AS@W Antidepressant Skills at Work: Dealing with Mood Problems in the Workplace
Depression in the Workplace
What causes depression?

Research has identified a number of factors that contribute to causing and maintaining symptoms of depression. The diagram below shows the five major factors: situations, thoughts, emotions, physical state and actions. Each of these areas of your life can play a role in the development of depression, and depression can have an impact on all of them.

Depression involves all areas of your life: your life situation; your thoughts, emotions and physical state; and your actions. It may affect social support, family relationships, employment, and finances. Each of these areas is connected to all the others. As a result, changes in one area produce changes in the others. When depression first develops, negative changes in one area often cause the others to get worse as well. However, when you are working on getting better, changing one area leads to improvements in the others. The goal of treatment is to get all areas of your life spiraling upward, each producing positive change that improves the other areas.

Causes of Low Mood & Depression



  • Loss
  • Isolation
  • Conflict
  • Stress



  • Social Withdrawal
  • Reduced activity level
  • Poor self-care





  • Negative thinking habits
  • Harsh self-criticism
  • Unfair & unrealistic thoughts

Physical State

  • Altered sleep
  • Low energy/fatigue
  • Agitation
  • Changes in brain chemistry




  • Discouragement
  • Sadness
  • Irritability/Anger
  • Numbness
  • Anxiety



Depressed mood may be triggered by stressful life situations, including those related to the workplace. If your attempts to cope with these situations have not been successful – or the situations have not improved – you may begin to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Risk of developing depression may then increase.

Work settings more likely to trigger low mood are those where employees experience:

  1. High workload with low control over the workflow;
  2. Little social support from colleagues or supervisors; and/or
  3. Perceived unfairness in providing rewards and recognition for one’s efforts. Employees in these kinds of workplaces are more likely to feel demoralization, resentment and reduced engagement. They are at higher risk for mood problems.

Situations that can contribute to low mood or depression include:

  • Stress directly related to the workplace:
    • job insecurity
    • overwork
    • unclear job expectations
    • dangerous physical environment
    • unpleasant work area (e.g. high noise, little privacy)
  • Major life events:
    • death of a loved one
    • job loss
    • positive changes associated with a new level of challenge, such as a promotion or new job
    • divorce /separation
  • Lack of contact with other people:
    • feeling cut off from or rejected by coworkers
  • Relationship conflict:
    • ongoing or severe conflict in relationships (e.g., with a family member, work colleague, supervisor or customer)
    • bullying/harassment
  • Stress related to physical health:
    • physical health problems – especially health problems that are chronic or cause a lot of pain
  • Work – life imbalance:
    • the demands of home and work are competing and exceed your ability to keep them balanced (see Work-Life Balance)

People do not only get depressed when things are going badly. Some people get depressed when their life has been going smoothly. Depression may seem to come out of nowhere. The antidepressant skills taught in this book are useful in both cases.


Each of us is affected differently by outside events, depending on how we think about those events. Imagine two people walking into a new office. One person is naturally outgoing, anticipates being received well by others and views the workplace as friendly and supportive. The other dreads starting new job assignments, anticipates feeling miserable, and sees other employees, supervisors or customers as judgmental and rejecting. Each person’s thoughts help determine how the event is experienced. Research has shown that when people are depressed they often have distorted ways of thinking that can trigger or worsen the experience of depression.

There are several kinds of distorted thinking:

  • Unrealistic negative thoughts about the situation.
    You see the situation in an overly pessimistic way, emphasizing its negative or threatening aspects and ignoring more positive or promising aspects.
  • Unfair negative thoughts about yourself.
    You think about yourself in a very critical way, judging yourself in a harsh and unfair manner.
  • Unrealistic negative thoughts about the future.
    You anticipate a future that is bleak and disappointing, overestimating the likelihood of very negative outcomes.

Taken together, we call this the Negative Triad: thinking in an unfair and unrealistic negative way about your current situation, yourself, and your future.

Imagine someone going through a difficult time at work – maybe a new computer system has been introduced – who tells themselves “this is completely useless”, “I’ll never learn how to use this”, “I can’t stand working here”. This way of thinking leaves this person more discouraged, less able to handle the situation and more prone to depressed mood.


Depression often begins with feelings of discouragement and sadness. If the depression continues, these feelings of unhappiness may become more painful until the depressed individual comes to feel overcome by hopelessness. Feelings of anxiety (physical tension and worry) can also accompany depressed mood.

Sometimes, instead of sadness, a depressed person will experience a general sense of emotional numbness, an inability to feel anything. Others become short-tempered when they are depressed. They may be more irritable, snapping at coworkers or clients, which may lead to new stresses and conflicts.

Physical State

In jobs that are safety-sensitive (such as an airline pilot or a health care worker), lack of alertness due to depression can be very risky.

Depression is often accompanied by a variety of physical symptoms. One of the most powerful physical changes accompanying depression is impaired sleep. Usually this involves an inability to get enough sleep because the person has difficulty falling asleep, repeatedly wakes during the night, or awakens much too early. Sometimes the person sleeps too much or experiences fatigue so pervasive that they can never seem to get enough sleep. When the person does not awake feeling refreshed and rested, it becomes harder to face the day. Depressed people may lack energy and feel exhausted by everyday activities. They may have trouble focusing on tasks and staying alert. This is a particular problem for those who work long hours or alternating shifts.

One theory of depression is that it is caused by changes in brain function, or a chemical imbalance. There is research showing that, for some depressed people, certain neurochemicals in the brain are less active. It is unclear whether these changes in brain chemistry commonly cause depression, or are the result of depression. All we know is that depression is often associated with changes in brain chemistry.

The physical symptoms of depression make it harder to cope with life problems, or even to follow through on a depression program like this one. Antidepressant medication may be helpful in restoring sleep and regaining a sense of physical energy. It may allow you to try out the antidepressant skills described in this book.


People who devote almost all their time and energy to work, while neglecting personally rewarding activities, have work-life imbalance and are at risk for developing low mood or depression. If you always bring home concerns from the job and are unable to let go of your work and relax, you are more vulnerable to depressed mood.

Depression has a large impact on a person’s behaviour. Here are some of the main areas affected:

  • Not doing enjoyable activities.
    Exercise, reading, travel, hobbies and sports may all suffer. Depressed people often feel too tired or unmotivated to pursue these activities – but the less they do, the less they feel able to do. Most depressed people suffer from a reduced ability to have fun or get enjoyment from activities. Inactivity becomes a habit. As a result, the depressed person no longer gets the personal satisfaction provided by these activities, further contributing to a sense of discouragement.
  • Withdrawing from family, friends and coworkers.
    At work, depressed people may avoid going out with colleagues for lunch or after-work events, feeling that they will be poor company and won’t enjoy social activities. This avoidance of contact makes the workplace feel like a less supportive and engaging place. Social isolation is a strong contributor to depressed mood. Social isolation takes away the warmth and connection to others that are basic to all of us.
  • Not taking care of yourself.
    When someone is depressed, activities designed to maintain health and appearance are frequently neglected. Depressed individuals may take less care than usual in personal grooming or dress. In addition, exercise is often reduced, whether this involves planned fitness activities such as attending the gym, or simply walking around the neighbourhood. Eliminating exercise contributes to depression by removing a powerful source of physical well-being and increased self-esteem. As well, the depressed person often has disrupted eating habits, which may include skipping meals or overeating as a form of self-comfort. In the workplace, the depressed employee may skip breakfast and forget to eat lunch – this kind of poor eating can worsen depressed mood.


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