Captain Awkward

#450: How to tighten up your game at work when you’re depressed.

“Artax, how many times do I have to remind you that the TPS reports get put in the BLUE binders? Not the green binders. A little focus next time, please.”

Hey, Captain and Co.

I spent the past two years of my life being really depressed (and, honestly, who knows how long before that — I was only diagnosed last year, but I’ve felt pretty awful for as long as I can remember), and, through some supportive parents and medication and an awesome partner and therapy, I’ve been slowly climbing up out of it.

A year ago I was in university, but I was too depressed and dropped out. Then I spent a few months focusing on getting to a place where I could function again. Last summer, I was part of a program designed to get me back in the working world, but that fell through when I had a really awful panic attack and the program coordinator kicked me out for being too “unstable”.

Then, by some stroke of luck, I managed to get myself a job. I promised myself I would thrive there, because I wanted to live with my partner and be independent. I’d had enough of being treated like a baby who needed constant care. And, for a long while, I actually succeeded! Things went really well — I got a raise, my co-workers and bosses seemed to like me, and I was able to pay for my apartment and develop some new skills and hobbies. 

Recently, I went through another rough patch. My partner and I had some issues that needed working through — there were noises on both sides of potentially breaking up — and it was just a very stressful time. My performance at work suffered because of this (It’s been extra hard, since they recently moved and are only in once a week, so work has been very chaotic and disorganized), and my bosses pulled me in to talk about that. I promised them I’d do better, and since they talked to me, I have been doing a lot better at work! 

Only, because my eternally-absent bosses haven’t seen my improvements (someone is still complaining about me, for reasons???), they’ve taken me off the schedule and I’m 99% sure they’re going to fire me.

I just don’t know what to do any more. I just want to get back to normal, but I can’t. I want to be independent again, but I can’t seem to succeed at that.

I dunno; I guess I respect your opinion and need some advice about what to do next. Y’all are smart and usually know what to say.

I hope you have time for me.

Thanks.

For a short, sweet question this answer got pretty long and rambly.

What I want to help you with is some small tricks that will maybe help you handle depression better plus some small, mostly cosmetic changes you can make so that you appear to be keeping your shit together at work (whether or not you actually feel like you are keeping your shit together).

I don’t know how to tell you how to feel normal again or get back to ‘normal.’ I don’t know what normal is for you. I don’t know what you do next, or what you want to do.

But I do speak “corporate boss” and I can help you (and maybe others who are in your same shoes) keep your job until you decide you don’t want it anymore, and if you can’t keep this one maybe this will help you keep the next one.

A lot of this stuff is literally THE hardest stuff to do when you’re feeling down. Because the principle behind this is antithetical to who we probably are as people, seeking genuine connections and genuine expressions of ourselves. The operating principle is: Appearances count at work. Sometimes more than the actual work does.

Is that fair? No.

Should a really intelligent good worker run into trouble because they are having at temporary bout of sads or meds re-adjustment or other big life stuff? No.

But if things have been feeling off-kilter for you, a little attention to small things like the neatness of your desk, etc. can help you not only appear more focused but feel slightly more focused.

Depression is a big fat jerk. It lies to you all the time. Here are some of the lies it has told me:

Jerkbrain Lie: Organized people keep their shit together (house clean, wardrobe looking sharp, desk immaculate, bills paid on time, go to the gym regularly, floss) without expending a lot of effort. It’s only hard for you to do these things because you are lazy and stupid.

Truth: Organized people are good at taking a little time each day to put their lives in order. It only looks effortless to you – they actually put time and effort into breaking these tasks down into small, manageable routines instead of letting them pile up to the point that they actually are difficult.

Jerkbrain Lie: Mistakes are real and count in a way that your successes aren’t real and don’t count.

This dragon is really hard for me to slay, personally. I suffer from a lot of perfectionism, black & white thinking, and it’s really hard for me to recover from a mistake. Since my brain is a jerk, almost anything can be a mistake for purposes of this exercise. “Ran out of laundry quarters without realizing, now bank is closed” = “CAN’T YOU EVEN HANDLE THE SIMPLEST TAKS, JENNIFER?” Depression interferes with self-respect by making all mistakes appear equal and irrevocable, part of the neverending and totally boring and self-centered story of how terrible I am.

