Recognizing Employee Depression in the Workplace

July 02, 2019

A stressed employee taking a moment to compose himself while dealing with depres
Erin Ollila

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, almost 44 million adults experience mental illness every year. The chances are high that one of your employees or coworkers is suffering from this often debilitating condition. But how can you tell if there's employee depression in the workplace? It isn't as if your employees come to work wearing a shirt that says, "I feel sad today." Are you even allowed to ask your staff if they are feeling depressed? And, if they do report it to you, how will you offer to help?

There's a lot that goes into recognizing and dealing with workplace depression. The best way to help your staff is to be as prepared as possible.

Identifying Workplace Depression

Stress happens at work, home and our everyday environments, and sometimes, stressors can help to motivate us at work. However, too much stress leads to burnout, weight gain, poor posture and other physical issues. It also can potentially lead to mental health issues, such as depression.

One of the best ways you can help your employees is to recognize the symptoms of employee depression in the workplace. You may notice employees struggling with concentration, decision-making or recalling the details or specifics about duties assigned to them.

Their demeanor may have changed and you suddenly find them to be either sad or irritable, or notice that they now have a loss of interest in projects or activities they once enjoyed.

Other symptoms may be apparent, such as overeating, loss of appetite, extreme fatigue or commentary that they feel "hopeless" or wish they weren't alive. You may make them hear comments like, "Everyone here would be much better off without me," or "I'm such a waste of space."

If you notice any of these symptoms, or if there's an employee who previously did very well in performance reviews and is now floundering, take notice — they might be depressed.

Is It Legal to Ask Employees if They Are Depressed?

If you're worried about one of your employees, you might think you're helping by starting a frank discussion about their mental health. You'll want them to get treatment, because you care about their overall wellbeing. Even though your heart is in the right place, it's not legal to ask one of your staff to disclose a medical condition or disability.

However, it's always okay to keep an empathetic ear on what your employees disclose to you. For example, if you're talking at lunch with a group of employees and one of them mentions a few times that they're losing sleep over how they'll pay for their child's college education, it's okay to respond back in a conversational manner, though it's always best to do so privately. After lunch, send them a quick email and say, "Did you know our EAP offers guidance for situations just like yours at no cost? Here's their contact info, and let me know if I can do anything else to help."

If anyone comes to you directly and discloses a mental health condition, maintain the strictest privacy and discuss their options, which would be connecting them with an employee assistance program (EAP), offering accommodations and letting them know about their rights under the Family and Medical Leace Act (FMLA).

Creating a Physical and Mental Wellness-Based Culture

Finally, consider creating a wellness policy that stresses the importance of physical and mental health, and lets your employees know that you're supportive and will help them through this time. Remember the power of words, and make sure the verbiage is inclusive and doesn't have any stigma attached to them.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests organizations, "Seek out corporate initiatives. Two free ones are the ICU Program from Dupont and Right Direction from the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and Employers Health Coalition Inc."

And most of all, just be a constant presence in your employees' lives. If they know you're available to talk to, they'll hopefully open up before feeling too despondent.

If you, or one of your employees, needs support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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