How to support an employee who has depression

Knowing how to support a colleague or employee struggling with depression can be difficult. The first step is recognizing that you need to help, which you’re already doing just by being here. 

Knowing where to start when supporting someone with depression is difficult. You want to help but don’t want to say or do the wrong thing, which could worsen the situation.

This is why I’ve created this article, to help you understand exactly how you can support someone with depression. 

Firstly, what is depression? 

Depression is characterized as having ongoing low mood, changes in appetite, loss of energy, changes in sleep, loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed, difficulty in concentrating or decision making, feelings of hopelessness etc., for at least two weeks. There are different types of depression as well as differences in its severity.

Some people, unfortunately, believe that depression is not a ‘real thing’ or can be overcome by simple things like a ‘brisk walk’. 

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Depression is a medical condition that impacts 5% of the world’s population

How can depression present itself at work?

Depression can show itself in many ways, and it can sometimes be difficult to identify if your colleague or employee is struggling with depression. 

People often go through periods of low moods–it is normal (albeit unpleasant), but depression is often long-term feelings of hopelessness or sadness. It can be caused by an event, such as a major illness, or it can present itself in everyday life too. 

We’re all susceptible to it, unfortunately. But here are some common signs to look out for that may be an indicator your employee has depression: 

  • Lack of enthusiasm or excitement for work (where this was present before) 
  • Struggling to concentrate on tasks they would normally find straightforward 
  • Taking much longer to do tasks they would ordinarily do quickly 
  • Feeling overwhelmed by tasks that they would normally enjoy or be able to do 
  • Coming into work tired for a long period 
  • A change in attitude or disposition (perhaps looking on the more negative side of things) 

What to do when you spot these signs

The first thing I want to mention is that if you spot these problems, don’t ask your employee if they have depression or say things like, ‘you seem depressed lately, is everything okay?’ 

This can feel overwhelming to employees. Depression, unfortunately, still carries a lot of guilt, and people may not want to talk about it openly. 

Or worse, if you spot these signs and they are particularly unusual for an employee, try not to ask them why they’re taking so long with a task or why they haven’t completed something. This can make them feel inadequate and guilty.

Instead, open a conversation with your employee positively and kindly. Ask to speak to them privately, share a specific observation, and kindly offer support. You could say, ‘I noticed that you appeared quite distracted in today’s meeting. You don’t have to say anything at all, but if you want to talk about it or need some support from me, I am here to help.’ 

Then let them either accept or decline your offer for help. If they decline then don’t question further. The fact that you have offered help is enough. Simply remind them that you are always there if they need support in the future. 

If they do want help and support at this point or share with you that they are experiencing depression or low mood (often people steer clear of using the word depressed), then that’s your opportunity to put appropriate support in place (I’ll get to that a bit later!). 

The problems employees face in the workplace if they have depression

Firstly, I want to talk about some of the issues employees face, when they have shared with their leader their feelings of depression or low mood.  

It can take a lot of courage for people to tell their manager or leader they are depressed or struggling, and sometimes leaders don’t respond in the most helpful way. This isn’t their fault, by the way. Leaders aren’t experts in depression or mental health (unless this is their particular specialism), so it’s no wonder that sometimes a leader’s response isn’t always the best. 

But things are changing, and as a society, we’re becoming more open about depression and how to support people with the condition. So here are two examples of what to avoid doing…

1. Not supporting enough 

People who are suffering from depression can sometimes feel unsupported, but this is usually because their leaders don’t quite know what to do. 

It’s not a lack of empathy but an awkwardness around the subject. And if you feel that way if a member of staff approaches you about depression, please know that you’re not alone and what you’re feeling is normal. 

But avoiding the situation and remaining silent. This inaction can be disheartening for an employee who has likely built themselves up to have this conversation with you. 

But don’t worry, because later in this blog post, I will give you tips on what to say and how to support an employee with depression. 

2. Supporting too much

On the opposite end of the scale to a leader who says nothing out of fear, is a leader who tries to help too much. 

They will want to ‘solve’ the problem. They’ll give advice and maybe tell their employees what to do to ‘lift their mood’. 

As much as this comes from a place of wanting to help and kindness (because it really is), often it has the opposite effect. Your employee could feel pressurized and overwhelmed by all this advice. And unless you’re a doctor or psychologist, it may not be the best advice to give–however well-intentioned you are. 

Remember, you can’t take on responsibility for your employee’s depression. You can provide support, make changes that will help them and approach them with kindness, but try not to take on their depression as something you need to ‘fix’. This will only impact you and your mental health too. 

So the question is, how can you talk to an employee with depression? 

How can you talk to an employee who approaches you about their depression?

Firstly, if an employee approaches you about their mental health issues, you should consider this a positive thing. This means your employee is comfortable enough to approach you, and you’ve built trust between you both. 

Secondly, you don’t have to remember a script or anything like that. The main thing to remember is to listen in the first instance. Let your employee talk through their problems, and try not to interrupt them. 

As I said earlier, try not to jump in and ‘solve’ their issues. Don’t make suggestions as to what they should do, instead, ask them how you can support them. 

Often, employees with depression will need you to make small adjustments that have little impact on the business but a big, positive impact on the individual themselves. 

For example, instead of having an hour-long lunch break, someone might want this split into two 30-minute breaks that gives them more space in the day for some calm away from work. 

Others may request a different working schedule, or spend less time in meetings with others. It’s up to you to put a support plan in place with your employee, working with them to find what will help them during a difficult time and also what you can do as a company. 

You can put things in place and review it after three months (it’s probably worth you discussing this with your HR department too, so that everyone is in the loop). 

Finally, you can make recommendations to your employee about what help and support they can seek inside and outside of work. 

Talk about your company's different pathways for improving mental health, like talk therapy or counseling. 

Also, don’t forget to mention there are external organizations that can help your employee too. These vary from country to country, but there are often charitable organizations that support individuals with their mental health. It may also be worth mentioning that employees can see their own doctor too. 

Concerned about an employee who hasn’t said anything? 

Sometimes, you may be in a situation where you’re concerned about an employee's mental health, but they haven’t approached you for support. 

It can feel difficult to know what to do in this situation. But as above, it’s best if you arrange a private meeting with this person and simply ask them if anything has changed or if they are feeling okay right now. 

If you’re not a doctor or a trained psychologist, please don’t label someone as having ‘depression’.

They may open up to you, they may not. If they do open up to you, follow the advice above. And if they don’t open up, simply remind them that you are there to help them whenever they need it. 

Do you need some more support? 

It’s a lot of pressure for leaders to help support staff with mental health problems. Those who support need support too! 

I am a counseling psychologist who works with leaders and organizations, helping them to build healthy, productive, happy and resilient work cultures. 

I also run workshops specifically for leaders that talk about mental health in the workplace–looking at how to support your employees’ mental health and protect your own too. 

Please just get in touch for more information, or click here.

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