Managing depression in the workplace - 1
Depression, for me, can be characterised as the contrast of colour decreasing. It fades and becomes one. There’s no sharpness in thought. Everything is slow. There’s also a real spiralling; it’s essentially like treading water constantly.
There’s such a blank sadness and hopelessness, that all you really want is to let go and sink.
Depression really mustn’t be confused with the odd feeling of unhappiness or being fed up once in a while. This distinction is important. Research suggests that depression affects up to half of all autistic people at some point in their life, and that autistic people may be more likely to experience depression than non-autistic people. This is hugely concerning, and really indicative of the low employment rates amongst autistic people.
Depression affects people in different ways, and may include, but not exclusively - feelings of despair, being teary, unable to sleep, eat, and the neglection of hobbies and seeing friends and family. These symptoms last persistently for a number of weeks and can feel really monumental. I appreciate they may not sound much in themselves, but you have to imagine them all happening at the same time, and the knock-on effect this has on all aspects of your life, all at once.
I feel some people aren’t able to properly perceive quite the magnitude and severity that depression can have on someone, which is why I’m spending a bit of time laying out what it is.
Depression can occur for a number of reasons, for instance from experiencing trauma or stressful events, having other mental or physical health conditions, alcohol, drugs, or from simply having a family history of depression. Personally, within the autistic population, I find that we are at far greater risk to mental illness; as ordinary day-to-day life can have additional challenges, from environmental factors to daily communication and interactions with others.
Furthermore, with differences in how we perceive and understand the world, we can be more at risk of being misunderstood and not able to relate to others as easily, which can all lead to feelings of separation and isolation to humanity. Consequently, we can end up feeling very alone, and often with a lack of an adequate support network, this can correlate highly with getting depressed. Alexithymia can also be a strong contributor to depression in autistic people, in that we struggle to identify, understand and manage our emotions, due to interoception difficulties.
If you are experiencing depression and are in employment, you may want to keep on working, as a routine and structure can be hugely beneficial, and the feelings of connecting with others and being productive can all be good for mental health more generally. This can help keep a sense of normality to one’s life, when all else seems to be falling apart.
For some autistic people I know, work helps maintain a real equilibrium in one’s life and can even help symptoms. Work can give us a sense of purpose, after all.
If you’re able to work fine, great. And if you can ‘sort of work’, I would explore options with your line manager and employer at this stage, as you may be able to work from home, reduce your hours, have less contact time with customers and other staff – whatever it is that can make aspects of your work easier in this period. Definitely have these conversations and see what options are available to you. I’d also suggest seeking out other support at work, for instance you may have an Employee Assistance Programme, or private medical care where you can access a psychiatrist or psychologist. You also have your GP and a multitude of support lines available to you to reach out to.
How, where and when you seek support is entirely personal.
Accessing support through the NHS may sadly be a postcode lottery, but regardless of how you seek support - it all takes time. Some of you may not seek support, as you know that this doesn’t work well for your needs, and there’s honestly no judgement here. You may find the support services inaccessible (often the case in autistic people; this is certainly true to an extent for me), have sufficient support from friends and family, or you may simply find solace in knowing that this too will pass.
If this is the first time you are experiencing mental illness, you may need to try a number of services to see what works for you, but I would also iterate that each time you are unwell; you will be different, and therefore your support needs will look different to last time. Do bear this in mind and don’t simply look for a replica of what worked for your mental health last time round. In all of this, your employer has a duty of care and should support you in whatever way they can. Plus, you are supported through the Equality Act 2010, in case anyone needs reminding.
You may find you are able to work for a period of time, but then as symptoms compound over time, this no longer becomes an option for you. And I completely get that.
Not being able to concentrate, getting caught up in tears on Zoom, or generally feeling too low to get out of bed, let alone brushing your teeth and switching on your laptop and performing – this can all be too much, and you really need to respond to what you are experiencing in any given moment. You are honestly in no way a failure, nor are you letting anyone down - apart from yourself, if you fail to adequately take action at this stage and give yourself a break from work.
I do appreciate that not everyone has the luxury of taking time off work, and I acknowledge that we are living through tough times, but please; where you have the choice, do make life easier for yourself and take some time out. It may feel like a big deal at the time, but remember that this is just temporary, and that people go off sick all the time, and that this is no different (sadly stigmas around mental health and time off still prevail). If you need time off, get in touch with your GP to obtain a sick note and submit this to your line manager or HR department. It’s also worth finding out what your sickness policy is, if you don’t already know it. And definitely don’t be hard on yourself for not knowing it – I know this is something I forget to check when starting a new job.
Once off work, take rest, and recuperate. This is what you need right now.
In part two of this blog, I will cover how to manage your time off, with regards to staying in touch with your employer and creating a new routine for yourself. Until then.