Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Improve Focus at Work: Research Brief

Getting Down to Business: An Examination of Occupational Outcomes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Depression
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (2021)

According to the Center for Disease Control, depression leads to 200 million lost work days each year (Gurchiek, 2019). Since depression often makes it hard for people to concentrate, it can interfere with one’s ability to perform well at work. This cycle of presenteeism, or decreased productivity in the workplace, in turn, can raise the risk of losing one’s job. Since unemployment is itself a risk factor for depression, it’s critically important to effectively treat depressive symptoms before they start to impact someone’s job performance.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is well-established as an effective treatment for depression. A recent study now shows that it can also help people become more focused and productive at work (Ezawa, et al., 2021). 126 working age adults were administered a 16-week course of CBT for depression. At the end of the course, they reported significant increases in their ability to focus on and successfully accomplish tasks while at work. Importantly, the study demonstrated that it was CBT’s ability to reduce negative thinking patterns that led to this increased productivity

Depression is often characterized by a negative thinking pattern that leads people to blame themselves for things that go wrong in their lives and overestimate how long negative events are likely to last. By helping participants identify these negative thinking patterns, and replace them with more hopeful messages about their ability to exert control over their lives, CBT brought about positive changes in their experiences of work. The researchers also hypothesize that CBT may help people learn how to function effectively when they are feeling depressed at work, making it less likely that depression will lead to performance issues.

Highlights from the Study

“Among patients seeking work, 41% of patients were able to make positive changes
in obtaining a new position. Working patients experienced substantial reductions in
presenteeism, being able to concentrate and accomplish tasks at work more successfully.
Notably, the effect size of change in presenteeism was substantial.” (p. 486)


“CBT may help patients overcome these views by teaching them the experience of depression is
not their fault and they can take steps to improve their concentration and accomplish
work more successfully even when experiencing depressive symptoms.” (pp. 486-487).

“Over the course of CBT, we observed improvements in employment status and reductions
in presenteeism. We also found decreases in negative cognitive style were associated
with decreases in presenteeism. These findings suggest CBT may play an important role
in not only reducing depressive symptoms, but also addressing occupational outcomes.” (p. 488)

At Feeling Good Institute, we utilize a variety of approaches to address negative cognitive style in the larger context of treating depression. These include motivational and methods-based interventions; Positive reframing of one’s difficult feelings around work, using the Reattribution Method to holistically examine challenging situations on the job, promoting self-acceptance, in addition to many other strategies. 

Learn about the essential skills for effective cognitive behavior therapy and how we set therapists up for success.

Research Brief Author: Zane B. Pierce, LMFT

Citation: Ezawa, I. D., Bartels, G. C., & Strunk, D. R. (2021). Getting down to business: an examination of occupational outcomes in cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 50(6), 479–491.

Gurchiek, K. (2019, November 7). The paralysis of depression in the Workplace. SHRM. Retrieved February 8, 2023, 


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