11/23/2011 10:53 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

Can Melancholy Be an Asset in the Workplace?

In the visually breathtaking new film Melancholia, director Lars von Trier wastes no time addressing depression and work. Right at the start -- at her wedding reception, of all places -- her boss gives the brilliant but mentally unstable Justine (Kirsten Dunst) a nice new job title and promotion with great fanfare. At the same time he assigns an underling to follow her around during the festivities to get her to come up with a crucial tag line for a project.

Justine is clearly valuable -- even essential -- despite her depression and mood swings, which decimate her. (Before the night is over, she will shove both her boss and her husband.)

But despite her explicit tendencies to crumble in life -- and the viewer sees enough of those incidents in the film -- the melancholy Justine is preternaturally savvy about what comes after. Eternity after. There's a new planet, Melancholia, on the scene, whose orbit is moving precipitously closer to Earth; in short, Melancholia might explode us into smithereens, just like the Death Star did to Alderaan.

While depression is, for Justine, an eruptive catalyst - just like the movie's death planet -- it's also clear that she knows things -- not least of which is that Earth can be so loveless that who would really mind if it disappears. In the course of the movie, she winds up using her hopeless world view as a force for good, especially consoling her sister and nephew. Almost channeling her debilities -- and becoming an instrument for the cosmos to literally shoot electrical energy out of her fingertips -- she epitomizes some sort of transcendental resignation to Melancholia's will-it-or-won't-it-crash doomsday scenario.

So, is a real-life 9-to-5 Justine -- the gal or guy who perennially mopes in the cubicle nearby -- someone who might actually be an asset?

At work, it's entirely possible that person who's depressed can indeed bring balance and a sense of realism to the proceedings. "These people tend to be more realistic about possibilities and problems," says Margaret Wehrenberg, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Naperville, Illinois, who treats depression and anxiety. "They can be very helpful in terms of anticipating how things can go wrong and, therefore, anticipate corrections."

But outsiders may see this behavior as an attitude -- sometimes with sarcasm thrown in -- that constantly focuses on the things that could sink project, for example, a supplier not fulfilling an order, or not enough money to complete a project.

"Sometimes a person with depression doesn't have the enthusiasm to stick with the project through a tough time, even if it has possibilities, and may not have the energy to work hard, so they can bring down the enthusiasm of the group," says Wehrenberg, author of The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques: Understanding How Your Brain Makes You Depressed and What You Can Do to Change It.

This lack of enthusiasm can indeed lead to getting canned. "When people who are depressed get fired, almost without exception it's not so much about attitude but because they stopped doing the work," she says, noting that generally work is the last place they fail. "They fail in personal relationships, they isolate themselves personally and they abandon social obligations. But work is the last thing people perform badly at."

Can a boss fire you because you're depressed? "Bosses have no legitimate way of finding out you're receiving treatment for depression, unless you tell them," she says. "It's completely private, if you want it to be." However, she adds, if you want to claim you have a medical issue, you've got to make it known from the beginning.

Of course, not everyone who suffers from clinical depression expresses the same symptoms as Dunst's Justine. Wehrenberg points out that often in depression, "how people behave is more related to personality and how it changes when they're depressed, not solely because of the quality of the depression."

But depression at work can be gray area. "The challenge is that people with depression typically don't announce to others that they're operating out of a depressed place, because most people are private about their mental health," says Wehrenberg. "At work, we deal with people as people, and not as conditions. But definitely, when you have a condition, you bring it with you."