Stress and Depression
and Job Problems
Why I have written this article
Depression, stress, anxiety, even despair, are common feelings people discuss with me as we sit down and try to figure out how best to resolve whatever their employment problem might be.
I’ve been there too and I can relate, as you might begin to understand if you take a look at my bio, About Tim Willoughby.
Since I’ve been there and survived (so far at least), and since I’ve had some success in helping people pull through these kinds of troubles, maybe I can offer some insights that some of you can make use of in dealing with your own troubles.
Take what you want and leave the rest.
If you find something useful here, pass it along to your friends and family members who are experiencing a problem with job-related stress or anxiety or depression.
Job problems and unemployment are among the most stressful things that can happen to us
We spend more of our conscious hours on the job than we do with our families.
Our jobs are the modern form of the “hunting and gathering” that humans have always needed to do to survive. In old times, if we were unsuccessful hunters and gatherers, we starved.
Nowadays, we can seek handouts from social welfare agencies, but that is not satisfactory for most of us. We require ourselves to be reasonably successful in our jobs so that we feel we are carrying our weight as providers for the family unit.
Then when we have job problems, our success as providers is threatened. Our self-image is also threatened as we come to understand that our jobs may be in jeopardy. We feel the gloom and doom of despair arising within us when we think about how difficult it might be to replace our current jobs and income.
And therefore, I think that job problems and unemployment are among the most stressful things that can happen to us in our modern society. Psychologists have also ranked job and career problems high up on the stress scale, although not quite high enough in my opinion. See the Life Stressor Chart below.
The Life Stressor Chart
(a measure of how much stress we might be feeling)
Psychologists performed a famous study of life-stressors in the 1960s and ranked the life stressors according to severity, on average.
Job problems are very high on the scale, in terms of average impact on people. But almost no one is actually “average”.
For many people that I deal with, job problems seem to be just about the most stressful thing they have ever experienced.
I like to think of this chart as a “Life Stressor Index”, but the chart’s official name is less descriptive: “The Holmes-Rahe Social Readjustment Scale” (a/k/a The Life Stressor Chart) - opens in new window.
NOTE: As the Life Stressor Chart reveals, both good things and bad things can produce a lot of stress.
If a few of those stressors are going on in your life right now, then you may be under high stress. I once read that many people will deny that they feel high stress, even though it is clear that they are dealing with several obviously highly stress-producing incidents.
When very stressful things occur (especially when stressful bad things occur), many people are inclined to succumb to depression. So it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that we are under high stress, and perhaps take steps to reduce our stress or handle the stress better, especially if we are prone to depression. The Life Stressor Chart is useful to help us realize that things have happened which are likely to be very stressful, even if we wish to deny that we feel high stress.
Tips about workplace stress and depression
Most of the people I talk to are having on-the-job problems or have lost their jobs. It’s hard to say which is more stressful: the mental pain of a terrible job problem while still employed, or the mental pain of losing one’s job. Each circumstance is unique in terms of how much stress it places on the person.
I cannot tell you how to best deal with your high stress or depression. For that, you may need a doctor or therapist. I can suggest some resources where you can learn more, so that you can decide for yourself what you want to do. In addition, I can tell you some of the employment law-related problems that occur when people do not handle their stress or depression well.
So please have a look at the sections which follow, and try to avoid doing those things which cause the most job or legal trouble, and consider visiting some of the websites I’ve linked to, to get an education or a refresher course about stress and depression.
Don’t let your stress cause job problems
Sometimes, I come to the conclusion that a person has caused his own job problems through how he has chosen to deal with his stress.
Those who do not adequately manage their stress bring trouble upon themselves. Typically, this occurs when someone is under very high stress and does not interact well with others in the workplace. Such people may be chronic malcontents, difficult to get along with, too argumentative, or too surly and unapproachable. Such people may become hyper-critical of others, often make mean-spirited comments, fail utterly at office politics, and/or generally are disliked by people in the workplace. These people become targets for termination, or they begin to feel that their job security is eroding, and they fail to recognize their own role in creating their job problems.
NOTE: I am not talking about people who possess strong legal rights and can take legal action over their termination or job problems - I am only talking about people who are out of luck, legally speaking, and brought their troubles upon themselves.
Don’t deny that you are under high stress
Acknowledge the stress you feel. Think about how your stress might be affecting how you interact with others. Think about how your stress might be affecting your decision making. If you acknowledge that you are under high stress, and if you are uncomfortable with so much stress, consider taking reasonable and productive steps to reduce the stress you feel, or improve your ability to cope with the stress. The mental health links below can get you started in learning how to productively cope with stress and depression.
