Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Depression and Underemployment

March 11, 2021 Mahevash Shaikh

Being unemployed not only results in a reduced standard of living, but it can also cause depression. Speaking from personal experience, depression can hit the underemployed individual hard as well. However, while I have read a substantial number of articles about depression and unemployment, I have not seen much content on depression and underemployment. And that baffles me because many of us are grossly underemployed today, and the situation is likely to worsen even in a post-pandemic world.

Indeed, being underemployed can cause depression--specifically, situational depression--and worsen preexisting depression. It's a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. While this may sound ambitious because underemployment is more of a social problem than an individual one, there are still some things you can do to cope with it. And the first step is to figure out if you are underemployed.

Understanding Underemployment

You may be underemployed and not even know it. This is because underemployment has a lot of layers to it and is not as cut and dry as unemployment. According to Investopedia, it comes in three types:

"Visible underemployment is underemployment in which an individual works fewer hours than is necessary for a full-time job in their chosen field. Due to the reduced hours, they work two or more part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. The second type is invisible underemployment, in which an individual is unable to find a job in their chosen field. Consequently, they work in a job that is not commensurate with their skill set, and in most cases, pays much below their industry standards. A third type refers to situations in which individuals, who are unable to find work in their chosen field, quit the workforce altogether."1

Underemployment is brutal on the soul, destroying one's self-confidence, quality of life, physical and mental wellbeing, etc. It may be better than being unemployed, but that doesn't make it any less hard.

Softening the Blow of Underemployment 

Being underemployed can cause depression, and this can result in one staying underemployed. While you can't fix a broken system all by yourself, you can use certain tools to do temporary repairs. Here are some ways in which you can protect yourself from "underemployment depression."

  1. Build resilience -- Not living up to your potential work-wise is not easy to deal with. You may find yourself angry, resentful, frustrated. You may also find yourself becoming complacent and hopeless. None of these emotions are going to help you; on the contrary, they will drain you and leave you with a victim mentality. To avoid this, build your resilience with the help of therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  2. Detach yourself from work -- The saying "you are not your job" has become so common it is a cliche, but that doesn't mean it's untrue. Nobody is defined by the work they do. Your self-worth should not depend on what you do for a living. Because if it does, you will feel worthless when you lose your job or suffer a setback in your business. This is easier said than done because we live in a capitalistic society. However, therapy can help you separate your worth from your work. 
  3. Limit "comparisonitis" -- "Comparisonitis" is the disease of constantly comparing oneself to others. It is a habit that is hard to stop once you get used to it. In today's world, comparisonitis exists mainly due to social media. Since most people share only their happiness and successes online, to an onlooker it seems as if they are the only one who is miserable. If you find yourself bothered by someone bragging about their new job or pandemic promotion, either unfollow them or go off the platform itself. When you don't feed jealousy, it will eventually starve to death. 
  4. Keep trying -- Shifting the focus from others to yourself will give you more time to go after the jobs you want. Keep your head down and apply to positions you are interested in. In the meanwhile, work on that side hustle. If you are finding it hard to believe in yourself, seek free therapy online. A mental health professional will enable you to assess your strengths and weaknesses and believe me, this will help you gain confidence and get to know yourself. 

Lastly, be kind to yourself. Take some time off if you feel overwhelmed. Rethink your career options if the situation calls for it. Remember, you are more than the work you do. 

Do you have any tips for breaking the cycle of underemployment and depression? Please let me know in the comments section below. 


  1. Chen, J., "Underemployment." Investopedia, November 2020.

APA Reference
Shaikh, M. (2021, March 11). Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Depression and Underemployment, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 22 from

Author: Mahevash Shaikh

Mahevash Shaikh is a millennial blogger, author, and poet who writes about mental health, culture, and society. She lives to question convention and redefine normal. You can find her at her blog and on Instagram and Facebook.

July, 13 2023 at 2:29 pm

Just came across this today July 12 ‘23. Thanks for bringing this to light.
I have a bachelor of science degree (late 2007) and while I graduated top of my class, and had interviews lined up, they started a hiring freeze due to the the recession. I’ve been underemployed ever since. I’ve never worked in my degree field, and am currently earning $400 a month (yes, $400, not a typo). Now I’ve been diagnosed with a disability, so working in my field is laughable. I can only work pt. This has more than added depression to my life, so to find an article like this is extremely helpful. Thank you!

February, 4 2022 at 9:56 am

Thank you for bringing awareness to this - I feel like those of us in this situation are the silenced group. Unemployed get attention and assistance. People who maintained their income and lifestyle can't comprehend what we are dealing with. Those of us stuck here - watching all our previous friends go on with their lives while we're working multiple jobs just to pay the bills - seeing all the things we once loved doing slip away as we can't afford to even drive anywhere none the less do the things we used to do - amid skyrocketing prices from rent to a loaf of bread (and aforementioned gas...).
Yes, I've personally done a lot of evaluation, realized I made some major mistakes getting comfortable with my old company who'd I'd been with for over 6 years, and getting comfortable with my income...all of which was ripped out from under me.
Since then have at least returned to my "field" but working 2 "levels" (and pay grades!) below my previous roles, and completely unsuccessful in getting back to where I was or getting interviews for the positions I was consider pre-pandemic.
It's hard to talk about because I do have "a job" - and to be fair, 10 years ago, I lived just fine on this income. But that was a decade ago, and I'm paying for the mistake of getting comfortable and losing my fear of the job market. I'll fix it, but can't lie, it SUCKS, I feel like 8 years of life improvements were completely ripped out from under me.

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