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How to Overcome Barriers and Address Depression in the Workplace

Depression is a significant problem in the workplace. It’s the leading cause of disability worldwide and one of the main causes of suicide.1 Yet many direct supervisors are unsure of how they can tell if an employee is depressed and, even if they are able to identify it, what they should do.

In light of National Depression Education and Awareness month this October, share the following tips with your organization’s supervisors to help them better recognize and understand how to support employees with depression.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Depression in the workplace often looks like what most people expect. An employee may:

  • Look sad or “blue”
  • Seem tired or lethargic
  • Lack interest or enjoyment in their work
  • Struggle to concentrate or make decisions
  • Make negative statements about themselves or express feelings of hopelessness, even to the point of talking about suicide
  • Experience weight changes
  • Exhibit poor hygiene

Other times, though, signs of depression aren’t so clear or obvious. Because of the stigma associated with mental illness, employees frequently conceal their struggles. They may isolate themselves from their co-workers or supervisor, avoiding contact that would otherwise make their difficulties clear. They may appear more frustrated or stressed than depressed, or they may be less expressive of their emotions than usual.

If even one of these signs are apparent, the most important thing a manager can do to help an employee who may be experiencing depression is to reach out. While many supervisors are wary of doing so, a supervisor’s reaction to employee depression can significantly contribute to employee behavior, particularly in terms of decreasing employee absenteeism.

Overcoming Personal Concerns

Supervisors don’t need special training to respond to employees in supportive or caring ways, they just need to be open and willing to ask if something is wrong. However, many are fearful of asking the wrong question or are just unsure of how to provide support. Here are three main areas of concern and ways to overcome these barriers:

Fear of “Prying”

Some supervisors avoid connecting with an employee for fear of “prying.” However, bringing up concern in the context an employee’s work can open the door for the employee without pressuring them, such as: “I noticed that you’ve delivered a few assignments after the deadline. Is everything ok? Is there anything we can do to help you?”

Not Knowing the “Right” Course of Action

Supervisors may ignore the warning signs because they don’t know what to do if an employee acknowledges feeling depressed. Being prepared to set appropriate limits and to offer resources to the employee can help, including: “I’m glad you told me about this. Have you considered contacting our employee assistance program to talk with someone? Although I’m here for you, it might help to talk with someone who’s trained to help with issues like this.”

Thinking Work Is the Root Cause

Another common concern among supervisors is that the employee may be depressed because of work. Sometimes, the supervisor may even take the employee’s feelings personally or worry that they have done something to cause the situation. However, depression is a medical condition that impacts all areas of a person’s life and generally isn’t “caused” by any one thing. A person who is depressed at work is virtually always also depressed in their personal life.

Building Blocks for Supportive Conversations

I also recommend supervisors understand these foundational elements that can lead to supportive conversations.

First and foremost, being aware of biases about depression can be invaluable. Common myths about depression and mental illness — like the idea that people with mental illness are violent or the belief that people can just “snap out of it” when they’re depressed — can get in the way and complicate the process of managing an employee who is struggling with depression. There are a variety of programs available to help employers combat the stigma associated with depression and mental illness, which can both encourage employees to come forward when they’re having problems and make it easier for the manager to help.

It is also a good idea to routinely mention services available through the organization’s employee benefits programs, especially an EAP. While employees are often unaware of what an EAP offers, employees with depression can benefit from these important resources.

Finally, it’s important to maintain perspective. Although the employee is depressed, supervisors shouldn’t take that as an indication they are fragile or incapable of doing their job. Remember that depression is a medical condition, not a sign of weakness or incompetence. Don’t assume that they want or need to be treated differently than other employees. Hold them accountable for their work, but also keep the lines of communication open so they can alert you if they are having trouble with a task or a deadline.

By supporting employees who are struggling with depression, supervisors can improve workplace productivity, reduce absenteeism and have an overall positive impact on the lives and well-being of their employees.



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