What to do when an employee seems depressed

Depression on the job is often misinterpreted as a bad attitude or poor work ethic. You won’t change it with a reprimand or a pep talk. You may, however, be able to put your worker at ease by showing your awareness of the problem. First, you must be able to recognise it.

If an employee has recently suffered the death or departure of a family member or close friend, the grieving process and accompanying sadness is natural. It will take time and perhaps counselling for them to get back to normal. On the other hand, if no such loss or other traumatic event can be linked to an employee’s apparent depression, the cause may be more complicated. It could be physiologically based (and a long-term condition), requiring medication or some other treatment plan.

Regardless of the cause, keep in mind that whatever problems you may be experiencing from someone’s depression, their frustration with it is far more extreme. And the only control they have over it is to seek professional help.

How depression may be evident in employees

Mental illness often goes unrecognised because it’s not so easy to spot and it’s considered a private matter for most people. If you suspect that an employee may be suffering from depression, consult the following list of symptoms. If these characteristics persist for a number of weeks, a thorough diagnosis may be necessary.

  • Decreased productivity; missed deadlines; sloppy work
  • Morale problems or a change in disposition
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Safety problems or accidents
  • Absenteeism or tardiness
  • Complaints of being tired all the time
  • Complaints of unexplained aches and pains

What if my employee is depressed?

Here are some things that you can do to be proactive in getting an employee back on track:

1. Confront the situation quicklyA gentle, caring and direct engagement needs to be made. A person who the employee knows, trusts and respects is the ideal person to do this. They must avoid sounding condescending or authoritarian; but genuine concern needs to be expressed and specific behaviors need to be pointed out. Avoid saying anything like, ‘Everyone is noticing…’ The depressed person is embarrassed already and doesn’t need to think that everyone is talking about him or her.

2. Be empathic.  Empathy says, ‘I’ve been where you are emotionally, and I know it’s rough.’ This supportive attitude helps the depressed person immensely because they will no longer feel alone in their pain.

3. Listen to their story. Every depressed person has a story that they are longing to tell, and it is a huge relief to know that someone cares to listen. In fact, when depressed people hear themselves relating their story, they can often gain a new perspective on the situation, and sometimes they even see a solution.

4. Provide a solution to the employee. A counsellor needs to be made available at an affordable rate. There are some brief forms of therapy or counselling that are extremely effective. Cognitive behavioural therapy is the most highly respected form of brief therapy today.

5. Offer practical assistance in the workplaceMaybe they need a little temporary assistance with their duties to get back on track. A day or two off work or temporarily reduced hours can help.

6. Follow upAn occasional friendly inquiry about how the person is doing is appreciated and helps the person feel supported. Support is key to overcoming and preventing depression.

7. Create a culture of support. Assign someone on your staff who can be trusted to listen non-judgmentally to any concern that an employee has. Most people receive fulfilment from accomplishing quality work. They just sometimes hit snags in life and need to vent.

Depression can affect a company’s productivity, morale and effectiveness. Recognising the signs and understanding what kind of help and support can be offered will be extremely helpful for dealing with a depressed employee. A little human kindness and compassion goes a long way toward attaining your organisation’s goals.

This article first appeared in Psych Central.