Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Sun 10 Mar 02 16:23
I don't know that you'll ever see a company making changes in its corporate culture solely to combat depression in the workforce. On the other hand, American corporate culture as a whole does seem to be changing -- at a glacial pace, yes, but changing nonetheless -- toward recognizing that employees aren't just interchangeable cogs whose personal lives stop at the moment the work day begins. Twenty years ago, who would have predicted academic research centers and consulting firms focusing on work/family issues? So I do believe -- or at least I hope -- that the average workplace will become increasingly more humane.
Molly Wright Steenson (explode) Mon 11 Mar 02 11:10
I'd like to hear you both talk more about telling your boss or employer about being depression -- in the book, you discuss some strategies for doing just this. I imagine it would be a really frightening thing. What do you do if it goes awry?
David S. Greene (dsg) Mon 11 Mar 02 11:14
What Molly asked.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Mon 11 Mar 02 11:28
Before either of us addresses that, I want to be very clear that we don't recommend telling your employer, nor do we recommend *not* telling your employer. I'm going to say this over and over, because it's at the very heart of the book: there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Your individual situation needs to determine your actions, whether you're trying to decide whether to disclose your depression or you're considering suing your employer for discrimination. What we've done is provided the relevant questions readers should ask themselves in order to make those decisions. Ideally, if you've spent some time carefully thinking about what you need and how receptive your employer will be to your disclosure, you'll have a sense of who to tell, how much to tell, and how to do it. Sometimes you'll decide that you want to send a low-key letter to HR alerting them to the fact that you have a disability and will want an accommodation for it under the law. Sometimes you'll go to your boss and say, "I'm struggling with major depression and I need X, Y, and Z in order to continue doing my job well." And sometimes the answer will be "I'm not saying anything to anyone." Molly, I'm not sure how to answer "what do you do when it goes awry," because I'm not sure how to define "going awry." In the worst-case scenario, of course, your employer comes up with some trumped-up reason to let you go when it's clear the real reason is that you're depressed -- at which point you may arguably have cause to sue.
Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 11 Mar 02 13:29
I would think that would be nearly impossible to prove in court, though, unless your boss specifically said that's why you were being let go. Because I have been depressed virtually my entire life, I often forget that, to people who have never been depressed, I could be viewed as odd, or weird, or even mentally ill. I haven't taken great pains to cover it up, or hide it, and I have never felt ashamed of being that way. Just depressed about it. %^) Until I read your book, I didn't even know that it was a condition that fell under the ADA, or that it was something that should be handled carefully in communication with the boss. I mean, I wouldn't normally be sharing personal aspects of my life with the boss, so it was not something I would normally mention to him or any of my co-workers with whom I did not have an intimate relationship. Since it wasn't high on my list of things to be cautious about, I accidentally blurted it out to my boss one day. I was taking an antidepressant for the first time, and the side effects were so strange and outrageous that during a relatively casual conversation with my boss I said something like, please excuse me if I'm not completely myself for a few days, I just started taking an antidepressant and the side effects are really odd. I've been told, though, that either I will be switching to something else, or that the side effects will wane after a few days. He looked so startled and shocked that it shocked me. It worked out well, but it was a wake-up call to me. Which I actually resent. I wish I weren't depressed, but I am. Why add to the angst by having to pretend I'm not?
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Mon 11 Mar 02 15:00
It isn't easy to prove discrimination, but it can be done. We are not employment lawyers, though, so anyone who thinks s/he's lost a job due to discrimination should probably contact either a qualified attorney or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (which enforces most of the provisions of the ADA), or both. Here's a nifty little tidbit we learned in our research: the EEOC has a special phone number you can call for advice about workplace discrimination and the ADA, and it'll only cost you whatever you pay for long distance. It's 202-663-4691. You'll be referred to an EEOC lawyer. How's that for a bargain?
Beth Gulas (bethgulas) Mon 11 Mar 02 17:58
Sorry I was unavailable all day today (in NYC with a client). In reviewing today's conversation, my advice about whether or not to tell is entirely on a case by case basis (as Fawn indicated). One needs to first evaluate the receptivity of the environment and the people within it...especially those you may be considering confiding in. You may want to check it out with other employees who have told their bosses (or your specific boss) something personal and/or sensitive and hear how it went for them--and then make your own determination. Our society is very insensitive to things they can't see...depression is one of them. On the outside you like fine, but on the inside it's a whole different story. Talking about it openly works just fine in some situations...and people will be supportive and helpful. Other situations aren't as understanding. It's so subjective that we couldn't possibly determine comfort levels for every person. It will vary from person to person. I often counsel people to "test" it out with friends, family or trusted co-workers to "try it on for size" before going public with it. This will, in the very least, help you to become more comfortable talking about it.
