Making It Work

So last week, I maundered on about the joys of working from home. For a little old introvert like moi, the benefits are many. But how did I get onto that topic?

Welp, I’m researching the causes of depression, in part because Ash Dorning told me to. In his day, depression was called melancholia, and the most frequent prescriptions were to hang out in beautiful nature, move the heck around (walking, fishing, riding, “taking the air,”), and stick with caring, upbeat people who read good books (I did not make that up).

In my research, I came across some studies of the British civil service done by Sir Michael Marmot several decades ago. The purpose of the inquiries was to look at how work impacts our health, and the general theory going in was: The guy (back then it was always a guy) in the corner office has the most stress, the most visibility, the most accountability beyond his department. That’s where the heart attacks, anxiety, depression, and stroke rates will be highest.

Nope. Sir Michael found a straight-line correlation between how far down the pay scale your position was, and how HIGH your risk of physical and mental misery was. All of the civil servants were making a solid livable wage, all were fairly well educated, all were doing “desk” jobs in a society where higher education is affordable and health care is easily accessed. What varied was a) whether they felt they had control over their in-boxes, and b) whether working harder meant more recognition (promotion).

Then the researchers took it one step further: They looked within pay grades for the jobs that had some autonomy and compared them to the jobs that required passive acceptance of whatever was assigned. No surprise, the passive jobs were much more prone to depression and ill health, and yes, we can screen out the causation argument: People with no history of depression became depressed working those in-box jobs. People depressed in the in-box jobs lost the diagnosis when they switched to a more self-empowered position.

The methodology for this research was rigorous, in part because the stakes were high. In one tax inspectors’ office, the suicide rate was four times the national average. Pills might (that’s a big might) ameliorate symptoms of depression, but the cure was to restructure the work place and the means by which people were recruited to it.

We’re told depression is a result of “brain chemistry” run amok, but in Ash Dorning’s day, nobody would have accepted that as a reasonable explanation for melancholia. The logical inquiry would have progressed to: But WHY is the brain chemistry amok, and most often in fairly predictable segments of society? I will do more research on the not-very-cheering topic of why depression happens (thanks, Ash), but this research about work struck me as important and under-reported.

We just set the clocks back, and in the northern hemisphere, we’re approaching the cold, dark, don’t-go-outside season. If you get down, what are your coping mechanisms? Have you spotted factors that make the blues more likely to come around? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of My Own and Only Duke.


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44 comments on “Making It Work

  1. Right now, I am happy about Daylight Savings time. It’s light out when I get up & I can take the dogs out and see where we are going!

    I will get tired of walking to my car in the dark, snow & ice in February. I try to think of Spring- birds, flowers &sunlight in February & March. I bake, buy a new scarf or warm color sweater.

    The cold and the snow do get to me. I have to drive to work and sometimes I wish I could stay home! The two younger corgis love the snow. I love watching them through the window as the older girls sleep.I try to keep positive knowing that Spring will get here.

    We had our first real last night! So I am prepared…

  2. Good topic, Grace. You’re correct with the turning back of the clocks, less daylight and cold weather can bring about SAD for many people. Seasonal Affect Disorder. I don’t suffer from SAD or depression, but I have close friends who do. Fortunately, there are meds to provide assistance for these dear ladies on a daily basis. Knowing they suffer, I remind myself to call them more frequently providing a good listening ear without judgment or many times even advice (we no longer live in close proximity to each other). The winter months can be challenging for many especially the elderly who tend not to leave their homes in the cold. If you’re reading my comment and an avid fan of Grace’s, consider paying attention to an elderly person during the very cold months. Pay a visit. Bring a meal. Just sit and listen as they may share a small part of their life story.

    • Thanks, Linda. I never found Southern California very appealing, but I was always very glad my aging parents lived there. Sunshine and pleasant weather all the time is probably part of the reason they lived into their 90s.

  3. I went through a very serious depression in my mid thirties. It got so bad that I was having trouble sleeping and was worried that I would lose my job if I didn’t do something about it. So, I did something that I never thought I would – I saw a psychiatrist. He put me on meds and they helped. But it wasn’t just the meds. He helped me to see things in a way that I hadn’t before. So, I also made some changes to my life that helped. Eventually, I was able to stop taking the meds.

