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Work depression

‘I am just so fearful’ he said. ‘I am physically and mentally exhausted; it’s difficult to concentrate, my head feels scrambled. 

Jaco is in his late fifties. He has spent the past fifteen years building a business that is falling apart. And he is exhausted.

Leon had threatened to leave a job that was wearing him out and had been for a few years now. The hours, the toxic environment and the lack of any kind of recognition resulted in such debilitating depression he could no longer go to work.

These people are not alone. The workplace is demanding and running your own business is challenging.

Making sure you are in good enough shape to deal with it, is work too.

The kind of work, the hours, the people, the pressure and even you yourself, can get to you.

The workplace is getting more anxious

The workplace globally has shown increases in those suffering from anxiety and levels of depression. Perhaps it’s affected you too at some stage of your work life, maybe even now.

Here is an excerpt from a report by Workplace Options:

Workplace Options, the world’s leading provider of integrated employee well-being services, recently examined a set of data encompassing a relatively stable population of more than 100,000 employees across Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, and South America to evaluate global trends in the use of its Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). The data represented all EAP inquiries made by this group from 2012-2014.

 While the number of cases dealing with personal emotional health issues remained relatively constant across all three years, instances of employee stress, anxiety, and depression each rose at an alarming rate.

Some of the interesting findings of the analysis are as follows:

About 4 out of every 10 cases over the three-year period were related to personal emotional health issues (42 percent in 2012; 38 percent in 2013; 42 percent in 2014)

  • The number of cases dealing with employee depression increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2014.
  • The number of cases dealing with employee anxiety increased 74 percent.
  • The number of cases dealing with employee stress increased 28 percent.
  • Combined, employee depression, stress and anxiety accounted for 55.2 percent of all emotional health cases in 2012 compared to 82.6 percent in 2014.

“Serious mental health issues can have a devastating effect on organizations around the world,” said Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options. “What this analysis means for businesses around the world is that if your employees’ emotional well-being wasn’t already on the top of your list of priorities, it needs to be.”

 Some things that create work depression

There are many things that can really take their toll on your well-being and begin to run you down.  Here are a few of them:

  1. Losing your job can be debilitating and throw you into severe confusion and work depression
  1. Your business is doing badly, you are running out of cash and there is not much light at the end of the tunnel
  1. Your job is at risk due to a pending restructure and the uncertainty has now been dragging on for a year or more
  1. You have an extremely tough personal life that constantly wears you down
  1. You are dealing with loss of someone important in your life and this is affecting your work life
  1. Your work environment or working conditions are toxic and are affecting your health
  1. You have a bad relationship with your boss and it’s not getting any better
  1. You hate the people you work with, its hard to go to work every day
  1. You are in financial trouble and you don’t see a way out
  1. You are in a position where feel you have to pretend that you are OK when you aren’t
  1. You are utterly bored and under-utilised in your job
  1. You work crazy hours or have a grueling travel schedule that is interfering with your health
  1. Your sleep pattern is continually disturbed and you are getting increasingly run down
  1. Your work environment is cluttered and noisy and sucks energy from you
  1. You go home from an exhausting day to a chaotic home environment that takes the last bit of energy you have
  1. You have lost purpose in your work and your life
  1. You really hate your job and only do it because you get paid
  1. You are lonely in your life or in your business, or both
  1. You have huge change in many areas of your life and it’s got on top of you
  1. You are depressed and have no idea why, could it be your job?


When it’s time for a break

A few years ago we had just arrived at our holiday home at the sea.

The sea was sparkling and summer had arrived. This was the ‘long hols’ as we say. I was unpacking and starting to stack provisions in the kitchen. I had hung colourful towels down the long passage lined with hooks. It was festive indeed.

We had had a good business year and I had ordered a new Mercedes Benz to collect when we returned so it could be registered in the new year. The seaside town of Arniston was beginning to show signs of Christmas holidays with people in thongs and floppy hats, children on scooters and tents going up in the camp site.

But there was something happening you would not have seen or known about. The walls of the house were literally closing in on me. It was like the sun was shining but I was slowly dying inside. It was difficult to focus. How many times have I looked for the olives on the shelf and not seen them? By the following day I knew that I had to get out. I needed to be in my car, listening to music and go home.

