Your most gregarious employee suddenly becomes withdrawn and aloof.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. 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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