    I still get depressed from time to time, but I know the signs, and I have coping skills to deal with it. I haven’t had to take any medication for it in years. But if it ever got as bad as it was back then, I wouldn’t hesitate to get help again. My message is this: if you fall into that black hole, get help. It’s out there.

    • The way you went about it–both meds AND talking it through–has the best chance of alleviating symptoms long-term, though for some of us, it surely does feel like nothing helps, or nothing helps much. I’m glad you a) got help, and b) can manage the problem effectively now. My mom went through a serious depression in her mid-thirties, and back then, there was no meaningful help.

    • PTSD is a whole nother kettle of interesting fish, but probably not something that afflicts Ash. One interesting aspect of post-war PTSD is that how a soldier is received upon returning home has a lot to do with whether the wartime trauma abates, or becomes PTSD. The people who served in WWII came home to ticker tape parades, the GI Bill, and a hero’s welcome. The wars after that… not so much.

  4. Ah, the *Genius Disease*. So many composers and musicians–past and present–have suffered with depression or bi-polar disease. Rachmaninoff for sure and many others. I work with, and are colleagues with, many folks with depression. The older folks (my age) have learned to manage it (or are sadly not around any longer because of it) but the young folks struggle. I try to be a support, since I have several family members who have the diagnosis,and most don’t know I know but I can tell they have depression.

    Now to your question; I do as you mention used to be the *prescription* for melancholia–I take a walk outside (or do some stretches if the weather is nasty here in the Midwest) and surround myself with people who love me. It’s simple but effective, especially the people who love me. Sometimes, we can’t *see the forest for the trees* and its always good to have someone point out its not a bleak as we think. If I needed meds as some folks do who suffer with SAD, I would take them but some think it’s a sign of weakness, more’s the pity.

    • I wonder especially about men and meds, and whether there are gender differences in how the meds work. So much research on ADHD was done on little white boys, for example, that ADHD in girls (which tends to look more ADD) has been underdiagnosed. When it is diagnosed in a girl, she’s subjected to the strategies intended to manage hyperactivity, but that’s not how the problem manifests for many girls.
      With the drugs, I’ve wondered how much of the research was done on mostly female study groups, because women are much more likely to have a mental health diagnosis than men are…
      The things that keep me up at night.

  5. Being retired and therefore living a life at a slower pace the winter months seem to drag along in a more sombre state.When the sun shines it makes me feel so much brighter and alert and energised.I must be a person who suffers from the SAD syndrome.I don’t let it get me down but I am just not so well in these cold dark months.I have to force myself to get motivated sometimes.Find little projects to do,clear out cupboards and take items to charity shops or makeover a dreary room.Rediscover your old cook books and cook or bake something you have not eaten for ages.Get those photos you took this summer or many summer’s ago that are waiting to be printed off your mobile phone.Make a list of things to be done and target a time to get them done.Ease up on the chocolate because come spring you will regret the weight gain.Don’t give in to the winter gloom think of nice things only like booking next year’s holidays .Keep thinking it’s not forever we are heading in the right direction nature lurks waiting for the new year to come and then slowly comes back to life.The circle of life.Just thinking of that has brightened me up.I wish you all a positive and busy winter.

    • No matter where we are, the climate presents challenges. I recall listening to a pair of shop owners on Orkney talk about the summer blues. One lady thought she simply grew exhausted from all the tourists swarming around in high season. By August, she was friend. She eventually figured out that the problem was sleep deprivation, because that far north, summer nights are just a few hours. She got a good eyeshade, and her mood improved.
      I like the winter months, because I don’t deal well with heat, bugs, and humidity, but like you, by February, I’m ready for spring. Really ready.

  6. Hi Grace,
    This might sound odd, but lately when I feel dragged down by sadness I make myself leave the house and take a ride to my present happy place, the coffee shop in one of the department stores where I live. I lost an adult child to an aggressive form of leukemia (AML) suddenly the day after Mother’s Day 2016. I have had a tendency toward depression all my life. But I push through it on my own because I was raised with the idea that mental health issues were not relevant and those people show just suck it up and move on with life. So, when my daughter died suddenly, my self-trained, self-preservation kicked in. I force myself to smile. I take a ride and spend some time at my “happy place”. And these past two years my other coping mechanism has been my friends, the romance authors of the world of every genre. To be able to escape into a great story has been an comfort to me. And Grace, you are one of favorites. I just finished reading my ebook copy of My One and Only Duke! As usual, I was not disappointed. It was awesome. I will be anticipating the release of the next book in this series. To everybody out there, just look for the things in life that bring you joy to get through the bad moments.