Don’t act rashly or irresponsibly -
The problem of “Craving Closure”
“Craving Closure” means feeling a powerful desire to quit or be fired, to end the pain of your very stressful job circumstance.
Job problems are often so stressful while they are occurring that it brings some measure of relief if the person eventually loses his job or quits. Some people are overwhelmed by the stress of job problems, while still employed, and their minds cry out for resolution - they crave to quit or be fired, rather than be forced to continue to endure the problem. I call this phenomenon “craving closure”.
It is perfectly natural for people to desire the ending of their job problems. As long as they remain rational and thoughtful, they can make reasoned decisions and execute a plan to try to achieve a desirable form of closure.
BUT. A great number of people do not remain rational in those times of very high stress. They fail to think things through before acting, because their desire for relief is so strong. I have written an article to introduce you to the potential complexity of the decision regarding how best to bring closure, or how best to otherwise fix the problem, Deciding what to do about job problems - suing, etc..
Undesirable things people do when “Craving Closure”
- Quit a job without getting legal advice first - See my article on Constructive Discharge for much more info about the damage people can possibly do to their legal positions if they quit without getting legal advice first. Quitting without legal advice is potentially very risky, from a legal point of view.
- Decide to act (or decide not to act) when legal advice would be helpful first - Sometimes people decide to act aggressively to fix their workplaces through Making complaints or confronting people. Other times, people withdraw and suffer in silence. Either way, such people could be missing an opportunity to strengthen their legal position. Many times, job problems implicate legal rights and require careful strategizing. I don’t know if your problem is a candidate for legal strategizing. But if you act without legal advice, or fail to act when it would be advantageous to do so, you could be harming yourself legally and ultimately financially. The best general info I can offer in helping you recognize when legal advice might be of use is to point you at my article on Deciding what to do, suing, etc. That article provides something like a generic checklist of things to consider in deciding what the right course of action might be.
- They sometimes let just about everyone in the workplace know how upset they are. - This is often troublesome, legally, if the person had strong legal rights. Among other legal problems, the act of letting everyone know of their dissatisfaction can reduce any protection against Retaliation that the person might have.
- They neglect their obligation to continue to do a reasonable job while employed. Persons who become overly-stressed or depressed sometimes simply give up and just don’t care anymore about doing a decent job. This could have a profound negative effect on legal rights. For a couple of examples of the problems poor performance can cause: Poor performance can provide the company with a “legitimate non-discriminatory reason” for a termination, defeating a potential Wrongful Termination claim, or weakening an Employment Contract case, among other adverse consequences.
- They become so fixed on finding new work that they run afoul of their Non-Compete Agreement. Unhappy people often jump ship at the first opportunity. Sometimes, they take new jobs in possible violation of their non-competes, and end up promptly losing their new jobs when the former employers send cease and desist letters.
- They fail to recognize some of the obligations, rights, or advantages, contained in their Employment Contract (which they haven’t looked at in a long time).. Get your contract reviewed by a lawyer and get help deciding what to do.
- They forget about that “Moving allowance” or “Tuition Reimbursement Agreement” they signed. If you don’t want to pay back the money, then proceed very carefully when having job problems. Sometimes lawyers can help deal with such repayment agreements successfully when people are having job problems. But it’s all case by case. The strategy that should be followed might be different if the person has one of those repayment agreements.
- There are other undesirable things people do when craving closure, but the above should give people a sense of some of the more common risks to look out for. Of course, there is nothing to be gained by retaliating in any manner against unfairness. Our system in the United States can often work fairly well in getting a measure of justice. One of the most satisfying results for people is this: When you bring a decent legal claim, the company recognizes it and takes action against those who mistreated you. Those who mistreated you then begin to experience their own job problems, causing them much stress and anxiety, and then they might begin to feel their own “Craving for Closure” - poetic justice. Sometimes such poetic justice occurs even when you don’t have decent legal claims, but merely have been treated unfairly. The moral is: Let the company hierarchy dole out the poetic justice.
- Here’s something undesirable that people often do AFTER leaving work - Write letters to the Company President - People have the blind and unreasonable hope that if they tell their complete story to the Company President, he will see the light and then punish the evildoers and rehire the writer (because they have so obviously been wronged and are really very good employees). The Company President is more likely to think you are mentally unstable or a legal threat if you write such a letter. You won’t be rehired. If you have any real legal claims to make, you risk great harm to your legal position by the things you say (and don’t say) in such a letter. See my article on Making complaints for much more info about the risks that arise when you make any such statement or complaint.
Consider taking a “time-out”
to deal with your stress or depression
(FMLA leave may be available)
See my article on The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for more info about eligibility criteria to take FMLA protected leave.
