Can therapy help your career? This study found out

The Sopranos is routinely named as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. When the mob drama first premiered on HBO in 1999, however, audiences weren’t quite sure what to make of protagonist Tony Soprano. Wiseguys are supposed to be tough and ruthless, so the notion of New Jersey’s biggest crime boss visiting a therapist each week to help cure his crippling anxiety and panic attacks sounded absolutely laughable. 

Of course, it didn’t take long for the show’s excellent writing and character development to shine through, and the rest is TV history. 

Regarding the storyline of Tony’s therapy, something interesting happens fairly quickly in the show’s plot. While it’s very debatable if therapy actually helps Tony overcome his mental health issues, it almost immediately makes him a better mob boss. The different perspectives and new ways to address problems Dr. Melfi provides for Tony prove invaluable as he navigates the criminal world for 6+ seasons.

Now, a new study just released by Ohio State University has gathered considerable evidence suggesting what worked for Tony Soprano may just help the rest of us. Researchers say attending cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depression can help the unemployed find a job quicker, and help those already employed perform at a higher level.

“For the most part, researchers have focused on showing that therapy relieves symptoms of depression,” says study co-author Daniel Strunk, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. “But reducing symptoms isn’t the only goal people have when they start CBT. Many are hoping to find a job or improve their productivity at their current job. Here we found that therapy can help people achieve these goals, as well.”

According to the study’s findings, 41% of unemployed or underemployed (only working part-time) individuals who underwent a CBT depression therapy course had either found a completely new job or went from part to full-time work by the end of the 16-week therapy course. Similarly, therapy patients who already had a full-time position reported finding it much easier to focus on and accomplish tasks on the job after completing the CBT course.

In all, 126 people took part in this project, and the CBT course they attended was put together by the Ohio State Depression Treatment and Research Clinic.

In general, CBT is all about retraining one’s thoughts not to ruminate on the negative. Most CBT courses focus on teaching patients how to recognize and overcome harmful thought patterns.

“It works on the idea that people with depression invariably hold these overly negative views of themselves and their futures,” Strunk explains. “For example, if an unemployed patient doesn’t get one job they interviewed for, they may think ‘no one is ever going to hire me.'”

To be fair, it’s quite possible that many of the people involved in this study would have landed a job regardless of attending therapy or not. A whole lot goes into attaining one’s dream job, and therapy won’t magically spruce up your resume or interview skills. Still, study authors say the effect of therapy on career outcomes shouldn’t be written off.

“It is hard to say exactly how good this success rate is since we don’t know how many would have gotten jobs without the treatment. But the findings were encouraging and suggest that the CBT is having an impact,” Strunk adds. “Working patients reported at the end of treatment that they were much more successful at concentrating and accomplishing tasks at their jobs,”

Researchers believe much of the career benefits of therapy are linked to CBT’s ability to help people cut down their “negative cognitive style.” In other words, that term refers to reacting to unfortunate events with more pessimism. We’ve all been there; you get a bad report from a client or drop your lunch on the floor and think to yourself “what is wrong with me? Why can’t I do anything right?

“CBT helps patients overcome these views by teaching them that the experience of depression is not their fault and that they can take steps to improve their concentration and accomplish work more successfully even when experiencing depressive symptoms,” Strunk concludes.

Back when Tony Soprano walked through Dr. Melfi’s doors over 20 years ago, therapy was a much more taboo subject than it is today – and not just for mobsters. Nowadays much of that stigma is gone, and people don’t have to feel guilty or lesser than for pursuing the help they need. If you feel like your mental health has been making your job harder than it has to be lately, keep in mind therapy may be an option worth considering.

The full study can be found here, published in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.