    • Diana, I am so sorry for your loss. My aunt is a widow, but she also lost a 25-year-old son to a rare heart condition (no warning at all). She said being a widow is sad, but you know one member of the couple is likely to go first, and you anticipate that the woman is mostly likely to have a few years as a widow.
      Losing a child is unlike any other grief, and for her, there was no being philosophical or resigned, or reasonable it. It just hurt like blazes.
      I haven’t suffered that heartache and hope I never do, but I’ve had an adult child in the ICU, far, far away. Books got me through that, and through so much more.
      That I can now write books and do for others what so many authors have done for me just makes me want to pinch myself. I am sooooo lucky, and my readers are the loveliest people in the world.

  7. I usually combat the blahs with reading a short story. Usually, losing myself in a story takes me out of my head just enough to rechargPe.

    • Writing a short story is such an art… I can’t seem to get much below 20,000 words… but I do love all the holiday novella anthologies that come out this time of year. The stories are long enough to distract me from Life, but short enough that I’m not doing without much-needed sleep.

  8. Dark & gloomy days definitely have an effect on my moods – when I put an addition on my house I had lots of windows added in the south wall & even put larger windows in my bedroom to bring in more light. Reading can really effect my mood, so I’m better with either an exciting or funny story (sometimes both come together) and I have to have an HEA. Won’t read those books described as heart wrenching! Getting a task from my to-do list can also boost my mood.

    • My mom was a big believer in, “Get up and boogie.” If there wasn’t enough house work or socializing to suit her, she’d go for four and five mile walks around her neighborhood. I did not get that gene.
      But I did get the reading gene (also hers to pass along), and I agree with you. Life can be so challenging. In my fiction, I demand an HEA.

  9. I DESPISE the whole on and off Daylight Saving Time. It’s bad for our health. It’s bad for us mentally. It’s a stupid idea. And I know hat the numbskulls in Washington DC are never going to get rid of it in my lifetime, which makes me feel so disempowered. Grrrr.
    I like to take a small trip someplace warm and sunny during the winter if I can. Looking forward to it beforehand and then recalling it fondly afterward really helps my mental state.

    • Arizona doesn’t bother with daylight savings time, and I like that. The neighboring states adjust, and life goes on. I prefer the schedule we’re on now, so that I’m more likely to wake up to sunlight. When we set the clocks back, I could feel my whole circadian rhythm relaxing.

      I have never been a fan of going someplace warm in winter, but I surely do enjoy going to the UK in summer, when it’s beastly stinkin’ hot in Maryland, and usually much more temperate in Merry Olde. Different strokes…

  10. We live in a little valley on the edge of a time zone. Instead of changing the clocks, the sign is moved from one side of town to the other.

    When I start losing sleep, I get help. I try for the same bedtime and wake-up day in and day out year round. “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care…”

    However, that is my own choice, which makes a huge difference. I reserve the right to read all night if I want to!

    • One of my brothers has the same rule of thumb: You know it’s a problem when… it’s costing you sleep, whether it’s a bad back, a marital spat, a boss you can’t communicate with, or down mood. I haven’t stayed up all night reading for years, but I have been unable to sleep, climbed out of bed at 5 am, and started writing…

  11. I’m so curious to see how Ash and his family and friends handle his depression. I have had depression and anxiety since I was a kid, and it creates a complex dynamic. I hope now kids have earlier diagnoses and treatment options than were around in the 70’s and 80’s. My Mom and Gram were both depressive, also, as were (are) some of my siblings, which meant that nobody was getting the attention they needed. There was a lot of resentment among us.
    Not being able to do the basics of life, and having no obvious reason for it, is so horribly shameful. Even in a group of people who are loving and understand, you still hide how bad it is so you don’t bring everyone down, or drive away the only people who care. And they can’t fix it anyway, so why frustrate them.
    Once I gave up thinking there was a cure, I accepted that I had to learn tools to live with the emptiness and anxiety. Pills have helped, but it takes a lot of experimentation. The most useful therapy was Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is a lot like Buddhist philosophy. You observe your emotions, accept them, and get on with living as best you can. In fact, Buddhism (translated for Westerners) has been a huge help. Especially Pema Chodron (see her book When Things Fall Apart) Also, an ability to laugh at myself, to laugh at the absurd, and a gallows humor have made things more bearable.
    Not all depressed people have suicidal thinking, but I have and still do sometimes. I don’t kill myself because I am afraid that I will have to pick up where I left off if I reincarnate. And people close to me have told me it would hurt them if I did. And most important, I have depressed people in my family who I love, and I know the statistics show if one person kills themselves, the people close to them are more likely to do the same. I can’t take that chance.