Except that the house back home was in a mess. Builders had chopped up some of the floors and laid new cement that was drying to solve the different levels of flooring in the house. The bedroom was now in the lounge, the lounge furniture was stacked in the dining room. And there was a heat wave. You could walk into the heat like a wall. But no matter, I had to go home. In the lounge are two Sanderson wingback chairs facing the garden through a bay window. The heat, the quietness and the visual space were so welcome. But I felt so low and dead inside that everything was an effort. I was now watching the movie ‘Babette’s Feast’ for the fourth time. 

‘You know Andrew’ said my doctor, ‘you have struggled with depression before in your life and I know you have resisted all medication’. You have a strong genetic line of depression in your family. Just give some medication a try.

I had seen my mother over many years go from bad to worse on medication so was less than keen. The next few days I slept on anything horizontal that happened to be in the way between the kitchen and the bedroom.

I was introduced a few years ago to the term ‘work depression’, a condition that affects many people who lose jobs or are in environments that are not good for them, who work with people that are not good for them or are in a difficult space in their lives causing it to spill over into their work lives.

I realised I had a bad case of work depression doing what I loved doing with people I like. I was utterly exhausted.

But stress and depression are alarm clocks, a wake-up call if you like. I believe it can indeed serve us well if we befriend and manage it rather than ignore it or wish it away. I think it warns us when we are burning out, when we are making decisions that are not good for us, when we are ignoring things in our lives that are stealing energy from our system. But this was my turn.

I slept for five days, which turned out to be the most helpful thing I had done for many months. The next morning was the most beautiful, calm, sunny morning with a coolness that was refreshing. My head was the clearest it had been in years. And as I sat at our swimming pool writing in my journal I realised my depression, which I now accept is also clinical, was triggered by exhaustion.

I was exhausted from an insane work schedule, from renovating our home, from working with people who took rather than gave me energy.

I realised that I needed to restructure my business and to take charge of my health again.

I needed a break away from people, even from people I loved.

I needed some time out that restored my own soul and didn’t make any demands on me.

The alarm clock was spot on time.

Energy is our most valuable resource

Energy is our most valuable resource. The debate about whether the glass is half full or half empty is now finally resolved. It’s refillable.

Without energy we simply come to a standstill or parts of our system start to creak or break.

There are four kinds of energy that we need to nurture and look after:

The first is our physical energy, the capacity to get work done, to move, to interact with others and to take action.

The second is our emotional energy, our ability to manage and direct our emotions so that it serves us and those around us.

The third is our mental energy that allows us to direct that energy in productive ways as we make a contribution to life.

The fourth kind of energy is our spiritual energy. It connects us with a universal energy and spirituality that creates hope and directs our energy towards our mission on earth as we seek to serve other people.

From quantity to quality

As I drive my son Sam to school, as we get closer to the N7 motorway, we pass some large tank farms that belong to an Oil Refinery. These huge tanks can hold more than 20 million litres and have internal floating roofs that rise and fall as the amount of crude oil inside of them changes.  Without crude oil we have no useable fuel, but on its own it doesn’t have much general application. Our physical energy is like that. We need to continually recharge it, find it, even create it under pressure. And the quantity will change as we restore it or as we use it up.

The next time we see that crude oil, it has been refined and we, together with other motorists, queue up at the pump to fill our vehicles with fuel we can use. We have not exchanged quantity for quality. We have exchanged physical energy for emotional energy; energy we can use in productive ways in our work, in our lives and as we interact with those around us.

Do you know people that are good to spend time with? Being with them is a good exchange of emotional energy. But there are people too that, as you see them coming, your energy drops. They take energy to be with and to listen to.

Over the past few years corporations have made huge investments in emotional intelligence. Energy without emotional intelligence is easily squandered with drama, ego and unnecessary conflict.

It is only when our tank is full at the pumps that we are able to direct where we go, what we focus on, how we take charge of our journey ahead. We have converted our energy into mental energy where we make choices, take new roads, make decisions and make a contribution.  There may be times when you remember being so focused; it just flowed; you could make sense of things, good decisions as you directed your mental energy towards what was important.