Eleanor Parker (wellelp) Mon 11 Mar 02 20:39
Here's a scenario that is outside the scope of your book, but I've encountered it, and suspect many others have as well. What can you do if your boss is depressed, and it's affecting your ability to get your work done (boss non-responsive, absent, or dumping work on you, or otherwise making it difficult to perform)?
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 12 Mar 02 10:07
E-mail from Bonnie Dee: I wanted to respond to the topic and say: I'm glad someone thought to write a book about this, and I hope to pick up a copy soon! In my own experience, I've been fired once (as a work-study student employee) from a job for depression and its consequences. A lot of sleep- related problems accompany my depression -- and like depression, people are seen as lazy or worthless if they can't control it. My current job is in a business with < 10 employees, so perhaps it's easier to talk to a boss that way. I finally talked to him when it became clear that my physical symptoms were getting in the way -- but well before it got worse. The only thing I could think to do was discreetly tell him about it like a physical disability -- -the specific problems he was noticing, and my symptoms -the underlying problem behind all of it -the steps I had taken/was taking to correct the situation as best I could -the assurance I didn't like it any more than he did (!) I was sure he'd fire me if he didn't know the reasons for my performance. Luckily he was understanding and I haven't had major problems since. I guess my only advice to others is to, if you feel up to it, talk to your boss before it becomes an issue -- then you're telling him the worst-case scenario but delivering more positive results. :)
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Tue 12 Mar 02 10:19
Eleanor, your question is right up Beth's alley and I think she'll have a lot to say about it. Bonnie, thank you for your comment! It sounds like you headed off problems in your current situation about as well as anyone could. I'm curious: when you told your boss "the underlying problem behind all of it," did you say specifically that you were dealing with depression, or did you call it an illness that affected your sleep patterns, or did you just say you had a health problem that was causing the symptoms he'd noticed? (All of those are perfectly valid ways to address it, by the way. An employer doesn't need chapter and verse of the DSM.)
Beth Gulas (bethgulas) Tue 12 Mar 02 19:50
Eleanor...the situation you've raised is an excellent one and it is outside the scope of our book. However, if your boss is depressed and it's getting in the way of your ability to perform, then I would suggest you go to HR to discuss the situation. If that's not an option, then I might speak directly with the boss if it falls somewhere remotely in your comfort zone to do so. The last resort might be to go to his/her boss. Someone, other than you, ought to be aware of what's going on. You should not have to handle this issue by yourself, nor absorb the pressure surrounding it. Or....better yet, hand him/her one of our books!!
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Wed 13 Mar 02 15:00
I have a question for the gallery, if anyone cares to answer it. Have any of you been discriminated against, or suspect you have been, as a result of your depression? What happened, and how did you handle it?
Anyone here a real writer? (lisa) Wed 13 Mar 02 16:26
I was about to ask a variant on <wellelp>'s question: What a person can do when s/he sees someone at work who really seems to be in need of help for depression. Amateur diagnoses were a specialty at my last couple of workplaces -- of course, they were all daily newsrooms, full of the gloomy and morose, but still. My boss used to hand out St. John's Wort. "Here: you look like you need one of these." Then I told him for real about the crap I was facing in my personal life, which had me very down (he had yelled at me for something, and I had burst into tears). He said he'd benefited from some counseling through the EAP when his wife left, and suggested I look into it. He said he wouldn't have yelled, had he known. And I was a problem employee to him from that day forward. Life was never the same again, he trusted me with nothing and I wound up leaving.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Wed 13 Mar 02 16:57
Ugh. That's awful -- especially since he presented himself as being so understanding.
Marla (marla) Wed 13 Mar 02 19:28
I'm not telling my boss no way no how! It's a new job I've had for only four months. In fact, my insurance JUST kicked in. I was on wellbutrin five years ago for severe depression (eating off of dirty dishes, bolting awake in the wee hours every night, didn't care about anything)---you know, one of those nasty bouts. The wellbutrin was like magic within a couple of weeks, I'll never forget the day I woke up and it was LIGHT outside. HEAVEN! I got SO much better. The insurance quit paying for it after six months. My doctor wanted to see how I'd do without it, maybe I had just needed an adjustment. I was fine for awhile but my symptoms returned after I had moved across the country and had no job or new insurance. I'm back home now and started my new job four months ago. My boss is one of those people who fires people constantly, five since I've been there and there's only 27 people in the whole company (she owns it) BUT she thinks I'm great and tells me that often AND I like the job. The job takes all my energy right now and I have nothing left, but that's OKAY because my three-month wait for insurance to kick in ended and I've been to the doctor and he put me on paxil (he doesn't like wellbutrin, he wouldn't give it to me). Tell my boss???? NO! UH-UH! Waaay too scary. Pretty soon my new meds will start to work (I hope) and I'll be a normal person again with room for work AND friends, etc...
