Top ten tips to help employees with depression

Gabrielle Lis

Productive employment probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of depression. But helping employees with depression stay at work is good for everybody. Our top ten tips show you how it's done...

1.    Keep them in the workforce. It’s not just apples that keep the doctor away – a dose of workforce participation helps too. However much we might complain about it at times, if you’ve ever had a period of enforced absence from work you’ll know that employment is good for your self esteem. Work helps us feel like productive members of society. It also gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning! Work gives our days, weeks and years structure and fosters social interactions – and these are things that depression can undermine. Contrary to how depression might make an individual feel about heading into the factory or office, work is actually one of the best medicines around.

2.    Be aware of the warning signs – and intervene sensitively. It can be easy for employers to perceive symptoms of depression as ‘slacking off,’ or ‘disinterest in being here’. But if a previously pleasant and enthusiastic worker starts showing up late, looking more tired and less well-groomed than they used to, snapping at coworkers and finding it difficult to concentrate, the reason might be depression. Instead of immediately disciplining workers who fit this profile, ask them how they’re going. Let them know that the organisation values their contribution and wants them to stay healthy and perform productively.

3.    Listen. Sometimes, people just need to discuss their situation with a sympathetic listener. Supervisors, managers and employers are not mental health professionals and should not attempt to take on this role, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t listen. If an employee shares their distress it may be appropriate to suggest that they see a counsellor or psychologist. However it is also possible that a little bit of extra flexibility in the workplace during a difficult period is all that is required.    

4.    Be flexible and accommodating. Just like someone with a physical injury, a person with depression may require ongoing treatment. In some cases, reducing the number of hours or days worked per week may be appropriate. If a worker needs time away from the workplace to attend an appointment with a psychologist, counsellor or other mental health professional, don’t give them a hard time about it. Stress feeds depression and depression impacts productivity. Discouraging someone from receiving the treatment they need in order to get well is a counterproductive way of reducing lost time. Instead, ask what you can do to make your employee’s life easier: chances are you’ll speed up their recovery and generate a lot of goodwill. 

5.    Offer modified duties. Most people will recover from depression, but in the meantime they may not have the same capacity as when they are completely well. It’s important for employers to recognise that depression isn’t just about mood – it can impact memory and other cognitive abilities as well. Just as an employee with a broken arm might be temporarily unable to operate heavy machinery, so an employee with depression might not be quite as quick on their (mental) feet as they have been in the past. In some cases, modified duties may make it easier for the worker to stay where they belong: in the workplace. As always, modified duties are best determined collaboratively, in consultation with both the employee and a health professional.

6.    Clarify roles and responsibilities. Assisting employees to clearly structure their existing duties is another way of keeping people with depression in the workplace. Depression can impact memory but good management can ensure that this doesn’t have a flow-on effect to productivity. Make it as easy as possible for employees to keep track of what they’ve done, what they’re doing and what they should do next. Instead of ‘winging it’ encourage list-making, accountability and checks. These kinds of simple measures can help an employee with depression stay on track at work during their recovery.

7.    Reduce workplace stressors. We all know that work promotes health: but what about when it doesn’t? Conflicts with coworkers, supervisors and managers aren’t good for depressed workers. Nor are high demand / low control jobs, unreasonable output expectations and job-related stress. If workplace conflict is exacerbating depression, it may be helpful to mediate between the warring parties, or to separate them where necessary (i.e. a worker with depression may be assigned to an alternate supervisor if there have been ongoing problems in the supervisory relationship). And think about how workers’ sense of agency in their role can be increased. After all, it’s just good management…

8.    Respect privacy, discourage gossip. We all like to talk and we’re all curious about our fellow human beings: that’s just human nature. However not all kinds of talk are acceptable in the workplace. Gossip is the kind of talk that goes on behind someone’s back, and it is often ill-informed and sometimes malicious. For people with depression, gossip only makes the road to recovery just that little bit longer and more difficult. Employees, supervisors and managers who gossip should be held to account and disciplined.

9.    Set a good example – promote a stigma-free workplace. Despite the fact that 1 in 5 Australians will suffer from a mental health issue every year, there is still a lot of stigma around mental illness in society. From a workplace perspective, this is bad for two main reasons. The first is that stigma adds to stress, and stress exacerbates almost every form of mental illness. The second is that stigma encourages secrecy, and if employees are too ashamed to admit that they are suffering from depression, their employers are less likely to provide the kinds of support necessary for recovery. Health professionals, people with depression, coworkers and employers all need to understand that depression is a common, treatable health issue. It is nothing to be ashamed of and it is not a life sentence. If your workplace needs educating, there are heaps of resources available. 

10.    Encourage an appropriate work / life balance. To steal an old corporate slogan, we function best when we work, rest and play. Smart employers know that too much work doesn’t make us healthy or happy – and when we’re unhappy and unhealthy, we’re not productive. Getting the work / life balance right may help prevent depression from developing in the first place, and with that outcome, everyone’s a winner!