Life/career changes to address depression
April 4, 2018 10:04 PM   Subscribe

My more professional, stressful jobs have been associated with depression. I was a really good administrative assistant, wasn't depressed while doing it, and had energy for personal projects, although it was boring. Help me figure out whether/how to change my career in hopes of hating my life less. Have you scaled back your job/career aspirations to manage your mental health? How did that work out?

I'm interested in personal stories about life / career changes undertaken to manage depression and general career advice.

Some possibilities I'm considering: return to admin assistant work, move back to city where I lived long-term, hire a career coach, transition to grant administration, and/or transition to freelance work (writing, editing, plant surveys). I have about a year's expenses in savings plus okay retirement savings. I'm late 30s, single, USian.

Stuff I dislike about my current job (lab manager): little feedback on my performance, no upward mobility, no career development, managing people, chaotic, poor communication, poor infrastructure, mediocre pay (similar to admin work), location.

Stuff keeping me in my current job: I get to do science (first job after a semi-related PhD), get some respect, lots of vacation time, fairly flexible schedule, decent retirement package, tired from repeated moves, difficulty coming up with better options despite working through various career books.

I am not talking about the smaller lifestyle changes often suggested for depression; I exercise vigorously several times a week, meditate nightly, sleep well, eat healthily, avoid alcohol, and spend time with friends. I am making an appointment tomorrow to see about going back on the med I took when I was depressed in grad school. I would like for the drugs to be a temporary measure to help me make other changes in my life.
posted by momus_window to Work & Money (14 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I worked in various admin jobs, and now I'm in something more specialised, higher paying and higher stakes. I've also suffered from depression my whole life.

I would absolutely not advise you to go back to admin.

Reason 1: this is your first job after your PhD! Having a first job that doesn't make you exhausted, downtrodden and depressed is a bit like staying forever with your first ever boy/girlfriend - it happens, but not often. If you can, use the temporary course of meds to apply for other, similar stuff, and I bet you anything that you'll be happier.

Reason 2: when you're new out of school, people take advantage of you. when you have a bit more job experience, you should start feeling a bit more empowered to ask for the things you need (eg. better communication, better pay etc). This transition, from noob to empowered employee, is hard to make in one organisation, and changing jobs will speed it up.

Reason 3: I once had to go back to an admin role for a while (it was a "take any job I can get to move to the city I want" situation). I lasted about 3 months before I was begging for more and more challenging work, irritating the MD who wanted admins to be admins, the end, and trying to manipulate the other admins to give me their more challenging work and take my less challenging work. They fired their receptionist in the recession and made us do shifts to cover it, i felt like my brain was melting and leaking out of my ear at times. I DO NOT ADVISE THIS.

Reason 4: personal projects. yeah ok, I have a little less headspace for them now I'm in a way more engaging job. Buuuut I feel WAY more empowered to take time off when I need to, to do them. No-one will ever pull the "I'm sorry we're not authorising your holiday that you've asked for because we need admin cover" line on me again. When I asked to take a few weeks' unpaid leave to do some gigs I badly wanted to do, I was extremely supported. It's just a completely different experience.

In short, from your description of how you feel I don't think the problem is your work, it's your organisation. Find something similar at another one, and see how it feels (but get yourself stabilised first, so that you give it your best shot). I'm only advising from my experience, but that's my take on it.
posted by greenish at 2:36 AM on April 5, 2018 [18 favorites]

2nding greenish. I tried the "go back to an office job after the PhD" route just to live in the city I loved, and had the same experience: completely unchallenged at work, bored out of my skull, criminally underpaid, and working a much less flexible schedule in a very expensive place. Nothing makes you more depressed than feeling under-valued.

If I were you, I'd play stealth-success-ninja: use the time in your current job to professionalize and leapfrog into doing science at a place that suits you better, treats you better, and pays you better (academia? a different lab?), even if it means some long days and nights in the short-term.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 4:17 AM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh for the love of god, don't go back to being an admin if you haven't done it in a while. Things Have Changed on that score. It used to be a very nice job years ago but it isn't now.

"Stuff I dislike about my current job (lab manager): little feedback on my performance, no upward mobility, no career development, managing people, chaotic, poor communication, poor infrastructure, mediocre pay (similar to admin work), location."

I can tell you that as an admin now, there is no upward mobility, no career development, chaotic, poor communication, poor infrastructure, mediocre pay, and MANAGING EMOTIONS WAY WAY WAY TOO MUCH. Yesterday after someone exploded on me (again) I stayed home instead of going to a meeting and just drank. Admins these days are so short staffed that you end up doing everything and you're a magnet for abuse. There's no flexibility, there's always manning phones and front counter and angry people and no support for doing that, and you won't be bored now because you will be drowning in drama and workload. If you are looking for a less stressful job, admining isn't it.