Mental energy is developed through learning, growth and challenge. It allows us to direct our mental capacity towards those outcomes that matter to us and that drive productive work lives. Mental energy is our capacity to use energy in a focused and productive way.

How then do we think about spiritual energy? Lehr and Schwartz in their book ‘On Form’ have described spiritual energy as the force that drives our energy. I like that.

Spiritual energy inspires us, directs us in a different realm. Spiritual energy is our communion with a higher wisdom, from writing that transcends the day-to-day, from profound music, from prayer, meditation. It also comes from the stillness and wonder of being in nature or in a place that has spiritual energy for you. And then there are some people who are gifted to both access and share spiritual energy.

Leaks in the system

Sometimes there are leaks in our energy system. These could be an illness that depletes our energy or it could be clinical depression.

If you have a genetic predisposition to depression through your blood line, you have a vulnerable pipe in the system that needs to be managed.

It can often be managed well for many years, but as you get older or put more pressure on it, you may need to attend to the leak and not just ignore it and hope it goes away.

But when the energy leak has been fixed, you need to put the water on again!

If you got a plumber into your home to fix a leaking tap, you could admire it, polish it, call the neighbours to see, but it doesn’t work until you put the water back on.

Some of my special family farm in the Free State. My cousin, ‘TJ’, when referring to tractors, farm equipment and vehicles, says that ‘Goed staan en breek’. (Things stand and break). You have to keep them working for them to stay in workable order.

When you’ve had the break, got the treatment, done the stuff you can, you can’t stay lying down. Its time to get up again and get started, even if it is one hour a day. It’s now a case of ‘feel the feeling and do it anyway…’

Craig was in a tough space in his business. He was also grossly overweight. His energy was at an all-time low. Even with expensive vitamins he hardly had the energy to get up in the morning.  Friends suggested he got some running shoes and got some exercise, but just getting up to do that was beyond him. A visit to the doctor showed a low testosterone level. He now had a small amount of energy to work with. But having increased his testosterone level he still had to take action. 

There is always a case for increasing your medication, but without action you can continue to spiral downwards with lack of focus and hope. And that often results in even less action and dwindling confidence. Even a car that is fuelled and oiled up has to be taken out of the garage.

This does not mean overdoing it and going to back to life as it was. But it does mean within reasonable means and kindly and with one small step at a time connect with people and take whatever action you are able to.

Energy also begets energy and sometimes all we have to do is make the smallest move in the right direction.

But you do have to get up, and start again with what you have.

Managing energy takes effort

Managing energy takes effort and you will have to do what it takes to create and restore energy for yourself.

Here are some simple, and cool, ways to do that:


  1. Manage your physical energy by getting some exercise. There is no need to overdo it and have a heart attack at the gym after years of living in front of your computer. But walking, taking the dogs out or spending 20 minutes a day doing something active shouldn’t be life threatening. If you are struggling with energy or dealing with depression in any form, this is like plugging your cell charger into the wall. Your battery is at risk of running out without physical energy.
  1. Manage a regular sleep pattern. Avoid staying up till all hours, sleeping at odd times during the day then lying awake for hours at night. It’s not necessarily the number of hours but the pattern you find that works for you. A nap after lunch can do wonders; just 20-30 minutes can revive you. Learn how to do that without passing out for the afternoon. An alarm works well till your body learns what to do.
  1. Drink water and watch your intake of sugar, caffeine, high energy drinks and high fat foods that pick you up for a short while before dropping you unceremoniously so you need more. The intensity of energy spikes and troughs deplete energy reserves on their own.  There is always place for an emergency caffeine fix, but it you are living on emergency energy you may want to regulate it more consciously.
  1. Be kind to yourself when your energy is not good. Take breaks. Don’t expect your brain or your body to perform like it does when you are in peak form.
  1. Make a gratitude list every day. Just listing three things at the beginning or end of the day you are grateful for can make a profound impact.
  1. Even when you feel like ‘all hell’, even if it’s a Saturday, maintain a daily routine to shave, shower, wash and brush your hair, have something to eat, make your bed and put your slippers away. One of our key psychological needs in life is to have some control over our lives. Creating a routine is taking control of the few things you can control to give yourself the best chance for the day.
  1. Listen to music that inspires you and is good for your soul. No one else needs to like it. Get some good headphones.
  1. Treat yourself as someone you care about. Be gentle and do things that would be considerate to others. Warm your towel. Put flowers next to your bed. Put your plunger of coffee on a nice tray. And if you need a little rest, put a blanket over your feet. And put your cell phone off; you are allowed some time out that is just yours. The world really will continue if your phone is off.
  1. Make sure the space you live and work in are good for your energy as far as you are able. If clutter gets to you, create a place that isn’t cluttered. Or go to some place that’s harmonious for you, even it’s the local library – remember libraries?
  1. Connect with people you trust and like. Write a thank-you note. Give them a call to see how they are doing. And do so without passing on your problems to them.
  1. Hug your huggable pets often. They are also great listeners. If they like a walk, take them for one. It will do you both good. If you don’t have pets, take your children for a walk, prams work well too.
  1. Write a journal if that’s your style so you can observe things from the outside.
  1. Take time out and let others know that you need it.
  1. Have some courageous conversations to let other people know that what they may be doing that is not good for you and what they could do instead.
  1. Limit the time you spend with naysayers, moaners, armchair critics, people with a negative and heavy spirit, people who criticise and judge others, apologetic victim types that are always being ‘done in’ by the world and the ‘yes-but’ types who always have a problem and many reasons why any suggestions you make won’t work.
  1. Limit time with people who are very friendly, but who carry heavy energy and leave you feeling tired when they leave.
  1. Avoid people who know exactly how you feel (they don’t) and believe that if everyone did what they did and believed what they did and ran their life like they did, they would be better off. They may indeed have valuable insights to share but the judgement and superiority that comes with it may get ‘up your nose’.
  1. Begin to find some purpose for your life and your work. You are not on this planet by accident and if you’re still breathing you still have something to do here.

A note to fellow introverts

To my fellow introverts; we have a different set of needs. We recharge our energy away from people.

That doesn’t give you permission to be unsociable or unwilling to connect with others. It simply means that interaction with other people uses energy and time away from people restores it.

Introversion is not a behaviour, but an aspect of your personality. Introversion and extroversion are on a continuum, so the degree of introversion from one person to another varies. Introversion and extroversion are about where you get your energy.

Extroverts get their energy from being with and around people. But not all have good social skills. That means you can misread their one-word answers and lack of communication as introversion. Introverts can be very sociable with well-developed listening skills, but need to be alone to recharge.  The stronger you are as an extrovert, the larger your people tank is. The stronger you are as an introvert the smaller your tank is, which means you would need to refill it more often or for longer periods of time.

Imagine a really rough day at work. Your boss is unreasonable. Clients are demanding. Systems fall over. Complaints all get sent to you. Noise levels from colleagues are getting to you.

And so as the day end, someone makes a suggestion.

‘Let’s all go out for a drink after work at the Waterfront, it’s such a beautiful evening.  That will help us unwind after a hard long week’.

What do all the extroverts say? ‘We’re in, great idea! Is the company paying?’

What do the introverts say? “Sorry, can’t make it, have other commitments’. With that you leave quietly down the back stairs so nobody follows you and asks for a lift and get out before you get pressed further. You then take the long way home, the scenic route, or via a shopping centre to do some helpful but unnecessary shopping and coffee on your own. You get home to find a note on the door ‘SORRY, ALL OUT, SEE YOU LATER’ and you smile. What a scoop.

Let’s join the extroverts at the Waterfront. By 8pm that evening the eyes are sparkling again. Two hours of talking over drinks has re-energised them all. The boss is not such a jerk after all and we’ll make it’.

By 8pm that same evening, the introvert after a leisurely bath, a bit of reading and gazing into space, is now already returning to normal and recovering some energy for the folks who are out late.

Introverts have two key needs; to spend time alone to recharge and to think and to have an environment that helps them be productive.

Managing your energy means understanding your energy and working with, rather than against it. Ignoring it can leave you very lonely or very tired.

This bit will confuse your extrovert friends. You have a small dinner for a few good friends where you discuss things that interest you all. You have great food and wine.  The vibe and energy of the evening would leave any extrovert feeling left out.

