What to do when a colleague is depressed: Does your well-being program have a strategy? | Part 2

In our last blog, we talked about how to recognize the signs of depression with a colleague, and in this blog, we address what steps we can take to support our colleagues. We are not mental health counselors, therapists or doctors. It is not your position to diagnose an employee’s depression.  However, there are ways in which we can support those in our “work family.”

Manager’s Role

If you are your coworker’s manager instead of a peer, you can still reach out to him, but your words and actions are governed by legal constraints. You can ask your coworker to a private office meeting, but unlike a peer, you will likely be restricted to stating that your depressed coworker’s performance is suffering, asking for improved attention to work tasks, and referring your coworker to the company’s employee assistance program. You will have to state clear expectations for better work performance. You may wish to consult your company’s human resources department and the company’s lawyers before the meeting, to ensure that your comments stay within the boundaries set by employment laws.       

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.

What to say to a depressed employee

Managers and colleagues 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’ well-being. When talking to a potentially depressed employee, here are some ways to do both:

Based on an article from Psychology Today:

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 they might not 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.

One of the most helpful things you can do for someone struggling with a mental health issue is to listen. If your colleague decides to open up, just sitting down and hearing them out can be beneficial. You’re not giving advice, you’re just there not to judge them.

When to talk to someone else
Generally, you want to keep your observations and discussions confidential. But there are two situations in which you may want to enlist the help of others.  First, are you worried that they might be putting themselves or others at danger? Second, when you believe that talking to the person directly would put you at risk because you are worried about the reaction, or she’s the boss or you are worried it will change your relationship.

Now is the time to get HR involved without a hesitation. Express your concern in terms of the work – for example: “I don’t understand the behavior, but it is having a negative impact on me and the work I can get done.” You are not being a snitch, you are trying to help.

Put up boundaries if necessary
There can be downsides to offering help. You cannot become the therapist. You can always say “thank you for relaying this to me, but I am not an expert. I am rooting for you but I think you should talk with a professional.’”

Create a caring culture
If you’re a manager, focus on fostering a safe environment where people can talk about these sorts of issues.

If you’ve struggled with a mental health issue in the past or have a family member who has, consider talking about it at work, if and only if you feel safe. The more we can talk openly about it, the more we can make the way for others to get help. For more information on how you can create a mentally healthy workplace, check out this workplace toolkit