Unfortunately, I can't advise you on what would be less stressful because I can't find anything less crazy stressful either. It's the world we live in. But frankly, your current job sounds a lot better than admining to me.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:48 AM on April 5, 2018 [8 favorites]

Can you work in industry? A lot of the nonsense in academia doesn't exist in industry. The pay would be better but benefits/flexibility/vacation not as much. And typically you're not on call 24/7 in industry.
posted by Kalmya at 6:27 AM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you scaled back your job/career aspirations to manage your mental health? How did that work out? Yes, and it worked out really well. But I did not scale back to admin work, I just took a low prestige job at a solid but not well-known institution with the knowledge that I may well never be able to transition to another role in another job. That's a little anxiety-inducing from time to time. I don't really worry about being fired for cause, but no job is really secure and I really can't think of where I could find another job. Certainly not one like this that well-balances the substantive work with the low pressure.

AND Sometimes the knowledge that I am unlikely to ever be promoted and that the opportunities for lateral moves are non-existent are hard to take. BUT Mostly those are days when my job is frustrating or my particular project is not going well or not interesting to me. Most of the time, I'm pretty happy and recognize what a unicorn of a job I have.

It took luck on top of all my nonwork energy to transition out of the high stress job in my profession to the low stress job in my profession. I had to identify a workplace with a good reputation but not enough prestige to be highly competitive. It had to be small enough to not have defined promotion tracks, but well-funded and well-designed enough that staff in professional roles are doing meaningful substantive work.

So I don't know anything about your skills or your profession and could not possible recommend a specific lateral move that will satisfy your need to be engaged in the subject matter of your work, but not be depressed by the tenor of your career. I think looking at the credentialed jobs in related industries (that's basically what I did) is a good idea, as is the idea suggested above of looking at industry rather than academia. There will undoubtedly be low-prestige jobs and solid institutions available and if you don't care about the weirdness you will encounter from people who wonder why you're happy in low-prestige, it's a good place to be.
posted by crush at 6:48 AM on April 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I took a step back in my career to a lower-prestige job for work-life balance, especially to get rid of a commute as I have kids entering the junior high years. The mission of the organization is meaningful to me and a lot of the work is, but a lot of it is grunt work too.

I would say that I'm glad overall, but I was blindsided by a few things I'll share with you:

1. The assumption is that I couldn't cut it in my old job, which I can ride out but isn't that easy to handle all the time.

2. I forgot how stressful it is to not have what I think of as a buffer of white collar fellow workers. I deal with way more emotions, as noted above, and basically zero people who have any understanding of what it is I do every day. This is isolating in a way I didn't notice in my 20s, when I came into jobs like the one I have now with the idea that they were temporary on the Way To Something Great.

3. For me the economics work out well on a daily basis, but the impact on my sense of "could I support my family on my current salary if something happened to my spouse" has been pretty harsh. We have good assets so I try to remember that but it's still a stress.

4. I would be leery of straight up admin work (some of which is part of my current role) because everyone coming through the workplace now seems to seriously believe that there's a cloud-based solution or a free template or an overseas temp worker a la UpWork to "do that." I think the expectation is that one day we'll all scan in at a tablet or speak to Siri and Admin Things Will Miraculously Happen.

So...I guess I am discouraging you from trying to resolve your depression entirely through a step back. A lateral step might serve you better.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:07 AM on April 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

A lot of the issues with admin work are alleviated when you're an assistant to a C-level person. I work for the CEO of a multinational corporation and feel challenged and respected every day. If you're good at that type of work and want to keep doing it without all the bullshit that usually goes with being an admin assistant, aim high - a job history of admin work coupled with a PhD, even in an unrelated field, would probably put you near the top of the pile for an EA to CEO job.
posted by something something at 7:19 AM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm mildly-to-severely depressed, and suffer from PTSD. Having done it for about three years, I would not go back to freelancing at all. It is incredibly stressful, particularly on the writing/editing side, and it is an interminable hustle. I don't know how your depression works, but if it's anything like mine, working as a freelancer is orthogonal to getting good treatment for it.

Also: do not discount the stuff keeping you in your current job, particularly the flexible schedule (which all of my friends would kill for) and the decent retirement package (which, again, all of my friends would kill for). You're in your late 30s, but middle age and the prospect of retirement are much closer than you think.

