Suffering in Plain Sight: How to Spot High-Functioning Depression at Work - a woman at work with monitors in front of her

Suffering in Plain Sight: How to Spot High-Functioning Depression at Work

Christy Johnson
November 29, 2022
November 28, 2022

This blog post was written by Christy Johnson, Counselor at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

Understanding High-Functioning Depression at Work

Many individuals experience depression at some point. There are several different clinical diagnoses for depression depending on the length, presentation, and severity of symptoms.

“High-functioning depression” is non-clinical terminology used to describe individuals who perform well at work or in school but are privately experiencing challenges related to depression. Often these individuals may be diagnosed with Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) which is a form of depression that lasts two years or longer and has similar features to other types of depression such as lack of enjoyment in previously enjoyed activities and persistent fatigue.

On the exterior, employees with high-functioning depression may be successful and productive, but internally experience a range of difficult emotions and symptoms. These individuals may seem okay most of the time but are typically using much more mental and emotional energy than others and are often deeply suffering on the inside.  

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 3.8% of the world’s population will experience depression at some time throughout their lives. It is also suggested that many more people experience depression than the statistics reveal, since not all people with depression become diagnosed. 

The signs of depression at work are not the same for every person; there are a variety of symptoms, and when making a diagnosis, there are several categorizations of clinical depression to consider based on the length of time and severity. Achieving a proper diagnosis requires adequate time with a professional to obtain a complete assessment.

Without treatment, unsupported depression may get worse, leading to poor outcomes ranging from burnout to hospitalization and in the most critical cases, suicidality. Because of this, it is important for HR leaders and executives to understand the signs of depression at work and have some strategies to offer support. With proper care, individuals who experience depression can live engaging, happy lives and be very productive and successful at work.

How to Spot the Signs of High-Functioning Depression at Work

Spotting the signs of depression at work may be challenging, given that individuals who experience it are remarkable in their ability to function. Employees with high-functioning depression may mask their symptoms with efforts such as:

  • a good work ethic
  • imitation of cheerfulness
  • appearing as “perfectionists” 

Another reason that high-functioning depression may go unnoticed is that symptoms can appear intermittently or increase very gradually over time making them difficult to identify until there is a crisis or the individual becomes too emotionally burned out to function well anymore.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5), the fundamental symptoms of depression are related to the following: poor appetite or overeating, low energy and fatigue, sleeping difficulties, low self-esteem, poor concentration, difficulty making decisions, and feelings of hopelessness. Sufferers of depression will exhibit some combination of these symptoms at various levels of severity. Many of these symptoms will leave clues that can help compassionate HR and leadership professionals spot high-functioning depression in the workplace. 

Signs of High-Functioning Depression at Work

1. Isolation and Withdrawal

Isolation and withdrawal are two of the most common signs of depression. When an employee is overwhelmed and overburdened mentally or emotionally by the effects of depression, they will commonly have little to no extra effort available for socializing. If an employee seems unavailable, withdrawn, or stand-offish in the workplace this may be an indicator of depression. 

It is worthwhile to recognize that some individuals may be more prone to alone time than others, so it is important to look at isolation as a part of a bigger picture. However, if someone seems to suddenly disengage from their social activities, this could be a sign of high-functioning depression.

2. Irritability and Frustration

Another one of the most common signs of high-functioning depression at work is irritability. An employee with high-functioning depression may show signs of having little patience. They may seem to be frustrated more intensely or more often than what seems fitting. Irritability can also be one of the most difficult challenges for the sufferer of depression since they often have little to no control over the feelings of irritability, and these feelings often result in added complications and difficulties including rifts in workplace relationships and a further sense of isolation.

3. Chronic Fatigue

Another sign that an employee may be experiencing high-functioning depression at work is a perpetual state of fatigue. Signs of insufficient sleep, such as constantly being tired, or being depleted of energy at the end of the day nearly every day are strong indicators of high-functioning depression. 

4. Difficulty Concentrating and Constant Worry

Those with high-functioning depression experience difficulty concentrating, and can sometimes appear disorganized or unmotivated, making this an especially challenging symptom of depression in the workplace. Constant worry, another signifier of depression, may also contribute to difficulties concentrating. 

5. Lack of Positive Coping Tools or Reliance on Unhealthy Coping Tools

If an employee seems to be relying heavily on unhealthy coping skills, it could be an indicator that the employee is depressed. If evidence of unhealthy coping tools like smoking heavily, over-eating, or excessive use of alcohol become apparent or harmful in the workplace it could be a significant sign that the employee is in need of support, especially as these signs become more noticeable. 

How HR and Company Leaders Can Support High-Functioning Depression at Work

HR and company leaders can help support individuals who experience high-functioning depression by facilitating work environments that destigmatize topics like mental health, depression, and self-care. Much of the work around destigmatizing these topics starts with honest and compassionate conversations. For more, here are some thoughts on why talking about mental health in the workplace should be ok. 

Another way that leaders can help is by encouraging employees to utilize mental health benefits, and by making program information widely available. Allowing employees to feel that they are welcome to ask questions about their benefits is a good way to help familiarize employees with services like employee assistance programs or health and wellness programs. 

Finally, providing adequate breaks and time off is a great way to help employees make time for their mental health. Helping employees keep an eye on their work-life balance by offering flexible hours or hybrid-remote schedules may be other options for supporting all employees, and especially those with high-functioning depression. 

Compassionately supporting employees through difficult times allows employees to be seen, valued, and supported in the workplace while fostering a genuine sense of community and teamwork. Ultimately, all employees are human beings first and foremost, and will therefore inevitably need support in one form or another at some point in their lives. Working in an environment of teamwork, common humanity, and compassion allows employees to operate to their best potential. 

For more on this topic, this article discusses the effects of mental health in the workplace.


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Christy Johnson
Christy Johnson
Christy Johnson is a licensed master social worker and mental health counselor that specializes in helping individuals increase feelings of safety and security in their bodies to help manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, grief, and other difficult life challenges. Christy brings to the table a special focus on neuroscience, mindfulness, and real-world practices for emotional regulation and stress management. Christy graduated from New Mexico Highlands University with a Masters degree in social work in 2021 and currently practices as a mental health therapist.