Molly Wright Steenson (explode) Wed 13 Mar 02 19:45
Beth, your point about society being insensitive about things that they can't see is well taken. Also, depression is difficult to understand, I think, if you don't suffer from it. Maybe that's where some of the issues lie with depression in the workplace -- just not having any clue at all what it's about.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Wed 13 Mar 02 20:52
Marla, if you know treatment works for you and you're doing well at work, there's probably no reason for you to tell your boss -- which is fantastic!
Molly Wright Steenson (explode) Thu 14 Mar 02 09:35
Marla, I'm in your shoes too -- the Wellbutrin is a night-and-day difference. It was really effective very quickly, and now I don't have to choose between my sanity and getting my work done. I've begun to be open about depression, which is an odd thing, since I don't manifest a lot of outward symptoms of it right now -- the Wellbutrin is really effective. But I figure it's okay to talk about it in the right circumstances and let people I'm close to know about it. Fawn, Beth, would you talk a bit about coping mechanisms in the workplace? How do you handle getting through the day when depression is making it hard to see straight?
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Thu 14 Mar 02 10:21
We've put a bunch of tips addressing that exact question on our website at http://www.workinginthedark.com/sample.html. In my personal experience, the trick is to think small. Figure out a way to get through five minutes at a time, if you have to break it down that far. Make lists of things you have to do, and make lists of what you have to do to do those things. Promise yourself a treat -- a short walk, a cup of tea, one song on your Walkman -- when you've managed to finish something. Depression is like any other illness: you can't push yourself too hard when you're not feeling well. Don't try to be a workplace hero when you're down in the pit. Just focus on doing what needs to be done.
pooning tang; tanging the poon (viv) Thu 14 Mar 02 15:49
An inch is a cinch.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Thu 14 Mar 02 15:53
Nicely put, vivly!
Marla (marla) Thu 14 Mar 02 17:04
Molly, I am so glad you're so much better. I'm hoping Paxil will be as effective for me as the wellbutrin was. Fawn, that is such good advice. I work pretty well at my new job but I have been doing exactly that on bad days. "I just need to get to the end of this paragraph, that's all I'm reading right now." It works, even though I may have 250 pages to follow. I think the universe is looking out for me in terms of how much I can and can't handle.
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Fri 15 Mar 02 08:40
I'm wishing I had talked about it at my last job. In the same month, I had been laid off from my dot-com job, my husband and I officially separated, and my father-in-law died. I took a new job that was a big stretch and I was really struggling with it, then September 11 happened. Between that and the Jewish holidays, I don't think I really got *any* work done between September and being laid off at the end of October. The consequence of NOT talking: the people I worked with think I am not good at my work, and the Boston unix community is a small town. I am *still* debating whether I should say something in a public forum that I know they read. I was very fortunate to get a new job that was a huge confidence booster - and then got laid off after five weeks as part of a big political thing that had nothing at all to do with me. I am not feeling depressed now but wondering if I'll be in for another round if the job market is still as bad as it was. I guess my question is about separating unhealthy depression from what sometimes seems like a reasonable response to some very real events, like 9/11 and the collapse of the job market in this area. I worked with a bunch of very young people and the week following 9/11 was *extremely* disorienting to me; 9/11 was a Tuesday, by Thursday everyone was back at work (but in a distracted way, reading news websites and such) but by the following Monday it was almost as if it had never happened. It almost seems unhealthy to me to be *too* oblivious to events. Or maybe this is about the difference between depression and grieving?
Molly Wright Steenson (explode) Fri 15 Mar 02 09:12
Betsy, it sounds like a when-it-rains-it-pours situation. That sounds like a tremendous amount to cope with at once. Beth and Fawn, how do you think employers will take the events of 9/11 into consideration? How has that affected people suffering from depression at work, not just in NYC but all over the country?
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Fri 15 Mar 02 11:32
Betsy, it doesn't matter if your depression is caused by your brain chemistry or brought on by an outside event. Asking whether depression is more or less "reasonable" depending on the cause is like asking whether a broken leg should hurt less if it was caused by a hit-and-run accident than if it was caused by falling down the stairs. It's perfectly normal to mourn -- even for several months -- if you've experienced a significant loss. If you feel sad, irritable, tense, or hopeless for most of the day AND you've lost interest in things you used to enjoy AND you've felt that way continuously for more than two weeks, you may be depressed, and it would be worth your while to see someone about it. Obviously, the events of last September affected people in New York more than anywhere else. I can't quote statistics, but I've certainly read that calls to mental health clinics and hotlines have been climbing steadily ever since. It seems that lots of people who weren't depressed before have certainly become depressed since -- whether because they were directly affected by the terrorist attacks or because they got caught in the ensuing economic nosedive. But as for how employers will take that into account, I think that depends on the employer.
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