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The Role of Work in Healing Depression

Sigmund Freud once defined mental health as "the ability to work and to love." On this web page I want about the role of employment in healing from depression.

Work is therapeutic for at least three reasons.

First it gives us financial independence.
Second it provide us with a sense of identity.
And third, working draws us outside of ourselves and brings us into contact with other people.

Volunteer work provides many of the same benefits as paid work, and can be a helpful way to get back into the workforce.

Work issues are prominent in the depression support groups I run. Prior to joining the groups, many of my clients had been forced them to leave their jobs or careers because of their depression and anxiety. These have included an engineer, doctor, nurse, teacher and the head of a non profit foundation.

As they have healed, their desire to work has reemerged, and returning to work has constituted a huge turning point in their recovery. As one client recently told the group, "The most important factor in my recovery has been being able to return to work!"

Conversely, I have seen depression brought on by problems with work. These include:

  1. a person's lack of employment.
  2. being involved in soulless work that does not express a genuine passion.
  3. having a high-stress (and sometimes abusive) jobs that "drives one crazy." To leave the job, however, would mean replacing job stress with financial stress.

The ideal way to resolve such a dilemma is through the practice of "Right Livelihood," which originated as an aspect of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment. To practice Right Livelihood means working at something that is beneficial to humans, animals, plants and the earth--or at least minimally harmful. It is an expression of your deepest self that does the following:

  • Produces something of personal value to others.
  • Gives you a fair return, providing for your needs but not your greed.
  • Gives you a sense of being a valued part of your community.
  • Provides intrinsic satisfaction.
  • Gives expression to your deepest values.

Clearly, the passion and joy that one would experience when we find our Right Livelihood are wonderful antidotes to depression as well as blessing for the entire planet. But even if you don't have the perfect job, the fact that you are working (unless it is overly stressful) will contribute to your mental health.

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