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Depression in the Workplace

Tue, 03/01/2011 - 6:11pm
Martin Seidenfeld, Ph.D.

Betty has usually been an upbeat, cheerful tech, well liked by other employees and considered a very competent worker. Lately though, you’ve noticed that she seems kind of down. She’s not laughing and joking with the other techs as she had been, and her productivity has slowed—not to any seriously worrisome level, but still…you decide to talk with her.

Meeting with her in your office, you tell her that you’ve noticed she seems a bit down and ask if everything is OK, or if there’s anything troubling her. Her immediate response is to assure you that everything is fine, she has no complaints. She says she’s sorry if she’s been doing a bit less than she usually does and promises to do better. You tell her that she’s still doing fine, but you were just a little concerned and wanted to know if there was anything you might do to help her. She again assures you that everything is swell. You thank her for talking to you and she goes back to work.

You observe her a bit more carefully over the next few weeks. At first, after talking with her, she did seem to pick up and act more like her old self. But within a month you again notice a slide in her productivity—and you’ve also heard a rumor that Betty had become kind of snappy and, instead of taking a joke as she always had, she mouthed off about her co-workers acting like a bunch of clowns.

Betty called in sick twice in the following month, saying she had a bad cold and needed to stay home and care for it. Since she’s always had an excellent attendance record, you can’t make too much of it, and yet, this is so unlike her. Putting this together with your other observations, you decide to discuss her behavior with HR.

After describing your concerns to the HR manager, she asks a number of questions: Has Betty seemed less interested in her work? Become more irritable? Started to make more mistakes? Does she seem to have difficulty completing tasks? Any signs that she seems sad and blue? Slowing down in her work?

You realize that you have to answer “yes” to each of these questions and you recognize that you are talking about a person who is depressed.

What’s a manager to do when you recognize that an employee is suffering from significant depression? It’s a touchy situation. Your first impulse, since it seems like a very personal matter, is to try to ignore it and hope it will just go away—and that’s fine. Often, minor, brief periods of depression do just “go away.” But when the signs of depression persist, you can’t continue to ignore it.What should you do?

On the one hand, you don’t want to intrude on what may be a very private matter. On the other hand, you do want to help. As in the case of Betty, described above, the manager did the right thing by gently speaking with her, asking if everything was OK and asking if there was anything he could do. Should the employee start discussing his/her depression, you should listen carefully and sympathetically, and then suggest that he/she speak with someone in HR.

But if the employee just blows you off and insists that everything is fine, tell her that you’re glad to hear it. But you still recommend that she consult with HR. Then, whether or not the employee chooses to do so, you yourself must go to HR and express your concerns.

Until and unless the employee’s depression is interfering with his/her performance, it’s a ticklish situation. But if performance suffers, or there is a noticeable increase in absenteeism or tardiness, or there is increased friction with other employees, then it becomes your obligation to look into the matter and to act. Having a seriously depressed employee on your team can have negative effects on your entire crew and that requires your intervention.

As manager, you recognize that you are not a trained counselor or psychologist. It’s not your job to dig into the personal lives of your employees, except on a fairly superficial basis. But it is your job to maintain a healthy workplace where both productivity and job satisfaction are high. Consulting with HR is the obvious, essential step to be taken.

Depression is a major, serious problem affecting millions of people. The best estimates, according to the American Psychiatric Association, are that between five and twelve percent of the U.S. population will suffer a major depression at some time in their lives. About another six percent suffer from chronic, long term depression that, while not as serious, is still somewhat debilitating and significantly interferes with people performing at their best.

Of course everybody feels down-in-the-mouth occasionally, perhaps when experiencing a disappointment or running into ordinary problems, such as conflicts at home, money worries, etc. But brief, temporary feelings of being “down” have to be distinguished from a serious depressive disorder, a significant psychological and medical problem. Signs of serious depression include:

  • Feeling blue or sad for more than two weeks at a time.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities.
  • Significant weight gain or loss in a short period.
  • Problems with insomnia or sleeping too much.
  • Becoming highly agitated or moving much slower than usual.
  • Feeling tired and fatigued.
  • Experiencing feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
  • Problems concentrating, becoming indecisive.
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, thoughts of suicide.

Nowadays, people suffering from serious depression can usually be helped by a combination of medicine and psychotherapy. If your HR manager recognizes that serious depression is present, she may refer the employee to the organization’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) if available, or to an appropriate professional for assessment and treatment.

EAPs operate on a basis of strict confidentiality. An employee may utilize the company’s EAP without their supervisor’s awareness. After establishing contact with the EAP the employee will be scheduled for meetings with a counselor. The counselor will decide either to refer the employee to an appropriate professional for further treatment or will decide that further intervention is not needed. If professional care is called for, the counselor will make a referral and go over the company’s medical benefits plan so the employee will fully understand the services and costs that may be involved.

Depression in an employee can seriously affect your unit’s functioning. By being aware of the signs of depression and knowing how to deal with it you will be of real help to the employee, to the organization, and to yourself, knowing that you have truly been “the friend in need.”

Besides his clinical work and university teaching, Martin Seidenfeld, Ph.D., provides consulting to organizations on management issues and on managing organizational stress.

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