How to Talk to a Depressed Employee

Your most gregarious employee suddenly becomes withdrawn and aloof.  Your previously decisive team leader can’t seem to make the simplest decision.  Your easygoing coworker starts arguing with coworkers and takes offense at the drop of a hat.  Your most dependable employee shows up late, calls in sick, and doesn’t finish projects.  These are some of the symptoms of depression in the workplace.

So what’s a manager to do?  On one hand, production must continue, yet the compassionate manager should also be concerned for the well-being of the employee.   Performance issues have to be dealt with and yet the employee’s previously stellar record – or obvious emotional pain – tempts the manager to just pick up the slack until the employee gets back on his or her feet.

The scenario of the depressed employee often presents a dilemma for his/her manager. So why does the manager have to deal with it?  The employee is a grown-up; why doesn’t s/he come to the manager first?

Note to Manager:  Don’t Wait for Me to Come to You

The odds are, s/he won’t.  Most depressed employees would rather eat dirt than admit to their managers that they’re depressed.  Part of this is because of the shame many depression sufferers feel about what they feel is their “weakness.”  However, a large part of their silence is due to the stigma many people continue to experience around mental illness.

For example, in an online survey of 1,129 workers conducted by the American Psychiatric Association of 1,129 workers, a high percentage believed that seeking help for particular psychological problems – such as drug addiction (76%), alcoholism (73%) and depression (62%) – would not be as accepted.  As I mentioned in another article I wrote, for every story I’ve heard about a supportive manager or caring HR professional, I’ve heard ten from employees who felt their disclosure led to being teased, overly scrutinized, or discriminated against.

The First Step:  Recognizing how Depression Impacts Work

Most managers have some employees they’d like to clone and some they’d like to clobber. And, certainly, a slacker can become depressed just as a superstar can.  What’s noticeable about depression, though, is the change in the employee.  The good employee’s performance declines while the marginal employee gets worse.

Here’s what that change in performance may look like:

  • Unfinished projects
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased errors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in work or socializing with colleagues
  • Seems tired/fatigued

What to Say to a Depressed Employee

Managers are not there to talk about medical problems, counsel, or diagnose.  They are there to talk about work performance and behavior.  They are also there to care about their employees’ wellbeing.  When talking to a potentially depressed employee, here are some ways to do both:

  1. Start with your concern for the employee.  “Sandy, I’m concerned about you.”
  2. Focus your comments on observable behaviors.  “You’ve been late to work four times in the past two weeks and your reports have had twice as many errors.”
  3. Acknowledge the change.  “This isn’t like you.  You’re normally the first in to work and the last person in the department to make mistakes.”
  4. Offer them an olive branch.  “I don’t know if things in your personal life are affecting you, but if they are we have a confidential employee assistance plan that might be able to help.”
  5. Be prepared to set limits.  For instance, if the employee mentions marital discord, problems with a child, financial problems, and so forth, the manager should be empathic but should limit the conversation.
  6. Refer to an E.A.P.   Offer the employee the telephone number for the employee assistance program or suggest that it would serve the employee well to consider outside professional counseling through health care benefits, a community clinic, an employee assistance plan, or even through pastoral counseling.
  7. Reinforce your concern.  I’m very invested in helping you get back on track.
  8. Reinforce the need to improve performance.  However, whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.

The Bottom Line

Clinical depression has been described as a black dog, a suffocating blanket, and an endless, dark hole.  Untreated, it can sap the energy and motivation out of the most productive employee.  With the right help, it can be managed, overcome, or worked around.  In fact, for some people, coping with depression has given them some gifts that might now have otherwise received – such as a greater perspective and empathy for others.  At least, that’s what one lifelong depression sufferer you may know said – Abraham Lincoln.

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10 Comments on “How to Talk to a Depressed Employee”

  1. Kellie Says:

    Some very good advice here. While it is true that we want to be empathetic to our employees; we also have to ensure work is being done. Offering advice to the employee while still making it clear that there are expectations is the way to go. Depression is a very odd disease in that the depressed person starts to isolate him/herself and it’s just when he/she needs someone the most – so offering the opportunity for them to get the help they need without becoming a counsellor yourself is important. Thanks for the tips!

    • Thanks for your remark, Kellie. It is hard to know how to be compassionate AND professional at the same time. I remember working in a mental health clinic and we all had the same struggle when talking to a depressed colleague.

  2. This is same in ASIA and Taiwan

  3. Bhawna Dewan Says:

    Very good article..

  4. Sue Ingram Says:

    Joni – What a great article!! Being an ex HR Manager and also someone who has suffered from depression in the past you have precisely captured the thoughts and experiences of both sides! Also I totally agree with you that as a concerned Manager we must show our concern and support but ONLY in our role as Manager (perhaps offering flexible working if appropiate) and immediately refer an individual onto trained, specialised professionals for more detailed and expert support. In the UK the figure that is often quoted is that 1 in 5 of us will experience mental health issues at some point – we need to continue to publise this issue!! Sue

    • Thanks for sharing. As a corporate consultant, I’ve noticed that depression is still something that often isn’t talked about – which may be why I’ve been so overwhelmed by the positive responses to this article!

  5. One thing not mentioned in this good article is that employers may have legal obligations under Human Rights legislation. Prevailing case law in the area of mental, or physical disability of workers sets the precedent that as soon as an employer _perceives_ an employee to have what may be a mental health issue/disability that the onus is on the employer to ensure the employee is treated with respect and dignity and suffers no adverse impacts in the workplace as a result of their status, which again, could just be a perception on the part of the employer’s agent(s).

    Anyone working in supervisory, managerial or human resource positions should be informed about Human rights legislation and even a bit of case law so as to avoid what can end up being very costly to the organization if employees file HR complaints and these are found to be valid and that the Ee. experienced adverse impacts in their workplace. Another crucial piece is the need for understanding of the employer’s Duty to Accommodate for those who experience disabilities. Er’s have an obligation to make reasonable attempts to accommodate, sometimes all the way up to creating hardship for the Er.

    I think organizations should provide their supervisors, managers & HR people with training in these areas to prevent problems in a proactive manner. As touched on a bit in this article, individuals with mental disability experience a great deal of stigma and often are seriously discriminated against in the workplace, which often excerbates the MH challenges they may already be experiencing.

    On a final note, I think it behooves all of us to have compassion for employees, co-workers etc. because we are all one tragic, sudden, unexpected event from developing a MH disorder, most often through no fault of our own. Or, to experience MH impacts due to the suffering of loved ones. We are all mortal, we should keep that in mind and treat others how we would wish to be treated in our worst times.

  6. Dr.Anjum Says:

    I found this article in such a very meaningful way to create a close relation b/w your employee & make them a cool & encourage their work to be supported.

  7. Michele Villanueva Says:

    This is great and helpful!

  8. Rosa Says:

    I manage an employee who has been and is being treated for depession for a few years now. Your statement “Your easygoing coworker starts arguing with coworkers and takes offense at the drop of a hat.” is so true . It is affecting the dynamics within our small department. Everyone walks on eggshells whenever this employee takes offense at an innocent comment which is not directed at her but somehow she perceives it to be. She is not always like this so it blindsides you when it happens. Is there anyting I can do as a manager. I am afraid of losing my other staff because of this. This situation happens often enough to be a serious concern.

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