    • I am sorry you are afflicted with this curse, and commend you for making the choices you have made. You are absolutely correct that suicide seems to have an element of contagion, so special thanks for noping that one.
      I am not sure how much of an issue Ash’s depression will be, but as you note, it won’t be the only issue. Depression snowballs into logistical, social, and financial problems, which only makes it that much harder to deal with.
      But his situation made me think, about how pervasive this source of pain has been in our species, and what to do about it when the meds weren’t an option.
      And Della has panic attacks… I have no idea what that’s about yet. If anything.

  12. I agree. I work in HR and I find that the most resentful workers are the ones told what to do. I can see this producing depression in the long run. It is also a bad way to run a business when your “producers” don’t want to come to work.
    I try to convince supervisors to approach this differs but I am not always successful. Every worker could be happier if we made easily made adjustments as shown by some of the firms millenials are leading

    • HR is not an easy gig.
      Because most of us grew up watching Mom/Dad go “off to work,” we tend to think that working somewhere away from home, with people the family seldom meets, doing stuff according to a plan devised by strangers we might never interact with… is normal. It’s really a very recent and odd aberration compared to most of human history.
      The lack of control over our work, the work environment, the customer base, the product created is all pretty recent, and every indication is, it’s a step backward in terms of workplace health and happiness. Of course, we produce a lot of goods and services with this model, but maybe there’s a way to be productive without also being disempowered, like the collaborative workshop model, or worker-owner model.
      I like being my own boss (still do), and I did NOT like working for Fortune 100s.
      But everybody’s relationship with work is different, and for all too many of us, you take the job you can find, because those bills do not pay themselves.

  13. My way of coping is visiting with my grandchildren, reading, cuddling Juliette, my cat, and playing Match 3 games, or Solitaire on my laptop or my Kindle.

    • I’m a Solitaire and Hearts player. I shudder to think St. Peter is going to lecture me about how much time I’ve spent “doing nothing” while playing cards…

  14. I’m lucky that I’m not strongly affected by the dark, dreary days of winter – made worse by ‘falling back’. On a side note, I do wish we would just do away with the time change. These days, I’m not sure it is worth whatever benefits it originally had. I do have a couple friends who have Sunlight lamps at home to counteract the gloomy days – one of them uses her lamp year round and swears it makes all the difference in the world in her mood.

    I absolutely loving My One and Only Duke, Grace!

    • Glad you enjoyed the book, Glenda.
      I got a Daylight a couple years back, when I’d spent a very dreary month of December in San Diego all but housebound with my dying father, then came home to more dreariness and cold in Maryland. I just could NOT get going in the morning.
      The Daylight helped, or maybe it had a placebo effect, but the needle moved, and I still have the Daylight, because here comes December.

  15. Reading! I try to walk outside every day! When it’s too cold I walk at our University rec center!
    I try to plan pancake suppers at least every other week fory granddaughters!

    • Any time spent with children boosts my mood. It might also exhaust me, but it gets me out of my own head, and makes me get off my backside. Here’s to pancake suppers!

  16. So many things to say…
    I agree with it all to an extent. My belief is that it is very much a mix of both the chemical imbalance as well as what we do. Certain activities (especially those we enjoy) cause specific chemicals to increase. As time goes by and we stop doing those things that increase chemicals like our endorphins eventually they aren’t pronounced enough as it becomes a negative impact. We start doing stuff like watching tv or sleeping more, less communication with the outside world. So, going for walks, talking with happy, friendly people, playing games (especially physical activities) will get those chemicals flowing again and bring us out of our depression. The problem with this is when somebody is already laying around with no motivation and the negative impact is already in play it can take medications to help bring a person back around to even think about doing something as simple as taking a shower. (Not saying I’m right, it’s just what I think.)