Truth: Everyone messes up. A mistake does not have to derail your whole life or your whole day. When you make an honest mistake (i.e., something that is not a deliberate attempt to harm or a careless disregard for the safety and well-being of others that causes harm), stop and sit with it for a few minutes. Was there something you could have done differently? Can you promise to try harder to do that next time? Does some amends or apology need to be made? Own up, do your best to amend/correct, resolve to do better, and then let it go.

Jerkbrain Lie: Feeling depressed (lazy, horrible, avoidant) means that you can’t (get to work on time, complete work tasks, do writing that you need or want to do, do housework).

Jerkbrain Closely Related Lie: You will do all of that routine boring plant maintenance work when your mood improves! But now, when you are feeling so bad, time to go back to sleep or hit “Play next episode….”

These are those insidious lies that have truth in them.

Improving your mood, like, treating your depression (maybe with meds, maybe by having a weekly safe place to deal with emotions so that they don’t eat the rest of your life) WILL improve your ability to get things done. That is actually very, very true!  It is harder to do normal stuff when you have a debilitating illness that is actively interfering with your focus and motivation. However, even if your mood does not improve, even if you feel bad, even if you feel like you can’t, even if it is hard, you still usually have to:

…or there will be consequences. So if I wait until that magical time when my mood magically improves to do anything, I won’t do anything, thereby confirming my Jerkbrain’s bad impression of me/us. So I do not know if this will help you, but sometimes it helps me to say to myself:

“Self, you can feel fucking horrible and still do the thing you need to do.”

Or, “Yup, it is hard to do this today. But hard is not impossible.”

Or, sometimes I sarcastically agree with everything the Jerkbrain is telling me.

Jerkbrain:Oh Jennifer, you are so terrible and lazy. If anyone knew how horrible you really are, they would all flee from you! Go ahead and knit your shame into a giant lumpy turtleneck of horror…oh wait, you were too stupid to learn how to knit! Remember the time you couldn’t even knit a scarf? So you gave up on it, like you gave up on playing the flute and the guitar and the piano (insert litany of every failure or defeat ever experienced here)…like you GIVE UP ON EVERYTHING. You’re just good at fooling people so they don’t think you’re a failure, but soon your luck will run out and everyone will know what a failure you are.

Me: “You’re right, I am pretty horrible. Guess I better be horrible and put on some shoes and go to work.”

It’s like, sometimes I can strike a bargain with the Jerkbrain where I get to knock out some of the stuff I need to get done as long as I agree that I’m horrible and tell myself so the entire time. FUN! But then when I’ve done the stuff I needed to do, I do actually feel a bit better. When you’re dealing with someone really unreasonable, sometimes it’s good to remind yourself that they are going to be unreasonable (be disappointed, feel bad, make a scene) no matter what you do, so you might as well do what you want to do. In this case, the unreasonable, disappointed, bad-feeling entity is you, so the trick is to say “Well, Jerkbrain, you’re going to feel shitty whether I do this work or I don’t, so I might as well do it – it’s not like NOT doing it will make things less shitty around here.”

I’m not a mental health pro, and I’m certainly not your mental health pro, but that is something that works for me sometimes. Use it if it’s useful for you.

Let’s move on to some cosmetic changes you can make at work to foil your haters and appear more productive.

Work Behaviors

Once I supervised a part-time worker who was clearly going through a major crisis. Here was the deal: She was in her late 30s, going back to college as an adult. Her 18-year-old son had signed up for the military against her wishes, because that was the only way the family could afford college for him. Then we started a war in Iraq, and he was deployed almost immediately. She was prone to depression & anxiety anyway, plus adding in the constant worry about her son and the constant horror of the news, plus the stress of being a full-time student and trying to work half-time, and she was not okay.

Then he died.

“Fell to pieces” did not begin to cover what happened. The office sent flowers, we gave about a paid month off (not usual practice for a part-time student worker, though it probably should be), we put her in touch with the EAP service, we took every piece of work we possibly could away from her and we gave it to someone else.

The person who came back to the office after that month away:

I tried offering her more time off. I hired a temp to take over most of her work and took over the rest myself. I urged her to call the EAP. I called her school employment liaison and tried to get student affairs there and get her into counseling. She and my boss and I sat down and made an action plan for getting things up to “normal.”

Finally, after about 6 months of this, the executive director of this (small, struggling) organization sat me down and said “We have tried everything we can do for ________. Things are not getting better. We hired her to make your workload manageable, that’s obviously not happening if you have to do your work + her work + chase her down for her work + bring in an outside person to do it.We have to let her go and hope she can get through this and start fresh somewhere new.”

The kicker was, *I* had to let her go.