During times of high stress or depression, sometimes it’s best to take some time off. If your doctor will certify you, and if you qualify for FMLA leave, then you might consider leaving the workplace for awhile, before you do any of the undesirable things I listed above. Be careful, though, to make sure you’ve got FMLA time left, or else you could face termination for taking too much time off of work.
If you are not protected by FMLA, because your employer is too small, or because you have not worked there for a year yet, or for some other reason, then taking time off of work could be more risky. Sometimes, managers or human resources personnel orally approve of time off for you and then turn around and fire you for taking the time off (if FMLA does not apply to the leave) - yes, this happens. So be careful, and consider getting legal advice. Consider having your HR rep or manager approve your leave request in writing.
During the time-out, you might be able to obtain legal advice if you should so desire. Sometimes we just need some time to get our heads straight, before we make big mistakes.
Links regarding Job-related Stress, Mental Health, Psychology, etc
USE AT OWN RISK, PLEASE - Don’t try to blame me if you change your life because of what you read through these links. I thought the links might be useful in helping some people learn more. But none of these websites contains “the answer”. If you think you need to see a therapist or doctor, please consider doing so right away.
Some people will take comfort in learning more about mental health and psychology issues. Many of us feel better when we gain insight into why we feel so bad, or why we react so badly to the ups and downs of life. Others have been there before us, and can offer us insights and coping skills.
The more we learn, the more we might be able to take more control of our destinies, or at least take control of how we react to life and thereby have a greater chance of controlling our destinies. That approach has been of some use to me, and I love reading about psychological theories and coping mechanisms, even though I lack the wherewithal to do all the things I should be doing.
I am providing a set of links below to help get you started learning about stress and depression and coping skills.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Job problems implicate our personal security as organisms (we must eat and have shelter, for example). Without personal security, we are all-consumed with the need to survive, and we take little enjoyment from life. Once security is taken care of, we can grow as human beings. That is the concept behind the famous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When job problems threaten our security, it is understandable that our ability to enjoy life suffers.
Life Stressor Chart -
job problems are near the top
Life events can cause so much stress and anxiety (and depression) that we do not function as well, and our lives can fall apart. Here is one of my favorite pieces of psychological information. It’s the list of life stressors, ranked in approximate order of how stressful each incident tends to be on average. I like to think of this chart as a “Life Stressor Chart”, but the chart’s official name is based on its creators and is less descriptive: The Holmes-Rahe Social Readjustment Scale. See how many high stressors you are experiencing.
Mayo Clinic Workplace Health pages
[NOTE: The Mayo Clinic site is quite good, but the links are complicated and might be broken at any time. If any link fails to work, just go to MayoClinic.com and do a Search for the topic.]
The famous Mayo Clinic has built a site to help people understand and cope with career and work-related ups and downs - Mayo Clinic’s “Working Life Center” . If that link is broken, just go to Mayo Clinic.com and then scroll down the “Health Centers” box until you find “Working Life”. Lots of articles on workplace health issues, including stress management. Do a Search for “Depression” and you will find a lot of depression-related resources on the site. Here is a direct link to the main depression pages: Mayo Clinic Depression pages.
The “About.com” subsite for Stress and Depression
About.com is a meta-site, containing fairly authoritative sub-sites on specific topics of interest. About.com stress management pages. About.com Depression Information and Support, and Diagnosing Depression from About.com, and Depression quizzes from About.com
The “Suite101.com” subsite for Depression
Suite101.com is another meta-site, similar to About.com. The “101″ seems to be a reference to the practice of colleges in naming freshman-level courses as “101-level” courses. So at “Suite101.com” you get a pretty good introduction to the major points behind each subject covered on fairly authoritative sub-sites. Suite101 Depression pages.
Other sites of potential interest on stress and depression
Check out Mindtools. Mindtools.com is an interesting career-focused site with tips for controlling job stress, improving memory, improving time management and decision making skills, job search tips, etc.
For many more links regarding stress and depression, check out Google’s Directory - Google directory of stress-related websites, and Google directory of depression-related websites.
Further Reading: Introductions to psychological and personality theory
For a thorough introduction into the major mental health and psychological theories, with detailed summaries and biographies of the major thinkers, visit The e-book of Dr. C. George Boeree of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. Dr. Boeree’s site is very good. You could easily spend hours reading his summaries of the major theories and personalities. His site is like an accessible textbook.
For an introduction to personality theory and a fine collection of links, see The Personality Project (personality-project.org).
Article written by | Tim Willoughby
Tim is a St. Louis Missouri employment lawyer and a member of the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA). Visit NELA.org and the Missouri Bar Website (see the directory of lawyers).