    • I agree it can be complicated–genes, nutrition, activity, life stressors–but sometimes, depression comes down to what I call “low cards.” You’re doing everything right, you have no family history of the disease, no big traumas are lurking in your past, you’re hitting the gym, avoiding sugar, meditating, blah, blah, blah but then WHAM. You are out of the game, and there doesn’t appear to be any reason for it.
      People who have to live with suffering like that–no apparent cause, no redeeming value–are heroic to me. I’m not sure I can write a character who comes across as heroic just because he takes a shower, but a shower–as you note–can be a labor of Sisyphus.

  17. If you get down, what are your coping mechanisms? Have you spotted factors that make the blues more likely to come around?
    And I didn’t even answer the original questions. Lol
    I force myself to take the needed baby steps. Sometimes it is a forced trip to get something like milk or meds. Sometimes it’s a shower. Maybe a new outfit. It’s hard because those are some things that can set off a panic attack. I have also looked into those special lights for when winter comes. They are supposed to help people with seasonal depression.
    Stress, winter, cold, lack of money, negative people, lack of organization, messes.

  18. I think it comes down to balance. I enjoy working, but it does not define me. I enjoy taking classes and learning about new subjects. I enjoy spending time with my girlfriends. This time of year can be stressful, so doing nice things for yourself is helpful. Getting your hair cut, buying yourself flowers.

    • Oh, you read my mind. It’s time I sent off my b-annual hair donation, and yes, I will have to leave the house to make that happen.

  19. I have a playlist called “Get Out of a Funk” which includes songs I cannot be still to when I hear them. Whether I tap my foot or get up and swirl, the songs get me moving. Movement increases my feel-good endorphins and since the songs are also ones I love, I find my spirits lifted enough to think through my mood and what’s causing it.

    • The benefits of music and dance are so wide-ranging and well documented that we really ought to be out shakin’ it every chance we get. (Or in the kitchen shakin’ it, or the office, or, or, or…)

  20. I’m an indoor person, so winter luckily doesn’t affect me so much. But I have a friend with SAD, and I do some of the things that she does.

    Put on the lights, even during the daytime. Have light-coloured furnishings. Take the dog for a walk. (Well we don’t have a dog, so take an imaginary dog for a walk.)

    Apart from that “me time” is very important. Eat what you enjoy. Read. Spend time with people you love. Laugh at something every day.

    It’s getting difficult for thinking people in the UK to do these things, but I’m going on trying.

    • We watch the challenges you’re facing in Merry Olde and send you good wishes and sympathy. If only Canada didn’t have such beastly winters and (for me) such tight immigration criteria…
      The laughing at something every day is so important. When a family member was having some of her worst battles with depression and anxiety, she came across Dave Berry, whose humor was very much on her wavelength. He might well have saved her life, and for sure he made the clouds lift from time to time.

  21. I have a teenage daughter who has generalized anxiety and is prone to depression as well. We were told by a treater to do the following (summarized by the acronym “SEEDS”): get good Sleep, Eat well, Exercise, follow Doctor’s orders (including take your Rx) and tend to Spiritual/meditative practices that work for you. She was also told to get outside, particularly in nature. My daughter is happiest in the summer months when she works as a camp counselor in Wisconsin. The advice given for melancholia back then was consistent with current ideas, it seems!

  22. I found the studies you mention interesting, particularly the suggestion that depression could be reversed by giving individuals more agency at work.
    I wrote my dissertation on the effects of clinical depression on wages and schooling, and found that depression decreases both, significantly so. Delving into the literature on depression then (prior to the prozac revolution) was quite sobering — depressives are more likely to undervalue their own contributions, they suffer from lethargy, they have more difficulty contributing in group settings, and they exhibit a whole host of other symptoms that by all economic measures would make them less productive.
    I myself suffer from depression, sometimes quite severely. When I read that you would be writing Ash’s story, and that he suffered from depression, I was both reminded anew of the benefits of modernity — I suspect I would not have done well were I in Ash’s shoes — and a little anxious on your behalf, knowing that you will have to find a way to write his story without diminishing the power of his demons.

  23. This post is pretty old, so not sure anyone is still looking. I read this article (or one very similar) some years ago… and it made sense to me. I believe those folks sold vitamins for a while, but I suspect the problem is more complex than is ideal. I have often wondered if there is an association between genetics and depression/mental illness. In particular, the ‘fight or flight’ instincts that kept our ancestors alive …are probably less helpful today for most. Also, I think there was a very long part of history where people ‘in bred’…think Castilian Spanish. I think many communities were rather closed and travel was more difficult…and marrying close cousins was considered to be just fine.