Dealing with Depression in the Workplace

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The costs of depressive disorders to employers are well-documented: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anywhere from $17 to 44 billion per year in lost productivity and more than $100 million in treatment costs.

Depression is a relatively invisible illness, which makes it even more difficult to address. At least 10 percent of workers suffer from depressive illness in a given year, which increases to 18 percent over a lifetime, and women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men. There are no visible signs of the disease, and a depressed staffer is unlikely to volunteer the information to their supervisor, perhaps fearing the stigma around mental illness or possible adverse effects on their career. In some cases they may not even realize they are experiencing depression.  

So what is a manager to do?

Dr. Samuel Mowerman, a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, says the first step is to confer with your HR department. Find out what resources and benefits your company offers, and discuss the appropriate ways—along with the nuances—to help your direct reports. What are the rules of confidentiality? Should you initiate a conversation if you suspect an employee is depressed? Should you mention it to someone in HR? Or take a different action?

Address the Group
One best practice is to make sure all of your staffers know what resources are available to them, and tell them as a group, rather than singling out an individual. Be sure to emphasize the confidentiality of available treatment and sick leave possibilities. If you have faced that challenge yourself and are comfortable sharing your experience, it can be an incredibly powerful message that opens up private one-on-one conversations in the future—but that's entirely optional. And, obviously, your own case is the only one you should discuss in public.

Another option to consider for your firm is telemedicine for mental health, which we examined in a recent article. Whether online or by phone, this tool allows workers to access care without conspicuously leaving the office during the workday.

Things may get trickier if you start to suspect depression in an undiagnosed staffer. When a worker gets depressed,” Dr. Mowerman says, “you will see effects in their quality of work, their quantity of work, and the demeanor of the worker, the expression on their face. It will be quite noticeable.”  

These changes will take place over time, he notes. It's not a two-day affair. Depression is a continuous, progressive, deteriorating type of malady. It will be consistent over a couple of weeks at least, and the person will have difficulty functioning.”

After you’ve cleared your actions with HR, Dr. Mowerman recommends talking directly with the employee, making sure to use a gentle and compassionate tone. A good place to start could be: “I’ve noticed you seem to be having some difficulties. Could we talk about it?

Reduce Any Stigma
The public stigma of mental illness can make employees reluctant to address the subject. Dr. Mowerman emphasizes the supervisor's role in removing any sign of stigma and creating a safe space for discussion. He recommends assuring an employee that your company regards mental illness in the same way as any other medical condition, and if this is not the case, consider bringing the matter up with HR and higher-ups to affect positive change.

At the same time, it’s important to maintain good professional boundaries. If you’re friendly with a worker, taking them out for a drink to “unwind” and share their frustrations might help with garden-variety stress and aggravation, but it will not help with clinical depression. “It might even cloud the issue,” Dr. Mowerman notes, “because alcohol is itself a depressant,” which can make matters worse.

If you suspect a staffer has, or might have, significant depression, refer them to a professional, who will give them a thorough physical and psychological examination and take it from there. The good news is that treatment for depression can be quite effective. Once a person is diagnosed, their mental health professional may prescribe medication, talk therapy, lifestyle changes, or some combination of these.

Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle
An overall healthy lifestyle can also help prevent or reduce depression. A balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, moderation in alcohol use, and stress-relief techniques can all be helpful and are to be encouraged in your employees. Regular physical exercise too is associated with “a significantly decreased prevalence of major depression and anxiety disorders,” according to a study published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

Maintaining an active work life—and the psychological rewards of recognition for a job done well—may prevent depression as well. That’s why helping your colleagues and employees stay productive in a healthy fashion can lead to positive things all around.

Coming Soon: How to handle the aftermath of suicide in the workplace. Sign up for The Weekly Bite and never miss a story.

Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.

 

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