This Type of Therapy Can Help People With Depression Be More Productive at Work: Study

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A new study found that seeing a therapist for talk therapy helped people with depression be more productive at work.

And it helped those who were under- and unemployed get a job.

Specifically, researchers from The Ohio State University found that after four months of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), participants who were working were "able to concentrate and accomplish tasks at work more successfully," the study authors wrote.

And 41% of unemployed or underemployed people in the study found a new job during that time.

Depression and work

"Depression is the most common psychological disorder and it's more common among those with occupational challenges," Daniel Strunk, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, tells CNBC Make It. "So, when someone is depressed, the work-related challenges are compounded by the difficulties of being depressed."

An estimated 17.3 million U.S. adults have at least one major depressive episode, defined as at least two weeks of having a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities and problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, or self-worth, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Though the study occurred prior to the pandemic, during the Covid pandemic, the number of people with symptoms of depression tripled in the United States. Meanwhile, millions of people have lost jobs or are out of work.

In the new study, all of the 126 participants had depression; 27 of them were unemployed or aiming to go from a part-time position to full-time. By the end of the study, 11 of the 27 had found work. All employed participants experencied improvment in their ability to concentrate and successfully accomplish tasks.

How CBT helps

Cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT), is a very common type of talk therapy that typically includes efforts to change thinking patterns and develop coping mechanisms to address problematic thoughts, emotions or behaviors, according to the American Psychological Association. CBT has been shown to be very effective at reducing anxiety and depression.

So what makes CBT so effective in treating depression and ultimately boosting people's work performance?

People with depression tend to have pessimistic thinking patterns, and can "readily recall negative experiences and either fail to recall or discount the significance of positive experiences," Strunk says. Negative thoughts can contribute to avoidance and procrastination, he says.

A person with depression who is applying for jobs might "be so hopeless about the prospect...that it gets in the way of their efforts," Strunk says. CBT can help people learn to counteract these tendencies.

In CBT, a therapist will work with you and encourage you to consider specific factual evidence about your situation. In the case of applying for jobs, this could be your qualifications, achievements and feedback you've received in the past, Strunk says.

Stepping back from negative thoughts and instead focusing on available evidence can help you evaluate whether your initial negative thoughts are true or not, he says.

For people with depression who do have jobs, these negative thoughts can interfere with your productivity. "They might doubt their effectiveness, be concerned that their efforts on a project won't be met with success or procrastinate in working on a project because it seems so daunting," Strunk says.

If you can't get therapy, try these tips

CBT sessions can cost $100 an hour or more, but studies do suggest that online CBT is as effective as in-person treatment, sometimes even better. (If you're looking for a therapist who specializes in CBT, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies has a database.)

If you don't have access to therapy, Strunk says people can apply some of the strategies used in CBT to their daily lives.

"When you experience negative emotions, take a moment and ask yourself what you were thinking in that moment," Strunk suggests. It can be helpful to write down how you feel.

"Then, take a step back and consider the possibility that this thought may not be true," he says.

"Ask yourself whether there is any evidence that is not entirely consistent with that view."

"After you've listed the evidence carefully, ask yourself what conclusion is really warranted here?

Finally, says Strunk, "If the initial thought isn't entirely true, what is a more balanced view?"

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