I will never forget it, because when I fired her she got up without a word and turned and walked out of the office, slamming the door behind her.

Unfortunately, outside it had started pouring, and she had left her umbrella in my office, so 5 minutes later, there she was, drenched to the skin, coming back from her umbrella. Which I handed to her, and then she slammed the door again.

The Worst.

I don’t tell you this because I want you to feel bad for me. Things were definitely, obviously, MUCH worse for her that day.

But I can tell you what would have made a difference in keeping her employed that doesn’t have to do with her intelligence or capability or qualifications:

We could have worked up to actual quality work output from there. This would have communicated “I am trying as hard as I can, and things will get better if you hang in with me a little longer.” But without those basic things, the theoretical quality of work didn’t matter – work had stopped.

Having been the super-sad person, and supervised the super-sad person, I offer you some tips on not coming across like the super-sad person.

1. Be 5-10 minutes early every day. Get your jacket stowed, your coffee or tea brewed, your computer up and running, your supplies arranged. Whatever time you have to get up and leave your house to do this, DO IT. Being early communicates to your bosses/coworkers that you want to be there and that you can pull it together to be there. You may be lying to them and to yourself when you communicate this, but the appearance of enthusiasm will help.

2. If your desk & work environment is messy, clean it (even if you have to do this after hours, it’s worth doing). Put 10-15 minutes every day into keeping it neat and organized. Even taking all the stuff related to a project and putting it in its own folder marked “Project” and then putting those folders into something like this might make a small-but-noticeable difference. It may feel like you don’t have time, and if you’re out of the habit of doing this it may feel like a silly distraction from your “real” work, but keep in mind: Looking like you have your shit together is your real work right now.

I can feel you guys rolling your eyes about this, but I once lost out on a really cool job opportunity because of a messy desk. I was out one day, and my prospective boss was trying to find something on my desk, and she couldn’t, so she didn’t hire me on permanently. All of this stuff probably shouldn’t matter, but workplaces have unwritten rules where this can and does matter. So before you jump in with a million exceptions about how things should be and what is fair and how you have a messy desk but no one cares, keep in mind that the LW is on the verge of being fired. If his or her work were so amazing that the small stuff didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.

It’s not just physical space. At least once/week, clean up any file directories you work with and make sure your stuff is saved to the server and labeled in a way that people can tell what it is.

3. If you feel yourself getting teary, excuse yourself. Practice a script for keeping your voice very calm as you say “Excuse me, I’ll be back in a moment” (and then go to the bathroom, to get a glass of water, take a quick walk around the building) or “Excuse me, let’s pick this discussion up after I’ve had a chance to check some figures, thanks” – a couple of stock phrases that (get you physically away) + (buy you some time) = help you compose yourself.

Now, listen, it’s bullshit and sexist to paint women as “overly emotional” if they get a bit flustered. But if you’ve been labeled as “The Crazy One” at work and keeping your job means changing that opinion, it will help you to not cry in front of assholes.

4. Document your work tasks. By which I mean:

Less obvious is the follow-up. I once worked for someone who would insist that they had asked me to do things that they had only meant to ask me to do. Or they wouldn’t give me any information about what was a priority. So I would be working like a busy little bee and then find out about major things that had to be done right now because it was now a crisis. Super-frustrating.

So this is what I did. Pedantic? Yes. Effective? Yes.

After any meeting with boss when tasks were assigned, I would email her:

“So based on our meeting, I am going to handle, x, y, and z. Is there a specific format you would like for y?”

Document the tasks + find a way to work in a very specific question so it doesn’t feel like total waste of their time and that there is a legit reason you are emailing.

Towards the end of the week, like, Thursday evening, I would email her a status update. Bullet-points only, no paragraphs.

“Hi boss, just wanted to update you:

  • x is handled, file is attached.
  • y is checking prices for me, she will give us an answer on Monday.
  • I should have z for you by the close of business tomorrow.

Anything else on the radar I should know about?

Thanks,

Jennifer”

Mondays, I would check in:

“Hello boss:

I hope you had a good weekend.

  • Here are the prices for y as you requested. She needs a decision from us by the end of the week to lock it in.
  • Do you have any feedback about x or z?
  • My priorities this week are to finalize x and z so that we can send them out, and to start researching a, b, and c. Anything else coming our way?

Thanks,

Jennifer”

You guys, it was so tedious. But what it did was:

Your bosses are absent, so something like this (copy them on the emails, perhaps?) might help make the improvements more visible and tangible.

