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Spotting the Signs of Depression in the Workplace and How to Tackle It

Create a safe space at work where employees feel comfortable talking to management about mental health struggles and learn how leaders can help.

By Gemma Hart  •   October 25, 2021  •   4 min read

Depression is a medical condition that affects your entire physical and mental wellbeing, from your sleep pattern and appetite to your mood thought processes, and energy levels. It’s more severe than simply a low mood, which can happen to all of us at one point or another. With depression, the symptoms can last months or even years. One in five Americans are affected by mental health issues, with depression being the most common problem.

Work can affect those struggling with depression, and can exacerbate their mood considerably, so noting the behavior and mood of employees is essential to being able to help colleagues through difficult times. 

Signs an employee might suffer from depression

There are several risk factors for mental health issues that could arise in a workplace environment, impacting not only the health and wellbeing of staff but also the level of functionality in their position.

The first step to being able to help colleagues if they’re dealing with mental health difficulties is being able to spot the signs. Depression can affect people differently, depending on the individual and the severity of their condition, but there are common symptoms that can be valuable to watch out for in the workplace. These include:

  • Lower productivity levels than they normally display
  • Increased absences 
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks or trouble remembering things
  • Physical changes in their weight or appearance
  • Irritability or moodiness
  • Expressing feelings of pessimism or hopelessness
  • Suffering from panic attacks
  • Veiled or direct discussion of suicide

The importance of recognizing depression early

Depression can often go unnoticed – unlike physical conditions, you can’t always see the signs that someone is struggling with mental health problems, and their condition can be invisible to colleagues and managers for long periods of time. But the longer it goes on without treatment, the more difficult it can be to treat, and the worse their symptoms can become. Depression at work can cause increased conflicts, a loss of productivity, and disrupt an otherwise perfect track record which can have a negative impact on their career. 

Work environments can trigger depression or worsen it where it’s already present. According to Kayla Gill, Content Director at Recovery.com, “most people understand depression to be related to chemical factors in the brain. There are a number of environmental factors that may contribute to depression — and it’s not just physical health. Depression has recently been associated with more frequent use of screens (cell phones, computers, etc.), and a lack of access to green space. High levels of air and noise pollution may also exacerbate symptoms”.

Everything from getting up for work to meeting deadlines on projects and working with others in the team can be harder for those with depression. And from a work perspective, this can lead to absences and difficulties completing work to their usual standard. But there’s a risk that management will observe these behaviors as simply laziness or a lack of professionalism, which isn’t the case. 

Potential risk factors of workplace depression

In order to foster positive mental health, your team needs an environment that supports them. Job-related stress and an increased risk of depression can develop if their role includes:

  • An unhealthy level of pressure or constant demands
  • Bullying or gossiping
  • Unhealthy work conditions, such as a conflict between staff or a toxic work culture
  • Lack of support from senior staff
  • Traumatic experiences, such as harassment or violence from other members of staff or customers

Depression at work may not necessarily be caused by a work issue, but there may well be triggers that worsen their symptoms and make it more difficult to cope. Employers need to be mindful of the ways that the work environment can help or hinder someone struggling with mental health problems. 

How to help tackle the problem

1 Create psychological safety

Sensitivity and tact are essential when it comes to dealing with depression in employees and colleagues. If you’re the one initiating a conversation with someone you’re concerned about, ensure that the conversation takes place somewhere private and where you won’t be interrupted. Employers need to create a safe atmosphere for staff to feel comfortable opening up and asking for help if they need it. 

2 Don’t assume

It’s important that you don’t make assumptions or offer advice on how they can treat their condition. Simply show them compassion and let them know that there will be support there for them whenever, and for however long, they need it. Listening is often all that’s needed to make a huge difference to someone having a tough time. You can approach the conversation from the perspective of noticing changes in their behavior or performance at work and take the discussion from there. 

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow to share a meeting agenda with your team to relieve any meeting anxiety they may have and offer them an opportunity to add their own talking points.

3 Share resources

Come prepared with resources they can use, which may include local services or Employee Assistance Programs. It can help to include HR in this as they’ll be able to advise on employee rights. You can also discuss ways that you can help to make their routine easier to deal with, such as flexible work arrangements, changing their responsibilities, or adjusting the length of their workdays.

4 Help manage their workload

Oftentimes, depression can affect cognitive function. If an employee shares with you that they feel overwhelmed with their workload, help break up their projects into more manageable tasks. The more you can reinforce success, the more empowered the employee can feel. These wins can increase confidence and help the employee achieve more.

Overcoming Your Depression

Depression is a difficult condition to manage, and it can have devastating effects if left untreated. Businesses have a duty of care to their employees, and that includes protecting their mental health. 

Being able to spot the signs of depression, approach it with sensitivity and discretion, and support staff can help to reduce the impact that work has on those dealing with depression or other mental health concerns. If you are suffering from depression, please seek help and resources.

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