I think @greenish is correct, and that is where i'd start
posted by arkhangel at 7:46 AM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi me again, back because I thought of something else to add. When I was in admin jobs, at times when I was going through rough patches of mental health, no-one really asked or looked after me, and I felt I had to hide it and not ever ask for help. And I also never felt that I could take time off for recovery or appointments, partly because I was so replaceable if they had wanted to. I feel like that's worth taking into account too.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are admin roles out there where you're valued and looked after. I just think they're a lot rarer, and I certainly never found any of them.
posted by greenish at 9:48 AM on April 5, 2018

Best answer: Hi. I was you about 9 years ago. I made the transition from a poorly-paid Research Manager in a chaotic environment to slightly a better paid Research Administrator in a more stable higher ed sponsored projects office. Now I am in a Director-level position at a different university with even better pay (although it should still probably be more), good benefits, and job security. There are always going to be work-related issues that effect my mental health, but the stability of my field has really helped me overall. I recommend looking more closely at grants/research administration, skills you have in these areas, and specializations you might want to pursue. You won't be doing science, but you'll be facilitating it, and your science background will help you earn you the respect of your clients. Between pre-award, post-award, and compliance, there are lots of options and opportunities out there. Check out NCURA and SRA International.
posted by maddieD at 10:22 AM on April 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would ask you to think about what it is you want to do with your life. Not in a career way. What is it that challenges and satisfies you? What are your goals (again, outside the office)? If you had more free time, or a different schedule, or more mental energy, what would you do with it? Because that really affects whether you should change jobs. Are you looking to free up energy for creative pursuits? Are family commitments an issue? How much of your self-worth and sense of contribution is pinned to the work you do, and can you think of ways to replace that? Answers to these questions will affect how important, e.g., a flexible schedule really is to you.

I know these are really hard questions to answer when you're depressed, but you don't want to, e.g., burn bridges, take a run-of-the-mill admin job, and then feel awful because you perceive your major way of contributing to the world to be tackling constantly-challenging, intellectually-stimulating work.
posted by praemunire at 12:36 PM on April 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

I went from a high-stress job to a much lower-stress, administrative type job in a midst of a depressive episode about 6 years ago. It did make a pretty immediate difference for these reasons:
- my job was insane and was causing a lot of my depression with unrealistic (nay, impossible) expectations, no support, and abusive superiors
- I had more time to do things like sleep, exercise, go to therapy, and BREATHE
- I could close my office door and ignore people on bad days, or even work from home, whereas my high stress job had no flexibility

THAT SAID, I went back to basically the same job (just at a different work place) after about a year and a half of recovery and working the lower stress job because I was bored and itching for a challenge.

I've since struggled with milder, and probably mostly job-related depression, but I've stuck it out by reminding myself that I do really love my career and feel fulfilled by it, even when it makes me a little crazy. After recovering from my major depressive episode, I ending up not really feeling particularly happy in the simpler job and just felt kind of empty and unfulfilled even though I wasn't depressed.
posted by raspberrE at 3:31 PM on April 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Your friendly neighborhood former pizza joint manager with bipolar, panic disorder, OCD, and like 8 other anxiety disorders here.

I was a good pizza manager. I'm talking taking a failing store doing less than $6k/wk in a party college town with 35k actual residents, and taking it to $14k/wk in 8 months good. I'm talking district managers from other franchises recruiting me to be their rock star for a few weeks or months good. So when I took another job as a pizza manager about 5 years ago, I thought I was all set.


Five ER visits in four weeks working there, with the fifth having me hastily admitted with all the symptoms of having had a massive stroke. Left side weakness, dizziness, screaming headache - as in, I was screaming, from the headache, and severe aphasia, to the point that I couldn't tell you my name or date of birth.

It wasn't a stroke at 35. It was conversion disorder. Basically, your brain gets super stressed out, and the only way it can come up with to relieve the stress is to shut you down. And that's exactly what happened.

My health decided that was a great cue to get more and more interesting. Interesting as in four rounds of pneumonia hospitalizations, as in five surgeries, as in contradictory diagnoses, as in unexplained weakness to the point that I need help with most of my ADLs. I moved in with my best friend and his family, and they've become my carers.

I do a little of this and a little of that now. Currently the bulk of my income is from Mechanical Turk. I get little bits here and there from Prolific, TryMyUI, UserTesting, Forthright, Inbox Dollars, and Mary Kay. I'm also working on creating a community for women who are stressed out, or have mental illness, to help each other work on finding self-care, self-esteem, and sanity. It's not a huge income, by any stretch, but it was around $1k last month. And living in a friend's spare bedroom in a nowhere town in Kentucky, that's enough to squeak by.

I'm gonna jump on Team Career Coach. You've got some savings to live on. Take the time to really figure out what exactly you want to do. How you want to make your mark on the world. How you want to contribute to the betterment of society. Then go forth.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 7:47 PM on April 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I scaled back by working part-time (three days a week). This meant not having much money, but I’m good at living in that way. It really made my life worth living, because when working full-time, I did not have the energy to do anything other than prepare for my next work day in the evening. Having four days off per week meant I was able to have some semblance of a life.
posted by metasarah at 8:02 AM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

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