5. Prep for this meeting with your bosses like you would for a performance review. That might be all it is. If this is in fact going to be a lay-off meeting, they’ll tell you. If that happens, you can bounce back.

As a human, I had utmost sympathy for my former employee. As a coworker/boss, what I would mostly want to know from this kind of meeting is:

Presentation

If your company has a dress code, take a look at it and make sure you comply to the extent that you can. If they don’t have a dress code, look at how your bosses and successful coworkers dress and see if you can imitate it at your price point/body type/personal style. Every industry is going to have its unwritten rules about how to dress and present yourself. Some people are going to really rock piercings, tattoos, super-fun hair colors, and twenty-hole Doc Martens and some are going to hide all of that under v-neck sweaters over button downs and trousers and a closed-toed shoe.

I do not think employers should force people to wear makeup or heels (or pantyhose in summer, ugh, my nemesis when I worked office jobs), and you can and should challenge gender-based and racist requirements when you find them. Appearance-based discrimination is a real and toxic thing.THAT SAID, most of us actually have a lot of control about how we present ourselves within a set of basic guidelines. If you are having a hard time finding or keeping a job, when in doubt, be boring.

Go through your work wardrobe, be it business-business, business-casual, or a uniform. Sew on missing buttons. Make sure every single thing has been washed, and if it needs dry-cleaning take it to the cleaner’s. If it needs to be ironed, iron it. If you don’t iron, at least hang it in the bathroom when you shower and let steam do its work. If it’s faded or stained or doesn’t really fit you, don’t wear it to work. Whatever you wear, it needs to be neat, clean, and fit you.

Self-Care

You need enough sleep on a regular schedule.

You need good food on a regular schedule.

You need whatever medical care & health services you need. Don’t neglect this.

You need whatever alone time, couple time, exercise, social time, computer time, reading time, etc. that you need.

You need to be very nice to yourself while you heal and handle hard stuff.

You’re newly living with someone and have been having a lot of conflict at home, which is not helping you. So what can you do to set up your home life so that it supports the rest of your life?

If cleaning is hard for you, can you & partner afford to hire a monthly cleaning service so that you can make sure you always live in a clean place?

Is your schedule of chores/who makes meals working for you? Does something need to be reorganized or renegotiated? Does some stupid task derail your flow? Can you ask your partner to take this on or help you with it?

Long, long ago I had a partner who used to choose 11:30 pm on a work/school night as the time to have serious “Maybe we will break up” talks or “We should have this fight we’ve been stewing over for a while…right now!” His justification was “We should never go to bed angry.”

SUPER FUN, RIGHT?

When you’re struggling to keep your shit together anyway, you cannot have this stuff going on. It is okay to go to bed angry. It is okay to schedule time to fight, to discuss, to have sex, to plan things. It is okay to say “Don’t bring up serious subjects at bedtime/right when I’m trying to get ready for work.” It’s okay to sleep separately if things aren’t working right this second. It’s okay to stop a makeout session/video game/argument/mealtime and say “I need 10 minutes to lay my clothes out for tomorrow, be right back.” My current boyfriend and I give each other wake-up calls and make sure the other person can go to bed early the night before the few days a week we have to get up super-early. Your relationship should support your self-care needs and routines.

Treating depression for me meant learning how to actually feel my feelings but also how to compartmentalize them sometimes and act as a triage nurse/gatekeeper/traffic cop about how much they are allowed to affect the functioning of my day. I think of this as the goal of therapy. Goal #1 is “start dealing with stuff in the hopes of feeling better.” Goal #2 is “actually start to feel better, learn what ‘better’ feels like, learn to imagine it at least.” Goal #3 is “learn some ways to feel more in control of my feelings so that I can have a happier life.” It is an ongoing, imperfect project but a useful and rewarding one. Maybe talk to your therapist about strategies for putting anxieties/fights/fears/conflicts into some kind of mental penalty box. “Yes, I am upset about what partner said, but this is work time right now and I will deal with that during Scheduled Anxiety & Serious Talk O’Clock.” As you and your partner find your own routine and learn to feel more secure with each other, what you’ll find is that you can actually talk about whatever it is later and resolve it, so you don’t have to worry about it the entire day.

Possibly related stuff about self-care:

Possibly related stuff about quitting a job that you hate and is a bad fit for you:

Highly related stuff about how to feel more confident at work:

I hope at least something is helpful for you, and that your big boss meeting goes as well as can be.