How to identify and support a depressed employee

Dan dreads needing to call Anne into his office, but he knows he should not put off the conversation any longer. Something has been “off” with this long-time employee for a few weeks. Besides quite a few absences, she arrives late many days. Co-workers covered her tardiness to client meetings several times, but Dan senses they are getting frustrated. Her sales numbers have dropped significantly, and despite a history as a top innovator, she rarely contributes ideas to group brainstorming sessions anymore. In fact, she mostly just slumps into her seat.

Dan guesses Anne might suffer from burnout, depression, or another mental health condition. Human resources, though, advises him not to play armchair psychiatrist when the two meet. Instead, he sticks to presenting observations and demonstrating concern for her well-being. She admits to difficulty getting up in the morning and trouble concentrating. Dan gently suggests she look into the company’s EAP (employee assistance program).

Tired of not feeling good and worried about how her behavior affects others in the work environment, Anne gets a referral to a mental health professional. Diagnosed with major depressive disorder, she begins treatment.

Employee mental health

Talking about mental health has become more common since the COVID-19 pandemic. People realize its prevalence and seriousness, leading to less stigma and more emphasis on self-care. This positive development could not come at a better time. According to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. adults who report having been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lifetime has reached 29.0%, nearly 10 percentage points higher than in 2015. The percentage of Americans who currently have or are being treated for depression has increased to 17.8%. Both rates are the highest recorded by Gallup since it began measuring depression.

As a manager, these statistics mean you will likely encounter many depressed employees during your career. And while mental health initiatives are making discussions more commonplace, the subject still can cause discomfort. Managers don’t want to seem like they are prying or overstepping bounds. Employees fear judgment and the effect on their reputation and career.

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As shown in the opening example, though, a depressed employee can affect the morale and performance of the entire staff. Leaders need to sensitively address mental health issues both out of concern for the individual’s well-being and for the good of the company.

Warning signs of depression

What might clue in a manager that a team member struggles with depression?

Symptoms of depression often include:

  • A noticeable drop in productivity and work performance

  • Missing deadlines

  • Absenteeism or tardiness

  • Lack of focus

  • Moodiness

  • Anger or irritability

  • Sluggishness

  • Loss of motivation or confidence

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities

  • A tone of hopelessness or sadness

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • An unkempt appearance

  • Excessive worrying

  • Unusual preference for social isolation

Taking action

A manager concerned about someone’s mental well-being can call the person in for a private discussion. It may not be the easiest conversation, but expressing concern and compassion may prove helpful.

“If you see something, say something,” says Erica N. Reed, LCSW-C, who works with organizations on creating mental wellness in the workplace.

She suggests stating observations and asking questions. (Remember, you’re not qualified to diagnose the employee or tell someone you think he might have a mental health problem.) Open with something like “I’ve noticed some changes in your work lately. Can you tell me a bit about what’s going on?”

During the meeting, Reed says to avoid pacifying statements such as “Everyone goes through stuff; you’ll get over it” or “Don’t worry, everything will be OK.” Instead, try validating the employee’s concerns, such as by saying “I hear that things are hard for you right now. How can I support you?”

Assistance may take the form of directing the worker to mental health support available through the company, such as an EAP or counseling through their healthcare insurance plan. Or, maybe allowing the depressed employee to work from home on particularly trying days could help. Temporarily lessening a workload could prove useful, as could a switch to more independent projects during a time when interacting with others feels difficult. Brainstorm ideas together.

(Note: Managers should hesitate to seek assistance from human resources or upper management as necessary. This additional input is especially crucial if worried about the possibility of suicide or other harmful action.)

Depression and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Collaborating with a depressed employee is not only a caring thing to do, it also may be legally necessary. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “If you have depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or another mental health condition, you are protected against discrimination and harassment at work because of your condition, you have workplace privacy rights, and you may have a legal right to get reasonable accommodations that can help you perform and keep your job.”

Managers wishing to gain a greater understanding of the ADA as it relates to depression will find answers to many of their questions on the EEOC website. Topics covered include:

  • Can an employer fire someone because of a mental health condition?

  • Are depressed employees allowed to keep their condition private?

  • What are reasonable accommodations, and how can depressed employees go about securing them?

  • What if a mental health condition affects job performance?

  • What happens if a depressed employee cannot do his job, even with reasonable accommodations?

Depression and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Smart employers also understand how the FMLA may come into play for employees with mental health conditions (or ones who need to take time off to care for a loved one with such a condition). According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “FMLA is designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. It provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It also requires that their group health benefits be maintained during the leave.”

FMLA applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. Employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.

The DOL offers a fact sheet about mental health conditions and the FMLA. Among the things it covers is defining a serious health condition as “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves either inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.” It also gives details on how an employer may obtain certification from a healthcare provider to support the need for FMLA.

Creating a supportive environment

The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health reports that the cost of depression to the U.S. economy is more than $210 billion annually in absenteeism and lost productivity. While employers are not healthcare providers, they can do things to help all employees recognize the importance of mental health. Here are a few ideas:

Commit to the cause

Provide leaders with training to recognize potential mental health issues among staff and the skill set to confront team members with knowledge, sensitivity, and compassion.

Offer resources

Make everyone aware of EAPs, telehealth visits, counseling services, and other ways of evaluating and treating mental health. Be certain medical insurance policies cover mental health treatment adequately. Consider bringing in mental health experts to present on topics of interest or to conduct free workplace screenings.

Respect work-life balance

Keep an eye on workloads. Offer flexibility as to where, when, and how work gets done. Encourage unplugging during non-business hours. Instill a company-wide attitude that PTO is an integral part of the benefits package and should be used to recharge as needed.

Improve overall health

Initiatives that improve nutrition, sleep, stress reduction, and exercise provide both physical and mental benefits.

Make people feel valued

Create a psychologically safe environment where workers feel free to be their true selves. Give everyone a voice, and actively listen. Show appreciation. Take an interest in individuals beyond simply what they do for the company. Individuals in need of help are more likely to take the difficult step of talking about depression or other mental health issues if they believe their audience truly cares.