplace, but many employees seem not to know it even exists.
In another study, 40 percent of employees said they weren’t aware of mental/behavioral health benefits offered by their employers, according to a survey by Meritain Health and the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health. And more than one third said they would be more likely to use their mental health benefits if their employer did a better job promoting them.
Many companies offer mental health services via their employee assistant programs.
Already this holiday season workers have been flocking to such programs for mental health help, says Rich Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych, one of the largest EAP providers in the country.
“We’ve seen an increase in the use of EAP services because people are already going into the holiday feeling their pocket books are much tighter, pressured by credit cared debt and the subprime mortgage issue,” explains Chaifetz. Generally, he adds, “we’re seeing more reporting of people in sad moods, and for people who are prone to depression, it’s more severe this season.”
Employees, he points out, can get help from their EAP on a confidential basis, and should do so ASAP “before the depression gets worse.”
As for telling your boss, he advises workers not to be too candid about depression but “tell your manager you have personal things you’re dealing with and you’re talking to someone to resolve those. Your manager doesn’t want to hear it.”
To help get through the season, Bergeson offers some tips:
- Set reasonable expectations. Remember the spirit of the season. It’s not about who has the best decorated house or who can buy the most gifts. You, along with your family and friends, will have a more pleasant experience if you don’t overextend yourself.
- Don’t take on more than you can handle. If your to-do list gets too long, divide up the tasks over a week’s time. One long list suddenly looks so much better when there are only a couple of things to do each day.
- Schedule time alone. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Fifteen minutes of quiet time can be quite rejuvenating, particularly for parents or in households where there’s a lot of activity or out-of-town company. Make a cup of tea, go for a walk or find a quiet place to enjoy for a bit. The sounds of silence will be music to your ears.
- Be honest with family and friends about how you feel. Make sure there’s someone you can talk to over the holidays. Don’t be afraid of bringing everyone down with your mood; your family and friends may be worried about you, and you will all feel better if there’s an open line of communication. Once you vocalize your feelings to someone you trust, you’ll be better able to manage your moods.
- Stick with your wellness plan. It’s easy to let your normal routine slip during this busy time of year, but keep doing those things (exercise, volunteer activities, support groups, etc.) that you know help you stay on track.
And ask for help, advises Nora Klaver, author of "Mayday! Asking for Help in Times of Need".
If it’s at work, she says, make sure you only share your mental health issues with a trusted friend. For all other colleagues, or subordinates, she adds, you can find ways to delegate certain tasks when you’re really down with the promise you can reciprocate down the road.
“You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to help you,” she maintains. “We get caught up in the habit of doing everything ourselves and when it comes to the holidays it’s even harder. You not only have to go shopping but you have to be happy and jovial.”
To cope with the holidays, Lisa S. goes to counseling more frequently and reaches out to friends for support. She also forces herself to go to work even if she’s feeling extremely down.
“I would rather be at work,” she explains. “It helps to be around people and do something.”