Battling depression in the workplace: how businesses can help

sad woman looking out of her window, Blue Monday

Mental health awareness has increased in recent years, with employers becoming more understanding and recognising it as a disability issue, in much the same way as any physical disability.

Just because a mental health problem isn’t obvious, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Mental health charity Mind says 1 in 4 people in England experiences some sort of mental health issue each year, with 1 in 6 reporting a mental health problem in any given week.

Staff wellbeing is vital for the health of the individual and for the health of the business, and employers have a duty of care to their employees. This means they must do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing.

If staff members are struggling, it can result in a lack of productivity and absenteeism, so it is important to provide a supportive environment and to listen to the employee’s concerns, to provide the best outcome.

Signs and symptoms of depression

Depression can take many forms and is not a one-size-fits-all situation. In the workplace, it can manifest itself in a lack of motivation, fatigue, lapses in concentration, seeking isolation and periods of absenteeism or, conversely, working longer hours to escape and take their minds off outside issues.

This may also result in behavioural changes, with difficulties in making decisions, speaking and thinking clearly, trouble remembering things and being restless or agitated among the most common seen at work.

Without treatment and support, depression can impact your relationships, work, finances and overall health, so it’s important to get help as early as possible.

What can be done to combat depression?

A change in diet and getting plenty of exercise are known to help with depression. Talking about how you are feeling, rather than bottling up your emotions can also assist in thinking through and compartmentalising your mindset – whether that is with a friend, colleague or a professional therapist or doctor.

Some people prefer to pay for psychological treatment, to give them a tailored service unique to them and the problems they are experiencing. This is a useful option to have as it can be done discreetly and doesn’t need to involve anyone else. These practitioners provide guidance and plans that strengthen resilience going forward.

However, it is not a simple fix, and depression can last for many months. Often, it is a case of managing it rather than curing it. “Every treatment strategy is as unique as the client,” says Dr Claudia M. Elsig MD from The CALDA Clinic. “There cannot be routine and automatism in psychiatry.” Depression tends to manifest itself as a build-up of lots of things, often triggered by a particular event, so it is not easily stopped.

What can an employer do to help?

Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma surrounding mental health. Dealing with depression at work must include recognising employees won’t naturally open up about their struggles. They may worry that it could affect their future with the business. It’s important to handle the subject carefully, so as not to make the individual’s situation worse.  

One of the first approaches an employer can take is making sure the employee doesn’t have any triggers for depression at their place of work, including (but not limited to):

  • An overly high workload.
  • Tasks that are beyond their skill level.
  • Difficulties with colleagues, such as their managers.
  • Concerns over their job security.
  • Financial struggles with a low wage.

It’s helpful if employers create an environment where staff feel able to talk openly about mental health. For example, treating psychological and physical health as equally important, making sure employees have regular one-to-ones with their managers to talk about any problems they are having, and encouraging positive mental health by arranging mental health awareness training, workshops or appointing mental health ‘champions’ with whom staff can talk about their issues.

What rights does an employee have?

Absenteeism is a particularly common problem for people suffering from mental health issues. Sometimes they can find it difficult to get out of bed or want to isolate themselves from other people. Other times, it can turn into a physical ailment such as migraines or digestive troubles. Time off for depression is a grey area, and a note from a doctor explaining the situation can be required.

However, if the employer has recognised the symptoms of depression and talked it through with the employee, they may feel more able to open up and feel comfortable at work, knowing that they have the support and understanding of their manager. There are even toolkits available for employers to help them deal with potential absences due to mental health, and the best method to take, ensuring an official and impartial approach.

Final thoughts

Mental health is a difficult subject to talk about without the right support networks in place, and nowhere is that more important than in the workplace. Nobody wants to feel that they are unable to do their job or to let their employer down.

Fear of losing their job can just add to the feelings of depression and make things worse, resulting in a spiral of depressive thinking. But, by offering a supportive and non-judgmental environment, and the promise of confidentiality, employers could find their employees wanting to reward them for their sensitivity and acceptance with productivity.

Gemma WilliamsAbout the author

Gemma Williams is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Gemma has gained experience in several HR roles but now turns her focus towards growing her personal brand and connecting with leading experts in career development and employee engagement. Connect with her on Twitter: @GemmaWilliamsHR

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