What to do when a colleague is depressed: Does your well-being program have a strategy?

There was a collective gasp of shock when we all heard of the suicide of Robin Williams. How could a man who constantly made everyone laugh be so depressed that he would take his own life? How could those around him not see the signs?

What does this have to do with the workplace?

Know The Facts

  • Depression ranks among the top three workplace problems for employee assistance professionals, following only family crisis and stress.

  • Each year, depression affects more than 19 million American adults, often during their most productive years–between the ages of 25 and 44.

  • Untreated clinical depression may become a chronic condition that disrupts work, family, and personal life.

  • Depression results in more days in bed than many other ailments (such as ulcers, diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis) according to a recent large-scale study published by the Rand Corporation.

  • At any one time, 1 employee in 20 is experiencing depression.

  • Estimates of the cost of depression to the nation in 1990 range from $30-$44 billion. Of the $44 billion, depression accounts for close to $12 billion in lost work days and an estimated $11 billion in other costs associated with decreased productivity.

  • Depressive disorders accounted for more than half of all medical plan dollars paid for mental health problems. The amount for treatment of these claims was close to the amount spent on treatment for heart disease.

  • Almost 15% of those suffering from severe depression will die by suicide.

Employees’ Attitudes Towards Depression

  • Often a depressed employee will not seek treatment because they fear the effect it will have on their job and they are concerned about confidentiality.

    1. Many employees are also unaware they have depression, or they fear their insurance is inadequate to cover costs.


  • Most employers will refer a depressed employee for help if they are aware of the symptoms. 64% of NMHA Survey respondents said they would refer an employee to an EAP health professional.


How do we recognize the signs of depression?

No two people experience clinical depression in the same manner. Symptoms will vary in severity and duration among different people.

******If five or more of the symptoms of depression or mania persist for more than two weeks, or are interfering with work or family life, a thorough diagnosis is needed. This should include a complete physical checkup and history of family health problems as well as an evaluation of possible symptoms of depression.*****

  • Sleeping too little, early morning awakening, or sleeping too much

  • Persistent sad, anxious or “empty mood

  • Reduced appetite and/or weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain

  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex

  • Restlessness, irritability

  • Persistent physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment (such as headaches, chronic pain or digestive disorders)

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions

  • Fatigue or loss of energy

  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless

  • Thoughts of suicide or death

  • Poor quality work

  • Procrastination

  • Accidents on the job

  • Missing deadlines

  • Poor relationship with co-workers

  • Low engagement, active disengagement and low morale

  • Absenteeism & tardiness

  • Feeling guilty, hopelessness or worthless

  • Thoughts of suicide or death

As a colleague you will be noticing a change in the employee’s demeanor and attitude due to depression.

What can we do when we recognize these symptoms at work (and even maybe amongst our friends)?

In our next blog, we will address in detail what steps we can take to support our colleagues.  Obviously, we are not mental health counselors, therapists or doctors. It is not your position or place to diagnose an employee’s depression.

However, as a start, we can help remove that stigma by beginning to have open conversations in our workplaces about depression and mental health. Treating it as a health condition, talking openly about it, and making all our employees aware of their options helps our employees feel comfortable seeking the assistance they need, when they need.

If you think you might be struggling with a mental health condition, please look at the resources below. Help is available.