That’s because introverts have a small group of intimate friends and engaging with them around topics that interest them energises them enormously. But don’t invite them to the school cocktail function. Also, since you much prefer one-on-one interactions, when you find that interesting person at the school function, it can be a very energising conversation.

But it’s not joining the large group, every time.

Understanding what gives and takes energy from you is a critical aspect of managing yourself, your mood and your productivity.

Since energy is a valuable resource to introverts, they are more sensitive to energy thieves; people who moan, complain, who insist that life sucks or who carry friendly but heavy energy.

As an introvert you cannot avoid people, but you can manage how much time to spend with them and where.

You might for example meet somewhere where you can leave when you are done, have your own car, or meet for coffee at work rather than accept a dinner date or even worse a weekend away.

You will also be sure to put names against numbers on your cell phone so that you can decide who you want to speak to and when. In fact, you have probably been criticised often for not answering your phone even from people you like. Your phone works for you, you don’t work for your phone.

Giving someone your full attention is a behaviour choice.

Giving presentations, attending functions and accepting dinner dates come with the responsibility for making an effort.

So, using introversion as an excuse for not communicating or for not developing social skills is career and life limiting.

If you don’t manage it, introverted energy can exhaust you and make you ill. If your career or your life require you to interact with people continually you will need to become aware of when you need a recharge and find a way to do that.

Beware too of becoming such a ‘lone wolf’ that you become isolated and inaccessible, even perceived as rude and arrogant. Any good value taken to a ridiculous extreme becomes a weakness.

My offices are designed for introverts. There are individual areas to work in, good visual space, a quietness even when we have large groups of people.

I also am known to disappear to Matjiesfontein, a small town in the Karoo when I need time out, time to think or need some spiritual energy. I can often be found after long people days having coffee on my own in a lovely coffee shop or in a movie on my own. Of course time in my car is really good space, with my very own music at my very own volume.

It’s not selfish, it makes business sense

Selfish, you may be thinking. It’s being kind to myself so that I have the energy to be there for others. 

I was working with a business team for two days. On the second afternoon I invited them to mail me if they had any questions. ‘I am difficult to get hold of on phone, so email will be more reliable’. ‘Oh’ said one of the participants ‘so what makes you so difficult to get hold of?’

‘I’ll tell you, I explained. You may have noticed the past two days and dinner last night that I haven’t been answering calls, returning messages or spending tea and lunchtimes returning e-mails. So, for anyone else in my life, I have been unavailable working with you’. 

I believe it’s important to be present where you are, and to not compromise that by sharing the meeting with your buzzing mobile or pinging messages.

Finding the message

One day I was explaining to my younger son this thing called depression that has reached such epidemic proportions in the world. I was also explaining how depression can also be a gift.

‘So Dad, why are you saying depression is a gift?’

‘Well, sometimes it’s a messenger that you are straying too far from your mission, other times it’s to tell you that you are carrying too much. And sometimes it’s a warning that you’re running out of steam and that you need help’.

It has very often helped me focus, start new projects, let projects go that were not mine or end relationships were not good for me. The feelings are not always fun but they are messengers still.

Depression has sometimes robbed me of a very productive time. Yet when I look at those times again, I have also found that each time my life has needed to change, depression has been my guide. They say that a certain darkness is needed to see the stars and that is often true.

In times of grappling with depression I have also had the gift of slowing down, re-evaluating what I am doing and hearing my soul say ‘no, not this way but that…’

Depression is not just a feeling, it’s also chemical, something I have ignored. And so I continued:

‘You see Sam, depression is not always your enemy, sometimes it has a message for you and in that sense it’s a gift’

‘It’s a pretty lousy gift’ he said

‘It is a lousy gift sometimes.

It’s also an illness and many people I love struggle with that. They have a chemical imbalance and need to treat it. And maybe as I get older it may come to get me too.

So, you need to treat the illness, but don’t miss the message’.

‘In other words Dad, what you are saying is ‘Don’t kill the messenger’

I couldn’t have said it better.


©Andrew Bramley, Career Warriors 2019. All rights reserved.


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