Experiences of depression and recovery in Australia

Work and education

Many people spoke of the impact of depression on their working life – its effect on their ability to carry out their duties as well as the financial consequences of being unable to work. They highlighted the challenges that depression posed to their work, described how they adjusted to their jobs, and the importance of both work and discussed support in the workplace.

Genuine support within the workplace and a non-judgemental work environment during difficult times were highly valued. For most, the capacity to work was determined by the severity of their depression, the type of work they were doing, and the flexibility of the workplace. Compassion and employers’ willingness to make adjustments and provide part-time options were also highly valued. Some people needed long periods of sick leave before they were able to resume their previous work. The impact of their depression affected some people’s ability to remain in their roles, and they opted to reassess their approach to work. A few people looked for a new job in a less stressful and more accommodating environment. For some, comparing their ability to work before, during and after their experience of depression was confronting, particularly those who had been successful in highly demanding, high status jobs before becoming unwell. When some people returned to work after a long period away, the complex process of re-assessing their level of capacity was stressful in itself.
Some employers encouraged people to leave their jobs. Other people felt that their employers failed to understand the impact of their depression on their ability to work. In some cases, this was seen as justifiable and people admitted that their depression inhibited their performance.
Others felt they were treated unjustly and that this further contributed to their depression. Kymberly lost her job when she needed an extension of an overseas stay to care for her dying mother. The double blow of losing her mother and her job at the same time made her depression worse. Linda described the impact of her employer’s lack of understanding of her mental health. She said led her to believe that she was ‘lazy’ because her productivity had declined.
Regardless of their desire to remain in their jobs and in spite of the social support they received, some people who had more severe experiences of depression were unable to keep working. Those who recognised that work-related stresses were contributing to their depression gradually developed an understanding of their limitations and adjusted their work activities accordingly. Many people moved to less demanding employment or hours.
For many people remaining employed, or returning to work after a long absence, was integral to their recovery. They valued the financial security that came with employment as well as the relationships and interactions with colleagues. However, they did stress the importance of leaving a job if the work situation was damaging to their wellbeing.
After being out of the workforce for a long period some people found it difficult to find employment. Those with complex combinations of health problems, for example depression, anxiety and cancer, commented on the lack of access to appropriate employment services. Some attempted volunteer work which sometimes resulted in part-time work. Often the places that offered volunteering opportunities were non-government agencies that supported the needs of people with mental health conditions. Some people, particularly women with small children and without family support, had to take a compete break from work for a period, since working part time while caring for their young family was contributing to their depression. Some women found it particularly difficult to leave their jobs, especially when they felt that they had a chance of a promotion, however felt it necessary in order to get better.
A number of the people we spoke to described the impact of depression upon their education (high school or post-high school). Some realised that ‘something was wrong’ while at school, noticing that they were unable to focus and satisfy assessment requirements. People generally found schools and universities to be places where they found social support, but they could also be places where they experienced bullying and other forms of behaviour that contributed to their depression (see Social experiences and stigma’). Millaa commented that his school was not supportive of anyone who was different from the ‘norm’, including people who identified as queer, homosexual, or who were high achievers. For some, unpleasant events and the lack of support they experienced at school had a lasting impact on their mental health in their adult life (see ‘Stories of growing up’).

Last reviewed January 2016.
Last updated January 2016.



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