Well-Being//

How to Succeed at Work — Even When Your Energy Is Low from Depression

A Harvard psychiatrist and brain researcher shares strategies to improve energy levels when you're depressed in the workplace.

The impact of depression has profound ramifications in the workplace. 

The World Health Organization predicted that by 2020, depression will rank second in global disease burdens. In fact, close to 15 out of 100 people will experience depression in the course of their lifetimes. And this outlook does not include individuals who are too depressed to respond to surveys.

Despite the magnitude and commonness of this concern, less than 20 percent of Americans with moderate depression seek help from a medical professional. In addition to the personal conflicts this creates, 63 percent of employers have also noticed an increase in mental health challenges in the workforce, which shows that dealing with (or not dealing with) depression plays a critical part in business implications.

How Depression Infiltrates the Workplace

The impact of depression has profound ramifications in the workplace. When they’re depressed, people are less productive and take more sick days. However, an increase in sick days is far from the main issue. Instead, it’s the fact that when depressed team members show up at work, they are in no shape to tend to responsibilities or be productive. Called “presenteeism” — a play on “absenteeism” — this is when employees are physically at work but mentally and emotionally unable to carry out tasks and roles. Consequently, this takes a huge hit on productivity and costs businesses the most.

While seeking out treatment for depression might seem like the logical first step to combat the above, it’s worth noting that only a few fortunate people benefit from antidepressants within one to two weeks. Others might have to wait — sometimes up to four weeks or more — for such treatment to kick in. That’s a considerable stretch of time for your energy levels to stall.

Also, in one European study, 72.3 percent of men and 77.7 percent of women reported fatigue after receiving pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy for their depression. And in an American study, 38 percent of subjects who met criteria for response to fluoxetine still reported fatigue.

This goes to show that as you adjust to your treatment, you still have to deal with energy depletion. And if you remain fatigued, the chance of developing depression over the next year increases by 2.6 times in women and 6.8 times in men. There’s no question that managing such lethargy is crucial for your well-being and professional aspirations, but one major question remains: Just how do you go about it?

4 Strategies to Increase Your Energy Levels

Although you might have taken the first step of treating your depression by seeking help, you could still feel discouraged by the balancing act of battling fatigue and keeping up with work responsibilities. Fortunately, there are actionable steps you can take to better manage such low energy:

1. Practice positive constructive daydreaming.
In my book “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” I explain that one way to conserve brain energy is to focus for short periods — about 45 minutes — and then take 15- to 20-minute “unfocus” breaks. You might think that you do not have the opportunity to take a break during your packed workday, but in reality, we all daydream 46.9 percent of the time. So why not learn to daydream effectively?

When done right, positive constructive daydreaming (PCD) will recharge your brain. First, select a time to implement it into your day. However, when practicing PCD, avoid sitting at your desk or simply staring out your window because these approaches willworsen your depression by keeping your mind stuck in negative loops. Instead, opt for a low-key activity, such as gardening or knitting. While doing this, give yourself a creative boost by allowing your mind to wander into some positive and wishful imagery such as running through the woods with your dog or lying on the beach.

2. Create a napping schedule.
In general, five to 15 minutes of napping can give you one to three hours of mental clarity. However, when dealing with depression, the outcome can be slightly different. Some studies show that a longer nap can be more effective when you are depressed, and afternoon naps are better than morning ones. At the same time, it’s important to know that if you nap too much, you’ll feel sleepier and more depressed.

To benefit from this strategy, take one longer nap about one to two times a week. My personal preference is to try different napping patterns. Once you’ve experimented a little bit, stick with a schedule that works for you and your work responsibilities. This might mean carving out time to nap during your lunch break or utilizing work-from-home benefits throughout the week.

3. Incorporate daily exercise.
When you’re depressed, you might think that you don’t have the energy to exercise, but exercise itself can boost your energy while reducing your depression. That’s why it’s worth the effort.

For example, walking 20 to 40 minutes three times per week for six weeks has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression in older people. However, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for exercise. The program should be tailored to the individual in consultation with an exercise professional. You and the exercise professional should discuss whether your program will be self-led or coached, how frequent you should exercise, the location (at home or at a studio), and the intensity of activity. Whatever you choose, just make sure you keep moving.

4. Check your iodide and iron levels.

If your iodide levels are low, you might develop hypothyroidism, and if your iron levels are low, you can develop an anemia that could potentially worsen your depression. Both scenarios can decrease your energy, too.

In addition to testing these levels, ask your doctor about bright light treatment. More than natural light, bright light uses 2,500 lux of light to increase your energy and decrease your depression. This treatment is delivered in light boxes that your doctor can prescribe. Some light boxes can fit easily on desks, allowing you to use them throughout your workday or as needed.

Remember, when treating your depression, energy sometimes recovers before your mood catches up. While this can be discouraging, the steps above, along with consulting with your doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist, can help alleviate the emotional and mental strain. You are not alone in your efforts to treat and manage your depression, and being your own advocate and utilizing resources can help push you through the challenging times of prioritizing your mental health needs in the workplace.

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