Work as the first line of defense against depression
“You look like you need a vacation..” said John. David shrugged, “Yeah, I guess, haven't had one in a while huh?” as his eyes drifted into the distance and his mind contemplated when's the last time he truly felt at peace.
John had no idea that David is severely depressed and potentially even David wouldn't attribute the actual magnitude of the situation to depression in particular. These are obviously made up characters and a fake situation, but it is not that far off from a daily reality for many people, not just colleagues as well.
At this point everyone knows that taking breaks, be it in minutes, hours, days or entire vacation weeks is beneficial to us, as long as we don't touch work during these breaks. There's been a plethora of studies on that. And it is an obvious choice for burnout, stress and perhaps other forms of negative workplace experiences.
But it shouldn't be the end-all-be-all, nor a disaster preventer. Because as much as you might be looking forward to getting a breath of new and exciting air, dipping your toes in some crystal clear azure waters or stuffing your belly with delicious foreign cuisine, it might not help with whatever you're leaving behind, or in the worst case, running away from. And it might not help you to get rid of any underlying core issues.
What's going on?
The point of this article is not to bash on vacations, sick days or any other type of time break from work as they are indeed vitally important to have, but to look at ways in which companies and employees can improve their overall mental health and not rely only on vacation days.
Looking at some numbers (WHO)  – in the Netherlands it is estimated that around 58% of work-related disabilities are related to mental health, similarly the UK reports that 30-40% of work absences can be attributed towards some form of mental illness. Worldwide, it is estimated that around 15% of workers suffer from a diagnosed mental disorder, and depression and anxiety cuts out about 12 billion working days every year, or about 1 trillion US$ in lost productivity.
Taking into account the undiscovered or undisclosed cases, these are almost alarming numbers, which are not improving overall year-over-year as more people are diagnosed with depression, anxiety, ADHD and other widely spread forms of mental disorders as well as the ones that are not yet put through a spotlight. This is the current reality.
Why does it matter at work?
For starters, the working population spends on average a third of their day working, or roughly around 20% of the time they have in a year. That's no small bite! There's a high chance that your colleagues or your boss are on the list of people you spend quite a lot of time with, and we can try to hide it, but it's usually not just about work, workplace friendships are important to us as well, most of the time.
This means that your colleagues are also much more likely to influence your mood or notice any negative changes to it, among other things, like a social anchor in a way.
This gives workplaces the unique opportunity to act as a safe haven, to not make matters worse, but actually improve upon. Employers should care about their employees mental health and even their overall mental state. Employers should invest into facilities and benefits that help take care of our mental wellbeing. And our colleagues should foster empathy and caution.
Looking at it from the perspective of an employer or an HR manager, one of the most important things is not being afraid to “get your hands dirty”. Meaning, you should have a talk with each and every one of your employees about their mental state, at least once if not on a regular basis.
You should not further stigmatize mental health issues, but talk about them in open detail. Admit your own shortcomings as well, even if you just feel a little gloomy on a Sunday afternoon, by acting like you never have such moments you might be setting unrealistic expectations.
Offer mental health related workplace benefits, like paid therapy, nature retreats, sport activities and other experiences that are proven by research to improve mental wellbeing. Cooperate with therapists if you have to and tailor your benefits to your specific employee demographic.
Most importantly listen, listen and listen. Just like your employees need to listen to themselves, you need to listen to your employees. You need them to tell you what would help them in the situation they're in, you need to adjust and adapt based on their feedback.
Friend of a friend
Be open about your diagnosis, just like it is common to make known any food allergies or even physical disabilities, it should be completely normal to let your employer know about any mental conditions you might be suffering from and which might affect your work and/or your performance in any way, even if that could be a rare case. Others cannot listen if you do not speak up.
With so many people suffering from depression, anxiety and other illnesses it is becoming much more common and there is no shame in admitting it and giving a heads up.
Work on listening to yourself and improving the inner dialogue you have with yourself every day. This means for example being able to accurately respond to what you need at the moment, what would bring you joy and how you could improve any momentary state for your own benefit. This boils down to the simplest question - “What would bring me more happiness or comfort right now at this very moment?”.
And last but not least, learn to balance your work time. As mentioned at the beginning, taking a break, going on a vacation and just generally facilitating any off time is incredibly important for mental health. Albeit be careful with such tools, as it is easy to start using vacations as runaway means, which checks you in with baggage that you'll always reclaim.
First line of defense are the people that work the closest with you, your colleagues. These are the people you spend the most time with and the ones that probably could say the most about you themselves.
Even if you could possibly come out as a little too worrying, it's worth just asking the questions when you feel even the slightest like the other person is struggling with something. One of the most important things for people with depression is knowing they're not alone and that someone cares, because the illness is telling them otherwise.
In fact asking about anything is miles better than not doing anything at all. If a colleague shares their struggle with ADHD with you, ask how you could help prevent firing their triggers. If a colleague suffers from anxiety, ask what comforts them. If you're not sure about something, just ask.
It is not “your job” to fix their dire situation, sometimes all it takes is a good listener.
According to APA's 2022 Work and Well-being Survey , 81% of individuals said they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health when they seek future job opportunities, so this is not to be taken lightly by employers.
Promoting good mental wellbeing, offering and normalizing therapy, practicing empathy and mindfulness, fostering safe work environments and being inclusive are going to be the top qualities of a job with these next years to come.
Think of your colleagues, sometimes you're the only person they see in a day.
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Jan DočekalFull-Stack Engineer
10+ years of experience in various scales of development, different technologies, and team leading. Skilled in Typescript & PHP, SQL or NoSQL databases and server management